The 2019 Lok Sabha elections: once anticipated to be a runaway victory by the BJP strategists, is now posing as a monumental challenge for the party. It would also be safe to say that it is a bigger challenge than the 2014 elections. In 2014 the factors which proved lethal for the Congress’s fate are today digging BJP’s grave too. For example the anti-incumbency swing against BJP. It is all the more profound as BJP is running the incumbent state governments in 17 out of 29 states of India. Thus the state-level anti-incumbency effects also have negative spillovers on national politics.
2019 Vs 2014
The atmosphere in 2018 before the LS elections in 2019 is not as polarized as it were in 2013 before the LS elections of 2014. The latter saw a very strong and certain Modi wave. A majority of the population was disgruntled from the existing UPA-II and its non-performance. The general passivity in leadership did not help either. BJPs 2014 mandate was the last nail on Congress’s coffin after which till date it has been trying to resurrect from its ruins. While on the other hand, the political air in 2018 is devoid of a viable option. There is a struggle to muster up an opposition which is anti-Modi and BJP. And it is important in order to face the Modi wave, which still bears some footing even today.
Even if the possibility of all the non-BJP parties to form a third front is kept apart; the potential of regional parties cannot be overlooked. The fact that each Indian state is so different (demographically or geographically), for one party to understand and to cater to all of these differences; seems to be like a distant dream. On the other hand regional parties have the benefit of being familiar with the fabric of the constituencies from which they are contesting. The regional party leaders have a strong local support and they can be identified as a viable candidate by the people.
BJP’s Strategy In 2014
But let us not overlook the fact that back in 2014 BJP unleashed its volunteer brigade on to the roots of Indian villages. The volunteers connected with the key demographic. Additionally the gigantic Modi wave was also at its peak thanks to the relentless marketing. As a result a record voter turn-out of about 66% of the eligible voters was witnessed in 2014, a sharp uptick from the 58 percent recorded in the two previous elections. This might again be the strategy in 2018. Thus, paving its way to become the “default governing party”; a title which was once enjoyed by the Congress.
But amidst this much celebrated war between BJP and Congress one should not ignore the very decisive role of the regional parties of the states. Although their reach is limited but their effect is profound. Regional players can give the BJP a run for its money. However, doing so will require them to work co-operatively.
Uttar Pradesh has the largest seat share in Lok Sabha. Thus its 80 seats sure pose a make or break situation at the Parliament. The two major regional parties here are the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In 2014 elections SP held 5 seats and the BSP held none. Additionally, the SP under Akhilesh Kumar’s government lost to BJP in the State elections in 2017, weakening it further more. The BSP on the other hand is struggling since the 2011 state elections to resurrect but doesn’t seem to be successful in doing so.
However, in the by-elections held for Gorakhpur and Phulpur, the former being CM Yogi Adityanath’s LS constituency and the latter being Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya’s; the two arch-rivals, SP and BSP joined hands. This coalition was an unfathomable idea for the general public. The absurd coalition did bring home two victories and a lot needed confidence for these two parties for both the parties were fighting with their back to wall and fear a virtual extinction. Thus, a formidable alliance between these two parties may injure BJP’s winning streak in Uttar Pradesh. Of course provided that this social coalition succeeds to take off the ground.
Bihar too is a political playground with its 40 seats at the Lok Sabha and the two front runner regional parties, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The former garnered 2 seats at the LS polls while the latter had 4. However, state politics in Bihar changed soon after 2014 LS elections. To defeat BJP, JD (U) and RJD, again two arch-rivals, formed a coalition and defeated the BJP in a series of by-elections in 2015. They also formed the State government with Nitish Kumar being the CM. Although Nitish had left the NDA his affinity towards the BJP was well established through his support statements for BJP’s governance at the center.
In July 2017 political mathematics changed and Nitish Kumar left the “mahagathbandhan” to join hands with the NDA to form a government in Bihar. Thus, leaving Lalu and his RJD in the middle of the storm. In 2018, reports of JD (U) demanding from BJP to play second fiddle in the Bihar LS elections surfaced. It was reported that the JD (U) demanded as many as 24 LS seats in Bihar which was not conceded to by the BJP. However, there have been statements for a seat settlement soon to be reached between the BJP and JD (U). On the other hand, after RJD was weakened because of the conviction of its beacon Lalu Yadav. His shrewd son Tejaswi Yadav has taken the reigns in his hands and poses to be a formidable threat to both JD(U) and BJP.
State parties have strong ties to the linguistic, regional and cultural identities in states like Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and West Bengal. Odisha’s LS seat share is 21 and Odisha’s Biju Janta Dal (BJD) won 20 out of them. This shows the strong trend towards this regional party. Which did not let any other national or regional party penetrate its support in the state. However, the BJP has subsequently performed well in municipal elections. Tamil Nadu again has a very stronghold of regional parties: Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). But with the demise of Jayalalitha, the AIADMK faces leadership dearth and internal issues. Surely the BJP sees this as a potential opportunity for alliances.
Telangana’s LS seat share though feeble, its regional leader has great formidable capabilities which might as well overhaul the whole election scenario in 2019. The CM of Telangana K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR) from Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) wants to build a non-congress non-BJP federal front. This aims to decentralize many portfolios and shift them to the states. While the Center will possess portfolios of essential national importance like defence, foreing relations etc. KCR envisages a federal polity to the extent of deducting the whole concurrent list from the Constitution of India.
This idea might sell might sell in India at a time when the BJPs drastic measures like GST, Aadhar linking have loosened the federal character of Indian polity. And in his effort to build up a “federal front” KCR has sought support from regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar. Another weapon against BJP in the “Federal Front’s” arsenal would be BJPs strong and unmistakable Hindutva agenda. It makes the BJP appear as an outsider in the southern states. Thus, in such a scenario the fight of 2019 is between Hindi dominant idea of India and the federal vision of a plural and diverse Union of India.
West Bengal And Andhra Pradesh
West Bengal has a share of 42 seats at the LS. Out of these 34 are held by its fore-runner party the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC), lead by Mamata Banerjee. The other left parties are only second-fiddle to AITMC but together they create a least access situation for BJP. Also, BJP’s right-wing philosophy proves of no help in a historically left leaning demographic.
In Andhra Pradesh/Seemandra, another very strong regional party is Telugu Desam Party (TDP). It was hitherto an NDA ally. But its leader Chandrababu Naidu has already declared TDP’s exit from the NDA. This comes mostly because the demand for a special state status for Andhra Pradesh was not fulfilled.
Maharashtra And Karnataka
Moving on to Maharashtra, which was once a NDA stronghold is now standing arch opposite to it. The Shiv Sena a solid right-wing regional party of Maharashtra announced in 2018 that it will contest the 2019 independently. In 2014, out of the 48 seat share of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena won 18 seats which is a sizeable amount. Sharad Pawar’s NCP won 6 seats. These two regional parties are now not only against each other but also against BJP this time. Thus Maharashtra too has now become a challenge.
Karnataka’s recent verdict though was majorly in favour of the BJP, the Congress still held a firm ground. What was more surprising was that the regional party with the least amount of seats got to chose the CM of the state of Karnataka.
The northeast is often seen as inconsequential to the overall electoral picture. It accounts for just 3.7 percent of India’s population. Yet the region boasts twenty-five parliamentary seats. A tempting prize for a party that covets new territory to compensate for losses likely to be sustained elsewhere. Thanks to a series of recent state-level victories, the BJP now sits in government in seven of these eight states. It is also building up organizational and alliance networks across the region. As a relatively new player in northeastern India, the BJP is less likely to fall prey to Indian voters’ antipathy for incumbents there. Which might not be the case in the party’s traditional strongholds. Whereas the Congress retains the capacity to put up a good fight in the Hindi heartland, its stature in the northeast has rapidly diminished.
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh are BJP strongholds and are also its safest bets. A two-hundred plus figure is covetable but a victory like that in 2014 would be quite ambitious in 2019. Because even if the BJP has been on winning streak since 2014, the trends of the losses make it clear that if any resistance was garnered by BJP it was primarily from the regional parties. Thus a Third/Federal front of the regional parties are the actual challengers for Modiji in 2019 and not Congress.
Regional parties with strong mass base if manage to reach consensus and create a third front then such coalition will surely turn tables. At a time when BJP allies like TDP, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena are flexing their muscles; the possibility of a third front does not seem to be an obsolete idea today.
Is Third Front A Possibility?
But forming a third front is certainly not a cake-walk. A pre-poll alliance like in the case of the 1989 National Front the Janata Dal with N.T. Rama Rao and V.P. Singh had a strong hold. And parties somehow conformed to their leadership and hence a pre-poll alliance was possible. But today if the regional parties come together to form a third front then would essentially have to let go of their regional flavours. They will have to jointly sing the praise for India. This is definitely a tough task. KCR himself has the newly born Telangana’s betterment in mind. Chandrababu Naidu still is hell bent on having a special state status for Andhra Pradesh. An alliance of SP and BSP will obviously want to stick to the appeasement card and so on.
It is therefore clear that a major setback for a third front coalition government is its coalitional nature. This will only become more chaotic when these leaders will be at the Center. They will there trying to push in and accommodate their own demands. A regional party has regional agendas whereas a national party has national agendas. Thus, this is the major difference which causes a coalition to often fall. However, this doesn’t strike out the possibility of a post-poll alliance. However, a coalition can change its fate only by forgetting personal vested interests. Only by concentrating on becoming a front, will lead to be an actual alternative to the current ruling order.