After weeks of wrestling matches with the opposition, when courting controversies seemed the default mode of the Modi government, the last day of the last session of the 16th Lok Sabha came as a soft landing. A rather balmy CAG report on the controversial Rafale deal soothed nerves, and rounding it off was an unexpected compliment from Mulayam Singh Yadav. And on Thursday came a more grisly twist: A major terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir. A spurt of heightened nationalist sentiments, which will inevitably follow, always tends to cast a predictable effect on politics.
Pure politics first. Not only did the former chieftain of the Samajwadi Party praise Narendra Modi for taking everyone along, he also expressed his desire to see Modi again in the PM’s chair. The delighted amusement among the treasury benches matched only the acute embarrassment caused to his own son and successor, Akhilesh Yadav. Was the old Yadav satrap, now in semi-retirement, mocking his son’s audacious alliance with BSP chief Mayawati in UP? One that is seen to hold out the stiffest challenge to Modi’s hope of continued incumbency?
Before that, the much-awaited CAG report, whose delay had been the subject of the ‘typo’ controversy a while ago in the Supreme Court, turned out to be a favourable one. Indeed, it somewhat vindicated the Modi government’s stand that the current Rafale deal was better than the UPA’s inconclusive one, bringing some cheer in the embattled BJP camp.
But how far will these carry through to the Lok Sabha elections, which are going to be primarily fought in the states? And not just Uttar Pradesh, where the expected battle royale between the BJP and the SP-BSP alliance has been thrown a bit awry after Priyanka Gandhi made her wild card entry. Nor even just Bihar and Bengal, but quite crucially Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, with a combined Lok Sabha strength of 112 seats.
What a northern heartlander like Mulayam thinks hardly matters in India’s southern peninsula. And a qualified clean chit from CAG on Rafale would have the same status in the drought plains of Maharashtra. With the UP roulette spinning, the BJP has been looking to secure fresh ground. One regional bloc hitherto seen to be favourable —the 25-seat North-East—is frothing over the (now-lapsed) Citizenship Amendment Bill, so the BJP is suddenly out of its comfort zone there.
But the Congress too is desperately seeking ground to reinvigorate its roots. In the three swing states of UP, Bihar and Bengal, which cumulatively send 162 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the grand old party is a bit player. It may do marginally better than 2014—that’s not saying much, since that was a nadir—hoping perhaps for a few more seats in UP and Bihar and anything short of extinction in Bengal. The BJP, fighting to retain its mojo in UP, is hoping Bihar won’t disappoint and Bengal will welcome it with seats and not just increased vote share.
Conversely, in the two swing states of the south, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the BJP is a bit player, with or without an alliance. In Tamil Nadu, an alliance with the AIADMK can at best keep the BJP in the game, provided the DMK-Congress-plus alliance fails to live up to expectations. In Andhra, where CM Chandrababu Naidu is facing off Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRC, the non-granting of special status may ensure a complete washout for the BJP.
In the slugfest over the precise nature of special status between Naidu, Jagan and Pawan Kalyan of Jana Sena, the BJP has got itself injured. The Congress, which had virtually lost its entire party structure, cadre and leadership along with the state when it got truncated, may just about crawl back on the promise that it would give Andhra what Manmohan Singh as PM had committed to on the floor of the House. Curiously, though, the GOP has chosen not to avail the prop-up alliance offer from the TDP (unless it has a last-minute change of heart) and instead fallen back on the likes of Kiran Kumar Reddy, figures who oversaw its near-terminal decline.
In an equally unpredictable Maharashtra, a BJP-Shiv Sena alliance will in all likelihood fructify, despite the public name-calling. Still, the saffron combine may not repeat the 2014 landslide which decimated the Congress and the NCP (to two and four seats). Signs are of a 50:50 fight—or even better for the UPA, if Prakash Ambedkar is roped in. That NCP chief Sharad Pawar is willing to break his retirement vow and contest the Lok Sabha poll is an indicator in itself—bringing back the old idea of Pawar as a PM hopeful. The 2019 election is also about how M K Stalin finally stacks up on his own, without Karunanidhi reeling out his famed speeches, about whether Naidu manages to milk regional hurt and his last-minute welfare schemes, and about how far Tejashwi Yadav can carry the Lalu legacy on his shoulders, fighting the old blood feud against CM Nitish Kumar.
As for Rahul Gandhi, his metamorphosis from shy prince to an assertive, resurgent voice is in itself a renovating factor of sorts. But can his shrill rhetoric damage Modi and revive a moribund Congress? Or would it only add to Modi’s advantage? Can farmer’s distress outweigh the ease of living of the other classes? And then, Pulwama too may insert itself into the 2019 narrative.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express