The massive victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2017 state assembly elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh, has surprised most political analysts and baffled the opposition.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, for instance, tweeted on 11 March: “At this rate we might as well forget 2019 & start planning/hoping for 2024.”
In his weekly column in The Indian Express, former finance minister P. Chidambaram noted: “There is no doubt whatsoever that the victories in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand have re-confirmed that Mr Narendra Modi is the most dominant political leader in the country today.”
Some political commentators are now of the view that the victory in the UP election has paved the way for the re-election of the Narendra Modi government at the centre in 2019.
Political predictions are inherently risky—as has been once again proved by the recent assembly elections—and one should not conclude that things cannot change between now and 2019. In this context, it is important to recall that many analysts had predicted that things would become difficult for the BJP after it lost the 2015 Bihar assembly election. But the political reality has changed significantly since then.
Can politics in India take another decisive turn between now and 2019? To be sure, a lot will depend on how the opposition parties react to the 11 March verdict. If the opposition is able to unite against the BJP, there could be an interesting contest in 2019. For example, even in UP, the opposition parties—Samajwadi Party (SP), Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—put together polled more votes than the BJP. If they had contested together, perhaps, the final tally would have been different.
But can parties like the SP and the BSP come together? One should not rule out such a possibility as these parties are now practically in an existential crisis. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar learned their lesson quickly after the 2014 general election: the BJP can only be stopped by opposition unity.
As things stand today, the only way the opposition can pose a meaningful challenge to the BJP in 2019 is by stitching together an umbrella alliance and projecting a credible leader. And this is where Nitish Kumar can play a larger role—something that he has tried in the past at the national level but without success. There are at least four factors that can work in his favour.
First, he defeated the BJP in Bihar (2015) after its thumping victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Second, he has a good understanding of political reality—he was perhaps the only opposition leader to welcome demonetisation and, as noted above, made swift political adjustments after the 2014 loss.
Third, he is widely accepted as a credible administrator and chief minister who performs in his third stint in the office.
Fourth, the principal opposition party, the Congress, is simply not in a position to provide an alternative or lead a coalition of opposition parties.
It will be interesting to watch if the opposition can unite to challenge the might of the BJP. The political reality has changed considerably after the 11 March results; opposition parties will have to decide whether they want to the challenge the BJP in 2019 or simply fade into irrelevance in national politics, at least in the foreseeable future.