After the victory of the Congress in all three Hindi heartland states in the tightly-fought assembly elections, some contours about the political scenario in the next few months are becoming sharper. With general elections barely six months away, both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition parties will have drawn lessons from the results and the voting patterns.
The coming days will see the granular details being discussed and analysed, but it is now apparent that the big themes of these elections were three: rural distress is real and can impact voting; religious polarisation is not a big vote catcher beyond keeping the faithful energised; and also, the BJP can be shaken up, even defeated, by strong, strategic opposition alliances.
Farmers all over the country are hurting and where they saw an effort to acknowledge and alleviate their problems, they rewarded the government, such as in Telangana where cash transfers to farmers were made by the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti. With the old fervour for Telangana having subsided, sub-nationalism was not a particularly potent theme the way it was in the last elections in 2014.
Shivraj Singh Chauhan tried to position his state as a place where agriculture was doing well, but the firing on farmers in Mandsaur in June 2017 was a black mark. Even so, his personal popularity has held and he must have got the support of some sections of the rural electorate.
The lesson for states and for the Central government is therefore loud and clear – you ignore the farmer at your own peril. Expect more sops being offered to farmers in the coming months, though whether it will make any real difference remains to be seen.
The spate of lynchings may have pleased the hardcore Hindutva types, but it cannot swing the voter angry with the government, as was seen in Rajasthan. Vasundhara Raje had alienated several sections of the electorate and the voters have taught her a lesson. The Yogi Adityanath brand of spreading hate can be counter-productive – no doubt voters of Telangana were not impressed with his promise to change the name of Hyderabad or to ensure that the Owaisis would run away from the state like the “Nizam had done”, a historical untruth. If the BJP plans to use Adityanath in the run-up to the 2019 elections, it may want to reconsider how and where they deploy him.
The opposition parties must have taken note of these developments and swift calculations must be going on about positioning and tactics for the 2019 elections. The show of unity two days before the results, where almost all opposition leaders, including Mamata Bannerjee and Arvind Kejriwal showed up but Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati did not, is a precursor of the times to come.
Where, for instance, will Mayawati go? She will play a crucial role in Madhya Pradesh – her decision not to go with the Congress in the state now appears to be a poor one. Together they could have won many more seats, but perhaps she was under pressure of some sort or wanted to test her own strength. Will she now want to join hands with the Samajwadi Party, and maybe the Congress, in UP? Any such combination, with the Rashtriya Lok Dal already in the coalition, would stymie the BJP in the most crucial state of them all.
Mamata Banerjee, likewise, will have to give an unambiguous signal that she is ready to tie up with a united opposition grouping. The DMK and the Telugu Desam Party have taken the lead in catalysing a joint front – can Mamata afford to miss out? Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party is already in an informal arrangement with the Congress in Maharashtra, it will add its heft to a national group.
In Maharashtra, the BJP will have to contend with an aggressive Shiv Sena that will immediately sense an opportunity to demand a bigger pound of flesh – the BJP will have no option but to give in if it wants to do well in the state.
Smaller parties have been restless in the National Democratic Alliance, chafing at the style of functioning of the Modi-Shah combine. Will some of them, like Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan or Republican Party of India’s Ramdas Athawale, look elsewhere? They will certainly want to work out where their best interests lie. The BJP will have to now make many more adjustments, even compromises, to keep the allies within the fold.
The battle for 2019 has suddenly become more interesting and the stakes have become higher. It’s very early days and the BJP is certainly no slouch when it comes to wooing and influencing other parties, but it may have to use all its charm and tact – and perhaps money and muscle too – to go into battle with a full complement of allies.