By Amulya Ganguli
There has been a sea-change in the outlook of the different political parties about their chances in next year’s general election. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prospects do not seem to be as bright as it was even a year ago, its opponents are preparing to take on the ruling party at the centre with much greater confidence, as evidenced even in the latest round of byelections where the opposition scored more victories than the BJP.
The change in the attitudes of the two rival groups has become more pronounced after results of the state election in Karnataka galvanized the normally slow-footed Congress and a generally cautious, even slightly devious, Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS) to outwit the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, B.S. Yeddyurappa, by forming an alliance and setting up an alternative government. But even before the outcome in the southern state, the political weather had been turning cloudy for the BJP.
This turn for the worse could be seen in the series of reverses which the BJP suffered in by-elections across the country - from Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. The effects of these setbacks could not be negated by the BJP’s success in Tripura or Meghalaya because the outcomes in the politically and socially isolated North-east, whether victory or defeat, do not carry as much importance as election results in the heartland.
In the wake of the by-election setbacks, therefore, BJP’s inability to form a government in Karnataka has been an even bigger blow than it might have been. One reason why its failure is looming large in public and political perception is the result of its hyped-up objectives and expectations in Karnataka. When these fell short of what the party was projecting, such as winning 120/130 seats in a state touted as its gateway to South India, then the sense of a letdown could not but be all the greater.
Even more damaging than the BJP’s reverses is the belief that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no longer as effective a campaigner as earlier. It is noteworthy that although Modi addressed 21 rallies in Karnataka, increasing the tally from an earlier plan for 15, not only was the BJP’s vote share of 36.2% less than the Congress’s 38%, the latter also polled 640,00 more votes than the BJP.
It is another matter that the vagaries of three-cornered fights between the BJP, the Congress and the JDS – along with the suspicion of a tacit understanding between the BJP and the JDS – enabled the BJP to win 104 seats in a House of 224 while the Congress won 78 and the JDS- Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance 39. But the fall in the BJP’s vote share will seem all the more significant considering that it was as high as 43.4% in 2014 when Modi was at the height of his popularity.
What the Karnataka outcome has clarified, therefore, is that, first, the Modi wave is showing signs of ebbing and, second, that the BJP can be defeated by an alliance of its opponents.
This factor was recently highlighted in UP where the Samajwadi Party and the BSP unitedly defeated the BJP in two crucial by-elections, including a seat held by the staunchly Hindu nationalist Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The lesson from these contests has made the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal - two regional parties of UP and Bihar - unite against the BJP in the Kairana parliamentary by-election in the state on May 28.
It is the tactic of putting up a joint fight against the BJP which has been emphasized by the West Bengal and Telangana chief ministers, Mamata Banerjee and K. Chandrashekar Rao, and others such as the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Sharad Pawar and the DMK’s M.K. Stalin. Not surprisingly, several of these leaders attended the grand oath-taking ceremony of the JDS’s H.D. Kumaraswamy as Karnataka chief minister, for they see in the Congress-JDS combine a template of the broad-ranging anti-BJP coalition at the national level.
But there is another aspect of this alliance which is worth noting. It is that the two new allies had not been on the best of terms till the outcome in Karnataka made both the Congress and JDS decide to forget past differences and wrongfoot the BJP even if the governor, Vajubhai Vala, a former minister in Modi’s government in Gujarat, not only administered the oath of office to Yeddyurappa as the chief minister but gave him as long as a fortnight to prove his majority.
The transformation of erstwhile foes into friends - as in the case of the Congress and the JDS in Karnataka - has been seen in the case of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP to join hands and defeat the BJP.
It is clear that the looming threat of the BJP is persuading its opponents to kiss and make up while some of its allies have been either deserting it, like the Telugu Desam, or is constantly criticizing the party and claiming that the Modi magic is fading, as its Maharashtra ally, the Shiv Sena, has been doing.
The reason why the euphoria of 2014 is dissipating is, first, that Modi’s promise of rapid employment-oriented growth has not been fulfilled and, second, the failure of the government and the saffron political class to keep in check the innate anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit feelings of the Hindutva activists, which have again found expression in the killing of a Muslim on the suspicion of cow slaughter in Madhya Pradesh and of a Dalit in Gujarat allegedly for theft.
A third reason for the change of mood is the surprising recovery of the Congress from the doldrums of 2014 when it found itself being reduced to its lowest ever tally in the Lok Sabha, Parliament’s House of People.
The fact that Modi continues to lambast the Congress at every available opportunity and for every possible economic, administrative and foreign policy lapse in the period when it was in power is evidence enough that the BJP dispensation finds the supposedly weak, corrupt and dynasty-bound Congress to be a major obstacle.
Modi expressed the hope while campaigning in Karnataka that after the BJP’s “victory” in the state, Congress would be reduced to three Ps – Punjab, Puduchery and parivar (dynasty) since it will be in power only in Punjab and Puduchery (he forgot about Mizoram). But it is not entirely impossible that the Congress will be able to add Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to its tally before the end of the year when local assembly elections are held in these states.
While it will be a virtual straight fight between the Congress and the BJP in the three states, the hopes of the BJP’s opponents rest on what Mamata Banerjee and Chandrashekar Rao have called a federal front for confronting the saffron outfit at the national level.
It is anybody’s guess whether this can be achieved, given the oversized egos of the various regional leaders and their reservations about the Congress, because of the latter’s supposed inability to play the role of the smaller partner. As the grand old party, the Congress believes it is the natural leader of any opposition combine aimed against the BJP.
The Congress-JDS government in Karnataka is expected to lay the groundwork for the proposed front if the alliance survives. The scene is not unlike what it was in the 1960s and especially in 1977 when opposition parties combined to oppose the then mighty Congress.
At that time, too, the opposition combines were fragile as the then Janata Party’s disintegration in 1980 showed. It remains to be seen whether the anti-BJP groups prove to be more durable than the earlier anti-Congress formations.
(The author is a writer on current affairs)