Come May. The political weather in India is going to be the hottest like never before as we go for the national election, in which political powerhouse Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be taking on the reenergised opposition led by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and a slew of regional satraps. Overall, the 2019 election may not be a repeat of 2014 as the lost out opposition regains the ground focused on the line of attack.
The picture became clearer after two years of back-to-back state assembly elections and by elections as 2017 showcased the victory streak of Modi-led BJP while the juggernaut got halted after the resurgent Congress fought back under the leadership of Gandhi in 2018. Congress has recaptured power in major states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and wrested power in Karnataka in alliance with HD Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS. It inched scarily closer to BJP in the December 2017 assembly election in Gujarat. Another fear for BJP is the rise of regional parties, especially when its NDA allies are busy ending the ties.
In Uttar Pradesh, where BJP and its allies won 73 Lok Sabha seats out of the 80 in 2014, Mayawati's Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi party (SP) have decided to go together. The scene is murky in Maharashtra, where BJP and Shiv Sena together won 41 out of 48 seats. At present, BJP and Sena are at loggerheads, attacking each other. Sena chief Udhav Thackeray earlier said that the party would contest election alone. BJP is looking to patch up when PM visits the state next week, while the reports say that Congress and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have almost concluded seat sharing.
BJP went ahead in seat sharing in Bihar, dividing the seats equally with Nitish Kumar's JDU after giving six seats to Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). BJP, which won 22 seats in the state in 2014, will be contesting from only 17 seats. JDU is a big gainer in the game as it got 17 seats in place of the 2 seats it won in 2014. Congress and its ally Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) are yet to finalise its seats.
Seating sharing for Congress in Tamil Nadu (with DMK), Andhra Pradesh (with TDP), Karnataka (with JDS) and Jharkhand (with JMM) may not be a tough task as the partners agreed upon the common agenda of removing the BJP government from the power. But BJP's equations with alliance partners are not presently in good terms as we have seen it broke relations with PDP, TDP, Upendra Kushwaha's RLSP and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), besides many smaller parties. Its traditional allies Shiv Sena and Apna Dal appear disappointed with BJP. But BJP under Modi-Shah duo had proved earlier that it is capable to pull off victory even in difficult situations--- for instance the victories in north eastern states, including Tripura.
It is going to be a direct fight between BJP and Congress in at least five major states--- Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Haryana, while in others the regional parties will wield its powers. The non-BJP and non-Congress parties like Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD), K Chandrashekar Rao's?Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), YS Jaganmohan Reddy YSR Congress, the left parties including CPM and CPI, Aam Admi Party and NC and PDP in Jammu and Kashmir will be other major regional forces who can challenge the national biggies in their respective regions.
Political ups and downs in two years
In 2017, BJP's big win was in the largest electoral state in the country, Uttar Pradesh, in which the party bagged 312 seats of the 384 contested, winning a popular vote of 39.7 per cent. The separately contested SP and BSP had got a popular vote of 22.2 per cent 22 per cent, respectively. Congress, which contested in alliance with SP, had ended up with just 6.2 per cent popular vote.
The assembly election had witnessed a Modi wave, thanks to the central government's moves like surgical strike (September 2016) against Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks and demonetisation of high value currency notes (November 2016) to crack on the black money hoarders. The perception of the voters was that the demonetisation was one time difficulty to eternally get rid of the black money mess and the resolve the social disparity in wealth. Another factor was inflation---the Brent crude price was between $50 and $55 a barrel in the three- four months before the election and it was resulted in lower fuel prices and inflation.
In 2017, BJP also formed governments in Goa, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Congress had won just one state, Punjab, which was largely because of Captain Amarinder Singh's convincing campaigns and anti-incumbency against the previous Shiromani Akali Dal regime. But in the Gujarat election, Rahul Gandhi reinvented himself as a campaigner and gave a tough fight to BJP, reducing the latter to below 100 assembly seats against BJP President Amit Shah's target of 150. Congress won 77 seats against BJP's 99--- bagged 16 seats from BJP despite the ferocious campaigns of PM Modi and Shah. Congress had no big state level leaders as its veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela quit the party months before the election. Gandhi led the campaign alone, besides roping in firebrand youth leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani in his favour.
By the time Gujarat went for election, demonetisation proved to be ineffective against black money and the complications of GST started hampering the traders. Above all, the agrarian distress came to the forefront as a national issue. BJP got a popular vote of 49.1 per cent in the state, while Congress won 41.4 per cent.
Before Congress formed government in three states--- Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh--- in the Hindi heartland in 2018, the regional parties flexed their muscle in the by elections, which eventually upset BJP. SP and BSP, in March 2018, had joined hands to defeat BJP in UP's Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha constituencies, which vacated by chief minister Yogi Adityanath and deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. BJP's loss in Gorakhpur came after three decades, though Maurya's victory in Phulpur in 2014 was its first. The opposition alliance continued the winning streak, and got hold of another Lok Sabha constituency Kairana in UP in May, despite the aggressive campaigns of Yogi and Modi. In the same bypoll, BJP lost its Bhandara-Gondiya seat in Maharashtra to Sharad Pawar's NCP, while retaining Palghar.
In Karnataka state election in May last year, the incumbent Congress government had been facing anti-incumbency and corruption charges. BJP led a strong campaign under PM Modi and Amit Shah but failed to cross the majority mark. BJP was 24 seats ahead of Congress. But in popular vote, Congress was ahead of BJP--- 38 per cent vs 36.2 per cent. Finally, the third political force, JDS formed the government in alliance with Congress. The post poll alliance had got the moral victory in the November bypoll in 5 seats (3 Lok Sabha, 2 assemblies) in Karnataka. The alliance won 2 Lok Sabha seats and both the assembly seats. One notable Congress victory among it was Ballari Lok Sabha seat, where BJP never lost since 2004.
The indication of the Rajasthan assembly election verdict was almost clear. The Vasundhara Raje-led government had been facing so much anti-incumbency. Congress had upset BJP in January 2018 bypoll by capturing two of latter's Lok Sabha seats--- Alwar and Ajmer. But it was difficult for the grand old party to crack into Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as they had to counter the well oiled election machinery of BJP in the states, in addition to beating the aura of invincibility of Modi-Shah combination and the state level leaders, especially Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh.
In a nutshell, the recent election results indicate that the voters are unlikely to vote one sided. Unlike 2014, the regional parties are back in the game and Congress has regained the confidence. BJP, which has effective election machinery on the ground, depends heavily on the past magical performance of Modi-Shah combination, but needs a winnable political narrative and influential regional parties as allies.