Will 2019 be another 2004 for the BJP?
Last week’s Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha by-election outcomes have given political analysts yet another opportunity to speculate if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) can return to power in 2019. Both seats went to the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, which was supported by Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
The BJP’s defeat is important because these seats were vacated by Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath (Gorakhpur) and deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya (Phulpur). The outcome has inspired significant confidence in the opposition; it shows that it is actually possible to defeat the BJP in its own turf. Meanwhile, N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) decided to leave the NDA and has moved a no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi government. Further, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee—who is reported to have advised the SP and the BSP to come together—is working to bring opposition parties to a third front platform.
Indian politics has changed a fair bit in the last few days and could affect the BJP’s prospects. The increasing level of activity in the opposition raises the question: will 2019 turn out to be like 2004 for the BJP when it failed to come back to power?
There are no easy answers though. The narrative may change multiple times between now and the summer of 2019, as has happened in the past. For instance, questions were raised in 2015 when the BJP lost the Bihar assembly election. However, the 2017 UP assembly results showed that the party was in perfect control. And now in 2018, it surprisingly lost Gorakhpur. So the big question at this stage is: can the opposition parties come together and do what they did in Gorakhpur at the national level?
As things stand today, there are at least three broad reasons why the road ahead will not be easy for the opposition.
First, the idea of a third front is something that is floated every now and then, but it fails to achieve the objective because of its inherent contradictions. For instance, will it be possible for Mamata Banerjee to accommodate Left parties? Also, can the two rivals in Andhra Pradesh, TDP and YSR Congress, be a part of any formation? Further, an SP-BSP alliance is not a done deal yet. The BSP has always maintained that although its votes get transferred to alliance partners, it doesn’t benefit from other parties’ voter bases. It will not be easy for the BSP to enter into an alliance with the SP, as it could end up being the biggest loser. Further, it is not obvious that all these parties would want to work with the Congress.
Second, the Congress party is perhaps not in a position to stitch together a “grand alliance”. The party is also in the middle of a leadership transition and it is not clear at this stage how things will change for the Congress internally. A lot of what the opposition will actually be able to achieve will depend on how the Congress party positions itself. The plenary session of the party, which ended on Sunday, did not offer much guidance in this context.
Third, even as the opposition is beginning to sense a chance, it is important to note that the BJP of 2018 is significantly different from the BJP of 2004. It has, over the years, built unmatched electoral machinery, which has helped the party spread its footprint, including in the northeast. Further, it is likely that the BJP will once again run a presidential-style campaign. In order to give a real fight, the opposition will need to settle the leadership issue, build an alternative narrative, and run a cohesive campaign. All this will not be easy.
To be sure, survival is becoming increasingly difficult for a number of political parties, and it has become important for them to come together, and any kind of larger opposition unity will make things difficult for the BJP. However, it remains to be seen if such desperate partnerships will be strong enough to capture power in New Delhi.
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