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2019 Indian general polls: An acid test for BJP?

  • Published at 01:03 am March 22nd, 2019
Narendra Modi
In this file photo taken on March 6, 2019 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, gestures along with Indian Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu Edappadi Palanisamy, right, and other party leaders during a National Democratic Alliance rally in Chennai AFP

After decades of dominance by Indian National Congress and BJP parties, a ‘Third Front’ party is emerging

The Indian political spectrum is abuzz with speculation and predictions with around one year to go until the next general election, which is slated for mid-2019. 

In the most recent election held in 2014, the BJP party used the charisma of its leader, Narendra Modi, to capitalize on public disenchantment with the traditionally-powerful Indian National Congress party. 

Modi and BJP were swept into power after winning 282 of the 543 seats – 10 more than it needed for a majority – in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament.

A solid performance by anti-BJP parties in recent by-elections, however, has strengthened their belief that a unity cobbled together by regional parties could unseat the ruling BJP in the upcoming polls.

BJP’s support base is beginning to show some cracks in the wake of the failure to re-capture Lok Sabha seats in the by-polls and its poorer than expected performance in the Legislative Assembly by-polls, held simultaneously. 

After decades of dominance by either the Congress or BJP, these results are fuelling speculation of the birth of a new faction in Indian politics.

This third force – or “Third Front” – is being driven by the primary objective of deposing the Modi-led BJP Government. 

Burying the hatchet

In March, 2018, during the swearing-in ceremony of Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, long-standing rival politicians buried the hatchet and extended their hands of friendship. 

The Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party leaders, Akhilesh Singh Yadav and Mayawati, were seen in a single frame. 

They had set aside their past animosities and formed an alliance to give the BJP a run for its money in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha by-polls in Uttar Pradesh, held on March 11, 2018. 

Their unity proved to be fruitful, as the BJP lost both parliamentary seats in that election.

Interestingly, those seats were earlier held by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya – both belonging to the BJP. 

Also in the by-polls, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Bihar, led by former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, retained the Araria seat.

In the Lok Sabha by-polls held over the past few years, BJP has been unable to claim even a single opposition seat. These victories have spread a triumphant smile on the faces of opposition leaders. 

Bitter past experience

To a certain extent, the recent by-polls show the slow degradation of BJP’s strength and support in the Lok Sabha.

Interestingly however, the regional parties opposing the BJP have exhibited little enthusiasm to join hands with the Congress.

This is because the nascent “Third Front” advocates are pushing for a Non-BJP and Non-Congress government at the centre, but also because the regional parties in India have had a bitter past experience with Congress.

In 1979, Congress pledged support to the Janata Party led by Prime Minister Charan Singh, the man who succeeded Morarji Desai. 

The Congress, however, unceremoniously withdrew its support barely two days before Charan Singh was scheduled to prove his majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha. Therefore, Charan Singh thus far remains the only Indian Prime Minister who never faced the Lok Sabha - not even once.

In 1991, Congress allowed the dismissal of Prime Minister Chandrashekhar’s government, while in 1996-98, Congress initiated the downfall of prime ministers HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral.

Thus, Congress was responsible for the fall of four coalition governments in India, and this history will not fade from the memories of most Indian politicians anytime soon. 

Acid test

Before the nation goes to the polls next year, however, the citizens of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Mizoram will cast their ballots in Legislative Assembly elections due by the end of December.

Although the opposition parties remain disorganized at the national level, it will be fascinating to see which way these four states turn, and how the results might impact the bigger picture.

With the political situation so fluid, predicting the absolute winner in 2019 with any degree of certainty is almost impossible at the moment.

We can safely say this, however: If current trends continue, Modi and BJP are not going to enjoy a cakewalk next year as they had in the heady days of 2014.

If the election in 2014 was a verdict against the 10-year old Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, then next year will be an acid test for the BJP.