New Delhi: With 2019 Lok Sabha elections less than a year away, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have started reaching out to regional parties for alliances. The Congress party is trying to become the nucleus of a grand opposition alliance that is shaping up and has tasted success in the recent bypolls in Uttar Pradesh. However, the challenge for Congress extends much beyond the state. 

Congress’s prospects in 2019 depend heavily on how it performs in two categories of states—one where it directly takes on the BJP and the other where it is pitted against the BJP and regional parties. In the former, the party’s performance would be mainly determined by whether the BJP manages to retain its 2014 popularity level.

In nine states—Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand, there will be a bipolar contest between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP had swept these states in 2014 and won 100 out of 106 seats. Moreover, it had won 79 of these seats with more than 50% votes.

There are murmurs about the Congress exploring alliances with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and smaller regional parties in these states. BSP has a stable support base in some of these states but it may not be enough to tilt the balance in favour of the Congress if support for the BJP remains fairly similar to 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Congress will be hoping to gain from possible anti-incumbency in these states.

Forging alliances will be crucial for the Congress in states such as Assam, Haryana, and Karnataka, which often see a multi-polar contest. The Congress needs to prevent a fragmentation of the opposition vote through alliances with regional parties if it hopes to improve on its 2014 performance in these states.

In Haryana, for instance, Congress was pushed to the third position in 2014. However, it is already trying to make amends through a merger with Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC). The party had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election alongside the BJP and could help the Congress on a few seats. In Karnataka, both the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), have expressed willingness to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections together. The success of this alliance hinges on the ability of JD(S) to retain its Vokkaliga support. Assam had witnessed a multi-polar contest in 2014 which allowed the BJP to win seven out of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats. If the BJP’s alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front continues, the Congress may need to explore an alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front.

On the other hand, the BJP also seems to be facing problems of its own. In Bihar and Maharashtra, it needs to pacify its alliance partners and prevent them from exiting. BJP’s relationship with its regional partners—Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and the Shiv Sena —has witnessed a role-reversal of sorts, with BJP now emerging as the larger party in both states.

In the 2014 assembly elections, the BJP and the Shiv Sena had contested separately and the BJP was clearly ahead of the Shiv Sena. It remains to be seen if Amit Shah’s recent visit to Matoshree, the residence of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, would lead to a thaw in their hot-cold relationship. Despite the aggressive public posturing, both parties would be aware that contesting alone would prove to be fatal if the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party contest together.

Seat-sharing in Bihar could be even more difficult for the BJP as it may need to deny tickets to sitting MPs to accommodate the JD(U). A simple number reveals the BJP’s problem in Bihar: till 2009, the party used to contest 15 seats while in 2014, it alone won 22 seats in the state. Convincing Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, which had contested 10 seats in 2014, would be a further challenge for the BJP.

While electoral compulsions and lack of alternatives may force parties to come together, in most cases, success would depend on whether the alliance arithmetic is also accompanied with chemistry.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director at CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS

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