The Modi-Shah combine have shown that they have more feints up their sleeves than those in classical Swiss watch movements. Staggered at the scale of the bloodless coup engineered by Amit Shah and Nitish Kumar in Bihar where an existing Mahagathbandhan was overturned almost overnight with great alacrity, the Opposition could only cry betrayer and back stabber. The reality is that their maladroitness and ineptitude has been found out once again. From what could have been a credible face of a united Opposition for 2019, Nitish Kumar chose to remain a chief minister of a politically sensitive state. The railing opposition can argue that it is a Faustian bargain, but in terms of political survivability and manoeuvrability, it was a masterstroke. Since PM Modi has been in electoral politics, he has only been defeated thrice — Bihar, Delhi and Punjab where he was a junior coalition partner. Bihar can be likened to a coup d’état without a shot being fired. The ragged Opposition running in different directions like headless chickens will have to regroup and recalibrate once again. An opportunity presents itself again. The bloody end to the farmer agitation in Mandsaur was a gift horse which the opposition strangely turned away from. A meaty subject with which the opposition could have targeted the Modi dispensation was not taken advantage of.
Phulpur can be the defining moment. History doesn’t forgive people who ignore it. For those who do, they do it at their own peril. Just as Allahabad was many moons ago. And I will explain that in a bit. With UP deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya set to vacate the Phulpur Lok Sabha constituency, battle lines are drawn again. If the Opposition can get its act together, it can ask Mayawati to contest from Phulpur since she has already resigned her Rajya Sabha seat. The Congress-SP-BSP Mahagathbandhan could then try and take on a rampant and marauding BJP.
Politics is equally about messaging and communication. If this unlikely trinity can combine whatever heft they have in that area and present a challenge, then some sort of a revival can be architected. Phulpur is rich historically in terms of past electoral hurrahs. Jawaharlal Nehru was elected thrice from Phulpur, he once defeated Ram Manohar Lohia here. BJP won this prestigious seat for the first time in 2014 when Maurya came through with a thumping 3 lakh plus margin, polling 52 per cent of the vote. Dharam Raj Singh Patel of SP came second with 20 per cent while cricketer Mohd Kaif representing the Congress brought in the rear with a mere six per cent. These numbers don’t augur well for a combined Opposition.
Politics is also about the art of impossible and the rag tag bobtail Congress and Akhilesh will have to convince Mayawati to make a statement by standing from Phulpur. But the 2017 assembly hustings results provide some ray of relief for a combined opposition. I must add this is empirical assumption and could be optically incorrect, for in India we have a first past the post system winner in electoral politics. In the five Phulpur assembly constituencies (2017 results listed above), except for Allahabad North, where the Congress candidate Anurag Narayan Singh polled 31.39 per cent of the vote cast, in the other four constituencies it is SP and BSP which together polled more than the winning BJP (four) and one Apna Dal candidates.
Hypothetically, the combined heft of the opposition could have swung the elections away from the BJP. Let us also understand the nature of the beast — both in 2014 and 2017, it was the Hindu vote which aggregated behind Narendra Modi and not necessarily the BJP. It was an aandhi of epic proportions, hitherto not seen in Uttar Pradesh. Puttar Pradesh lay at Modi’s feet after the rout of a fractious SP and a diminishing BSP in these assembly elections.
Phulpur is adjacent to Allahabad from where VP Singh launched his 1988 anti-Rajiv Gandhi campaign after leaving the Congress along with Arun Nehru and Arif Mohd Khan. After giant slayer Amitabh Bachchan had vanquished Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna in the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi tsunami and then deserted the party, it was VP Singh who chose to fight from Allahabad in the 1988 by election. Pitted against him was Lal Bahadur Shastri’s son Congress’s Sunil Shastri who he defeated. This was the beach head for a rising VP Singh and in 1989, he fought from Fatehpur against another of Shastriji’s sons — Hari Krishna Shastri. Again he won. Allahabad thus became symbolic for VP Singh returned to parliament after leaving (or being kicked out) the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet and then went onto form Jan Morcha and then Janata Dal with 143 seats and forged the first minority government in India supported by the BJP and the Communists in what can only be called an anachronism.
The government subsequently collapsed under the contradictions that myriad ideologies brought to bear and when Advani’s Rath Yatra was detained under National Security Act in Samastipur by Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav. With it ended the National Front experiment. Let us remain mindful of the fact that the seeds of rebellion against Rajiv Gandhi’s corruption scandals was unfurled in Allahabad in the 1988 by-election. Viewed from the prism of history, a debilitated opposition can hope to revive its fortunes, though it appears unlikely that they will be able to make a fist of it.
Interestingly, Nehru’s sister Vijay Lakshmi Pandit also won twice from Phulpur, as did VP Singh himself as far back as 1971 while Kamala Bauhuguna won in the 1977 tidal wave mandate against Indira Gandhi and Emergency. The troika of Congress-SP-BSP can choose to make Phulpur a seminal election, one in which they can make a statement of intent. But as they say, jo dar gaya woh mar gaya. One doesn’t want to rain on the full of themselves Opposition’s tattered parade, but it has already wasted two massive opportunities — Mandsaur and taking up the farmer distress cause and more recently making Nitish Kumar the face of the united opposition.
Phulpur presents a third in a short span of six months, frittering this away will be catastrophic for a fragmented and clueless Opposition which seemingly can’t even combine on the issue of communalism, intolerance or cow vigilantism. For years, fractured opponents ranged against the Congress couldn’t get a handle on how to curb its growth, now the shoe is on the other foot and it is hurting like mad.