The possibility of a grand unity of parties opposed to the ruling BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) seemed to dominate the discourse ahead of the April-May
2019 general elections; this was the case until early this year and the Congress-JD(S) coalition in Karnataka post-May 2018 elections to the Karnataka assembly polls made this appear realistic. The flurry of shows with leaders holding hands looked like haunting the ruling coalition.
With polling over for the first couple of phases and campaign for the third phase over, the early signs of such a unity threatening the BJP-led combine so decisively now seem one driven by wishes rather than realistic. In other words, while it looked like a 1977 or a 1989 moment returning, this time against the BJP as it happened then against the Congress, there seems to be more in common now with 1996 and 2004.
All roads appear to be taking a course where forces opposed to the BJP-led combine are keen on setting up their strength so that they bargain for most of what comes with a post-poll coalition. While the Congress party’s mind seems to be to gather as many MPs on its own and thus emerge the largest party among the opposition, the regional outfits appear to be focussed to forge a post-poll ‘front’ that could end up setting terms.
Some of it happened too. The SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh and the lasting arrangement between the Congress and the JD(S) in Karnataka belong to this league. While a unity between the RJD and the Congress was sealed in Bihar with the CPI(ML) too joining the grand alliance in Bihar, the political significance of this was lost when all these parties decided to leave the CPI out of it; the thorn being Kanhaiya Kumar, who is now the party’s candidate from Beghusarai.
Remember The Jabalpur Moment
The opposition forces thus lost what could be termed as the Jabalpur moment – when Sharad Yadav, then a young student leader from an engineering college in Madhya Pradesh was fielded as the ‘peoples’ candidate’ in 1974. Kanhaiya had in him the potential to galvanise a spirit similar to the early 1970s in 2019 and yet it was lost because the RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav, saw in Kanhaiya a threat to his own future positioning in Bihar and hence saw to it that the CPI was denied its place in the alliance.
A similar situation haunts the opposition forces in Delhi now. After having shouted against the BJP-led NDA and having cried all the while that they were concerned about the soul of India, both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party seem to have come to a point where they will end up fighting without an alliance in the seven Lok Sabha seats. Arvind Kejriwal has turned more short-sighted than Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. And Rahul Gandhi ended dancing to the tunes of some in his Delhi unit rather than sending into them a political message.
Lest things change in the short while left before the filing of nominations close for Delhi, an alliance between the Congress and the AAP that could spell the loss of all the seven Lok Sabha seats from there is ruled out. And a lot of spat on social media between the leaders have left a bitter taste that will last. And in terms practical, both the Congress and the AAP could end up with lesses number of MPs and all that will add to the BJP’s kitty. There is, after all, very little doubt that an alliance will mean the BJP losing all its seven MPs from Delhi.
In another league is the Congress-CPI(M) attempts to forge adjustments in West Bengal coming a cropper. It is not as if the two parties, together, would have made too much of a difference in the state. The Trinamool Congress remains the pivot of the anti-BJP mobilisation in West Bengal and the Congress party’s existence as a force is a mere fiction outside the Malda region. The CPI(M)’s state in Bengal is worse in the sense that though it exists across West Bengal, unlike the Congress that is restricted to Malda, the BJP’s gains in terms of votes accrue from what used to be the CPI(M)’s support base. In other words, the CPI(M) is considered a weak force against the TMC in West Bengal and hence its supporters have shown evidence of voting for the BJP in the past few elections and that number is only increased this time.
The circle is only complete after Rahul Gandhi decided to contest from Wayanad. While this could mean gains for the Congress in terms of Lok Sabha seats from Kerala, it hardly makes a difference in the post-poll scenario barring the fact that the Left, which may end up with only a handful of MPs or even less in the 17th Lok Sabha will end up offering unconditional support to a possible coalition government. In the event, the Congress and its potential allies, post-May 23, 2019, can rest assured of preventing a 2008 situation where the Left set conditions (against the Indo-US nuclear deal) and withdrew support.
All these while the BJP has opted to ensure a higher level of communal polarisation before voting takes place in the remaining phases of the long drawn poll schedule. The decision to
field Pragya Thakur is a loud and clear message towards this. This has happened when the states in the South of India where anti-Muslim consolidation is less possible than in the Northern states have voted on April 23, 2019.
It remains to see some more twists; whether
Priyanka Gandhi decides to contest from Varanasi and in the event whether Narendra Modi too opts for a second constituency – Indore is being talked about in this context – and how far will the denial of a seat to Murli Manohar Joshi by the BJP will affect the party from among the Brahmin voters whose numbers are substantial across Eastern Uttar Pradesh, the cradle of the Vedic civilisation. Watch Out For Two Things
The fact that the polls, in seven phases, have meant that nominations are yet to close in several constituencies even while large swathes of the land in another part (the southern states done in the first three phases) and one part of a single state where polling was over on April 11 while nominations are yet to begin elsewhere in the same state (Uttar Pradesh for instance) have rendered general elections 2019 into many separate elections. This has led the narratives undergoing stark changes in between the process.
And yet, two things will stand out in the end. One that the BJP, after it began with attacking the Congress of a poor record and dynastic changed tack to its militarist muscle and thereafter to raising the pitch on identity politics and achieving a high level of communal polarisation.
The Congress, meanwhile, seemed a bit lost in the beginning, captured the imagination with its manifesto and the minimum income guarantee scheme. The party, however, bungled on striking alliances and this, indeed, could end up its weakest moment in the event the ruling NDA gathers anything close to the 272 mark on May 23, 2019.
Hence it looks like we are poised for a moment similar to that prevailed in May 1996; recall that the NDA was invited to show its prowess by the then President SD Sharma and subsequently a coalition that came into place by name of the United Front. I will not guess whether things will follow the same way after May 23, 2019 in terms that whether who will be called first by President Ram Nath Kovind. But then, whoever is called first will have the early bird advantage given the fact that the seventeenth Lok Sabha will have groups of MPs belonging to parties such as the YSRCP, the TRS and the BJD whose leaders will be agreeable to do business with either the BJP or the Congress.
V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok.