Is the opposition reviving or is that just exaggeration and wishful thinking? Polls around Republic Day point towards three outcomes: first, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will fall substantially below 272; second, even the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will fall short of a majority; and, third, the Congress will cross a 100 but the BJP will be the single-biggest party by far. Akali Dal Member of Parliament (MP) and BJP ally, Naresh Gujral said no party will cross 200 and the BJP might peak at 180-190. The NDA, he said, would stop at 230.
At first glance, the odds are stacked against the BJP. It’s already been defeated in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, its lost allies in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh and upset others in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and the North East. On top of that, farmers, students, Dalits and Muslims are annoyed and it faces a formidable Samajwadi Party (sp)-bahujan Samaj Party alliance (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. Put like that, things don’t look good.
The opposition, however, has serious problems of its own. It remains 22 different parties with 22 different leaders and 22 different ambitions. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, they are opponents rather than allies. They may hold grand mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) rallies but often fracture at the point of seat-sharing. That’s already happened in Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and there are reports of problems in Bihar.
The BJP, of course, is in power and has the capacity to tackle the concerns affecting its image. The decision to give 10 per cent reservations to the economically weaker sections of the upper castes will certainly appeal to the Brahmins, if not more widely. The farmer income scheme, pension scheme and tax rebates announced in the interim budget could appeal to another 25 crore. The only issue is: have these steps been taken too late to make a difference? In these circumstances, Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics will no doubt galvanise the Congress but could it also weaken the opposition as a whole? If a stronger Congress in UP attracts Muslim votes, which otherwise would have gone to SP-BSP, the outcome could split the anti-BJP vote. Only if there’s a strategic understanding between the SP-BSP alliance and the Congress, so they don’t undercut each other, will the opposition gain. In that event the BJP could face a double whammy: losing Dalit and OBC votes to SP-BSP and Brahmin votes to the Congress.
Finally, after the budget, will Rahul Gandhi’s promise of a minimum guarantee for the poor still resonate? If it does, it could be a winner. Now the BJP hopes to make up for what it loses in the Hindi belt with gains in the North East, Bengal and Odisha. No doubt its 2019 performance in the latter two states will be better than 2014. But in the North East the widespread and continuing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the possibility the NDA itself could fracture spells bad news. A lot will depend on Narendra Modi’s campaign. He’s an unparalleled orator and tireless at the hustings. Can he swing the election? Or do the recent state election results suggest the Modi magic has diminished? Because the opposition has no one of equal skill or stature and Modi is still the most popular politician in the country. If the election becomes presidential, the BJP could surge ahead.
So what’s my conclusion? The polls are suggestive but not convincing. A definitive answer to my opening question is likely to elude us till the results are formally announced.