In a country where more than 2 million people hold elected jobs, from little-known panchayat polls to the biggest of them all, the Lok Sabha elections, the writing is on the wall. With more than a year to go before the first ballot is cast for the epic parliamentary battle, the campaign is underway in right earnest.
If prime minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the President’s address, a customary feature of India’s adopted Westminster system of democracy, was by all indications a poll speech, so was the Congress-led heckling of India’s political CEO and could well have had the blessings of the party’s high command, which is needless to say, in fine fettle following the by-poll victories in Rajasthan and a much improved performance in Gujarat.
What the fracas means right away is that the government will not be able to conduct any serious worthwhile business in the Rajya Sabha for the rest of its tenure, where it is in a minority. Why, even non-contentious and non-political legislation may end up being casualties.
That the BJP, which romped home to victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has a gargantuan job at hand in the 2019 edition, would be an understatement.
The BJP and the Congress are not the only parties in the election mode. Some of the other pretenders to the throne are also in the war mode. India’s federal polity gives enough room for the likes of Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to fancy her chances. Having stymied nearly all of the Centre’s schemes, Mamata is in touch with other opposition leaders to cobble up a joint front against Modi and the BJP. It is also likely, if the Kolkata press is to be believed, that she may take the lead in encouraging other like-minded states to stall central government schemes like Ayushman Bharat, which to begin with lack clarity in their execution.
She has gone as far as dialing the Shiv Sena, which by any yardstick is as anti-Muslim as she is pro-Muslim. The Sena is peeved at being upstaged by elder cousin BJP in Maharashtra for the Hindutva sweepstakes and has announced its intention to contest elections on its own. Add to it the likes of Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, apparently neutral as far as the BJP is concerned, but is ultimately going to be guided by the numbers game.
Congress’s most important leader Sonia Gandhi has made it clear that she will take a personal interest in cobbling together a viable anti-BJP opposition. And such is the Modi phobia among India’s political class that the Trinamool that is bitterly opposed to the Congress in Bengal, and is indeed guaranteeing their slow but sure decimation in the state, sees no harm in tying up with Congress at the national level.
In the Rajya Sabha, the Aam Aadmi Party, which marked its political foray in the days of seething anti-Congressism at the start of the decade of 2110, found itself in strange bonhomie with the Congress in the Rajya Sabha, never mind the all out scrap between the local units of the two parties in Delhi where charges and counter charges are exchanged on a daily basis.
Needless to say, such contradictory responses are part and parcel of democratic politics. The CPM – agreeably a shadow of its best years over a decade ago - is in the throes of an internal conflict over a question that has haunted it since the days of the Jyoti Basu and even earlier – the party’s support to the Congress to keep ‘fascist’ forces, read BJP, out of power.
Similarly, the two mainline Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu are keeping their options open, not the least because of the neo-threat looming large from the persona of its matinee idol superstar Rajinikanth and unstated ambitions of another celluloid hero Kamal Hasan.
In such a hardball situation, where battles will be fought over every blade of grass, speculation on the number crunching has already begun. While those sympathetic to the saffron party say the BJP’s fortunes could shrink close to 210-220 seats, those uncharitably disposed towards the party, believe that the BJP juggernaut would not cross the 150 Lok Sabha mark. There are also those who are convinced that notwithstanding the dire predictions of the newly coined ‘Lutyen’s media’, 2019 would be a repeat of 2014. In other words, heart rather than the head is determining the numbers, as ever, and there is still time to go.
Nonetheless, a few things are clear. The forthcoming assembly elections beginning with Karnataka in the summer and finishing off with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later in the year will set the tone for things to follow. If the BJP wrests Karnataka from the Congress, the dream of a Rahul Gandhi-led alliance will suffer a body blow, giving the likes of Mamata Bannerjee a chance to toy around with the idea of a federal front. But at any rate, the BJP will have to win at least two out of three big Hindi-belt states to stay in the reckoning. That is going to going to be easier said than done, given that the party is up against massive anti-incumbency in MP and Chhattisgarh.
Of another thing too, there is complete clarity. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections is going to be a referendum on the prime minister, something that can not be said about Lok Sabha 2014 and Manmohan Singh.