It all happened over a phone call. Ahead of the bypolls to Kairana and Noorpur in Uttar Pradesh last week, the young Samajwadi Party president and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav suggested a tie-up to Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Jayant Chaudhary—another one from the new generation in Indian politics. Within a few hours of the conversation, one more flank had been firmed up in the emerging anti-BJP phalanx. And the fate of India’s biggest electoral state, with its 80 Lok Sabha seats, probably swung a bit more decisively with that phone call. It was perhaps like the last, small weight that tilts the scales.
The two scions—among a fresh crop of politicians who are taking crucial calls these days, along with Tejashwi Yadav—cut a simple deal. Their respective parties would contest one seat each. Both the Kairana Lok Sabha seat and the Noorpur assembly constituency were in the Jat heartland of western UP, where the RLD is a key player. Kairana was left for Charan Singh’s legatees, almost as if to clinch the deal. Noorpur was left for SP. The decision was communicated to Mayawati’s BSP, which readily agreed not to field candidates.
The duo then zeroed in on Tabassum Hasan as the best candidate to take on the BJP in Kairana, which had hit the headlines as a communal hotspot in recent years. The amicable deal the two struck was exemplified by how the candidature was sealed: Hasan was with the SP and Akhilesh “loaned” her to RLD. “It was Akhilesh who suggested that we field Hasan on an RLD ticket…. It shows the level of coordination and trust between us,” Chaudhary tells Outlook.
In recent weeks, the opposition has been exhibiting a new sense of common purpose. Karnataka had already taken this to another level. As a JD(S) government backed by the Congress took charge, a row of beaming opposition leaders stood hand-in-hand during the swearing-in ceremony for a picture-perfect shot, highlighted by one particular frame of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and BSP supremo Mayawati hugging, their heads touching in affection, their faces lit up by 100-watt smiles.
It was a mighty show of unity, and a rare one in this phase of Indian politics, dominated as it is by the colossus-like figure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, it’s this very electoral domination of the BJP that has brought about a willingness to coordinate on the part of non-BJP forces. Despite the warm pictures, it’s not exactly camaraderie. Many of them, in fact, have been rivals for long—and are still a tad wary of each other. But there’s a touch of elation in having finally cracked the big riddle of the last few years: how to stop the BJP juggernaut? That picture was by itself the template: in togetherness lay salvation.
Of course, that very multitude also poses the next riddle. Who can be ‘the’ man? Or indeed, woman? India’s people need to be offered an alternative to Modi. He, after all, still possesses that X-factor. So who among the non-BJP leaders can be offered as a viable, even desirable PM? Scan the opposition horizons, and there’s no dearth of wannabes. Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Akhilesh, Tejashwi, N. Chandrababu Naidu…it’s a list long enough to fill a putative cabinet.
Amit Shah insists the opposition is running “an agenda to defeat PM Modi”
It’s not exactly a hypothetical question. Till this point, Elections 2019 had loomed as an existential moment for opposition parties. They could have been pardoned for regarding it with dread. In the last four years, the country had been painted saffron almost all over, except in what they are calling the ‘Coromandel’ belt. As the “election-winning machine” perfected by BJP president Amit Shah seemed to roll over the countryside like an unstoppable force, there was nary an immoveable object that it encountered. And now, despite the diverse, even ideologically competing forces that now stand as potential allies, there is hope.
“The opposition is coalescing together as they have realised the harm done by the NDA may be irreversible,” Congress leader and spokesperson Manish Tewari tells Outlook. “So 2019 will be a Westminster type of parliamentary elections. The BJP may try to convert it into a presidential-style election again, but is not likely to succeed.”
Modi vs the Rest
Try as they may, the opposition will likely run into only one man in 2019—Modi. For all practical purposes, the BJP has dropped enough hints that it will go to the people with a simple equation: Modi vs the rest, take your pick. It worked wonderfully well in 2014 and they are sure it will work again in 2019, with minor tweaks. And herein lies the dilemma for the opposition. Contesting a bypoll or state polls unitedly is one matter, fighting the general elections without a “face” is another. Each one is an ambitious creature. How to get all of them on board this Noah’s ark? And who will be Noah?
As the leader of the principal opposition party—even though on paper—Congress president Rahul Gandhi could stake claim. So can West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, if she can ensure a fair share of her state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. The mercurial leader is known to be keen to lead an alliance against the NDA, or even against the Congress, hobnobbing with leaders such as Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao for a third front. Mamata has so far managed to maintain her supremacy in the state, keeping all other parties, including the Congress, the CPI(M) and especially the BJP, in check. BSP chief Mayawati has never hidden her ambitions. What about Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, an astute leader with a proven track record? But each one also carries some baggage (See leader’ profiles).
Next problem: will Mamata accept Mayawati as the PM candidate? Will Akhilesh perfect his UP formula—making off with his pile from among those 80 seats—and then cede ground to Naveen? The Odisha CM is one of the cussedly mysterious pieces in the jigsaw—he still hasn’t shed his ambivalence and is sending out confusing signals. He not only missed a dinner for the opposition leaders, but also did not attend the Karnataka swearing-in ceremony. The only consolation here for each of them is perhaps that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has ruled himself out of contention!
