In 2019, victory may depend largely on the question of which side can form the bigger or a stronger alliance.
The recent withdrawal of support by the BJP from the PDP-led government in Jammu and Kashmir seems to have again highlighted the issue of how alliances of political parties might shape the 2019 electoral contest. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s move to raise the demand for a special status for his state at the recent Niti Aayog meeting added to the intense speculation about various possibilities. The recent developments also indicate that the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are getting even more interesting than earlier thought.
In 2019, victory may depend largely on the question of which side can form the bigger or a stronger alliance. While the challenge for the BJP is to keep its allies together, for the Congress it is to attract more regional parties to join the battle against the BJP under its leadership. Neither is going to find the task easy.
The BJP had lost one ally, the Telugu Desam, while the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal don’t seem very happy with it. The saffron party has already broken its alliance with the PDP. And while it has managed to draw the Janata Dal (United) back into the NDA fold, even that alliance seems to be developing cracks as Nitish Kumar has been critical of some of the Centre’s policies, and has again raised the demand for a special status for Bihar, an issue on which the TDP walked out of the NDA.
The Congress is also finding the task of building alliances hard. The regional parties understand the urgency and need to come together on a common, united platform, but many regional leaders who are popular in their states are unwilling to accept the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Some parties which are very strong in their states, like the Samajwadi Party and BSP in Uttar Pradesh, and Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, are unwilling to give a decent number of seats to the Congress. Forging a national alliance by the Congress would mean sacrificing its claims for more seats in these states. The Congress may have to do a tightrope walk to ensure it has allies. It will find seat-sharing deals a tricky affair in big states where it’s a marginal player.
The Congress’ prospects in 2019 depend largely on how it performs in states where it is in a direct contest with the BJP and in states where it is pitted against both the BJP and regional parties. In the former, it’s performance will be determined mainly by whether the BJP retains its 2014 popularity level. In eight states — Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Goa and Manipur — there will be a bipolar contest between the BJP and the Congress. These states have 104 Lok Sabha seats and in 2014 the BJP won 99 seats and the Congress was routed. There are murmurs about the Congress exploring alliances with the BSP and smaller regional parties to improve its prospects. The BJP’s voteshare was over 50 per cent in all these states except Chhattisgarh and Manipur. Further, it won 78 seats by over 50 per cent votes. In these states, the Congress’ performance depends on the strength of anti-incumbency against the BJP and on whether that leads to a shift of voters towards it.
In 2019, forming alliances will be critical for the Congress in states like Assam, Delhi, Haryana and Karnataka, where it fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on its own against regional parties and the BJP. These states have 58 seats, and the Congress won only 13 in 2014. The party needs to prevent a fragmentation of the Opposition vote through tieups with regional parties if it hopes to improve on its 2014 performance. In Haryana, for instance, the Congress was pushed to third place in 2014. It has already made a move for a comeback through a merger of Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Congress. The HJC had fought the 2014 polls alongside the BJP and could help the Congress in a few seats. In Karnataka, both the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) have expressed willingness to contest the Lok Sabha elections together. The success of this alliance hinges on whether the JD(S) is able to retain the Vokkaliga support it receives in Assembly elections. Assam saw a multipolar contest in 2014, which allowed the BJP to win seven of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats. If the BJP’s alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front continues, the Congress’ only hope of avoiding a washout like 2016 is an alliance with the AIUDF.
The BJP too has problems of its own. In Bihar and Maharashtra, which gave the NDA 73 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, it needs to pacify its allies and prevent them from exiting. The main reason for discontent seems to be the role reversal in the relationship between the regional parties (JD-U and Shiv Sena) and the BJP after 2014. Unlike earlier, the BJP sees itself as the senior partner in the alliance as it has a relatively larger support base in both states. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the BJP and the Shiv Sena contested separately and the BJP was clearly ahead of the Sena. But despite the aggressive public posturing, both parties are aware that contesting alone will be fatal if the Congress and NCP contest together. Seat-sharing in Bihar could be even more difficult for the BJP as it may need to deny tickets to sitting MPs to accommodate the JD(U). A simple number reveals the BJP’s Bihar problem — till 2009, it used to contest 15 seats, while in 2014 it alone won 22 seats. Convincing the LJP and RLSP, which contested 10 seats in 2014, is a further challenge for the BJP.
Voters appear more prepared to accept alliances and coalitions than they were in the 1990s, but only if based on some common principles. But the way things are moving, it seems alliances in 2019 would be guided solely by electoral considerations, not on shared ideology. So the big question remains: will voters trust such alliances on the day of voting?