For the Congress, the seat tally will be crucial. “If the Congress wins over 100 seats on its own, then Rahul can stake claim to the PM’s chair,” says a senior Congress leader. However, if he is not acceptable to, say, a Mamata or a Mayawati, the Congress may be forced to accept a consensus candidate. “It’s these kind of contradictions and personal ambitions that may come in the way of opposition unity. The SP and the BSP are already quibbling over seat-sharing. Though Rahul often goes to (NCP leader) Sharad Pawar for advice, they too still have unresolved issues,” the leader says.
The viability of its challenge will be on test in the assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that account for 65 Lok Sabha seats. Polls are slated in the three states this year. The Congress will also play a crucial role in states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra where it can combine with the JD(S) and the NCP, respectively. Together, the two states send 76 MPs to Lok Sabha.
Since not antagonising any potential partner will be crucial, could there be an alternate formula? “It will be 31 separate battles for the BJP in 31 states,” says Derek O’Brien, Rajya Sabha MP and Trinamool Congress spokesperson. “The 2019 elections should be a sum of state elections…fought in the idiom and language, and with issues and themes, of individual states.” Noted sociologist Shiv Visvanathan too believes it’s to the advantage of the opposition parties that they don’t have a face to take on Modi. “This might work better for them. As of now, the opposition doesn’t seem to have a strategy, character or brains. It’s a default selection of grouses and collection of grouches,” he says.
Going state-wise is the only option the opposition has, Visvanathan concedes. “Decentralisation is their only chance. They can’t take on Modi in a presidential-style elections. His media build-up of Modi is tremendous. State-wise battles give it a completely different dynamics,” he says, adding, “As things develop, three-four nodal points will emerge, with south (India) playing a particularly crucial role.”
Odd Man Out
Nitish Kumar, the one man who could have been a consensus candidate, must be ruing his error of judgement now. His return to the BJP-led NDA has not worked out well at the relationship level to begin with—witness the acrimony over the special status issue. And politically, it was well-nigh suicidal for him—the embarrassing loss for the alliance to the Rashtriya Janata Dal in the Jokihat bypoll, which pitchforked Lalu’s son Tejashwi to centrestage, gave notice of that. “Nitish, at one time, was considered the main challenger to Modi, but after allying with the BJP to continue his government in Bihar, he has run himself out of any contention,” rues a senior JD(U) leader. “He would have definitely been the frontrunner among the various challengers to Modi.”
At the other end of the spectrum are veterans such as former President Pranab Mukherjee, NCP leader Sharad Pawar and even former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, all of whom could be thrust into the spotlight if the opposition runs out of choices for a man to lead the alliance. And despite his controversial decision to attend an RSS meet in Nagpur, there are already murmurs of Pranab playing a key role behind the scenes to ensure the opposition flock stays together.
Pawar is also said to be playing the role of elderly statesman and a guiding force, pointing out to the opposition leaders that the current political environment in the country is similar to that in post-Emergency 1977, when a united opposition took on and defeated the Congress.
The ruling party had once derided the opposition alliance as the coming together of animals such as “mongoose, snakes, dogs and cats during floods”. Over the past few months, the narrative has changed though Amit Shah still insists the opposition is running “an agenda to defeat PM Modi”. But with the loss in Kairana, the Modi-led government lost its majority in Parliament, and things are beginning to look a wee serious. (It’s down to 271 seats, making it uncomfortably rely on its allies.) From working towards being the largest party in the world, the pattern of discomfiting losses of late has forced the BJP to recalibrate its strategy.
Addressing the media on the government’s fourth anniversary on May 26, Shah gave a peep into this changing strategy. Though he tried to downplay the unity bid, saying the SP-Congress alliance had failed miserably in the 2017 UP assembly election, Shah said: “We still have a year to go for elections. We will devise a strategy to cross a 50 per cent voteshare in UP and defeat any combine,” he said.
The recent bypoll results also coincided with other developments like the Telugu Desam Party leaving the NDA fold and other allies, including Shiv Sena, LJP, RSLP, SAD and JD(U), expressing discomfort with the BJP, setting the alarm bells ringing within the party. The party has made an effort to reach out to its sulking allies, knowing well that it is not likely to get a majority on its own and may need their support.
Shah has already had a meeting with LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan, and also reached out to Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal. Allies like the Sena have never bothered to mince their words about what they call the BJP’s “high-handed” attitude towards smaller allies.
But the opposition has a sense of direction now. If the ‘face’ is not handy, it will prefer to speak about the issues instead. “The message to the BJP is clear. People are not interested in communal issues like Jinnah and have economic concerns as exemplified by ganna (sugarcane),” says Jayant Chaudhary, reprising his by-now famous coinage. “The BJP had imparted a larger-than-life cult image to Modi. Even now they are projecting him as a lone lion in the jungle versus the rest. This is not going to work now,” he adds.