Political arithmetic is best suited to an abacus with an agenda, calculated for gain and gained with calculations. In politics, two plus two doesn’t always add up to four; in the legerdemain of leaders, one plus one equals eleven. Last week, the magic number game began when two southern chief ministers, of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, resorted to disruptive politics in Delhi. Both Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrashekar Rao decided to do political course correction to shake and reshape the current and future numerical equations at the Centre.
They have convinced themselves that the 42 Lok Sabha seats from their states will decide the colour and contours of the national rulership in 2019. Rao has gone on to dictate the Indian political agenda, a role which Naidu had effectively played in the 1990s. Telangana’s mercurial boss gave a call for the formation of a third front in which neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party will have a place, since he feels both national parties have failed miserably on every front. Previously, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had hailed Rao’s initiative. Thereupon inching towards a political divorce, Naidu decided to withdraw TDP ministers from the Union Cabinet though the party stayed put in the NDA coalition led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Both Naidu and Rao are well-worn weathercocks who can sense the direction of the political wind and swing towards course correction. For the past four years, not only have they supported every move and mission of Modi’s government, but have also hailed him as India’s most successful prime minister. But when they discovered that Modi doesn’t need their help to win elections and carry forward his idea of a New India, they have decided to distance themselves from him.
They are not the only leaders to anticipate a threat to political survival. Modi has been trampling on his opponents all over the country, making local leaders irredeemably irrelevant through his aggressive mass contact campaigns. In fact, it was Akhilesh Yadav, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who first felt the need to bring together leaders facing political extinction. Yadav set aside his party’s two decades-old rivalry with BSP Chief Mayawati and made a public offer to support her candidate in the coming Rajya Sabha elections to prevent the BJP from winning an extra seat by breaking parties.
In return, Mayawati directed Dalits and other supporters to hit the ground with vengeance and ensure the victory of the Samajwadi Party’s candidates in the Lok Sabha bypolls in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, which the saffron party had won with huge margins in 2014. Last week, in a surprise move, the Mamata-led Trinamool Congress assured full support to the Congress nominee for the Rajya Sabha seat from Bengal, which the latter had almost given up on.
These state-level political realignments have led to national-level cookouts, to make a palatable political ratatouille in 2019 with Modi on the menu. Cashing in on the discontent brewing among some NDA allies, former Congress President Sonia Gandhi revived her role as UPA Chairperson by inviting allies to dinner and charting a future course against the BJP. It has dawned on her and other Opposition leaders that Rahul is yet to acquire the status of a leader who can carry the entire Opposition, and that she has to serve up the real unity enchilada to prevent the UPA from molecular disintegration. On the face of it the Congress-led UPA and the yet-to-be-born Third Front are unrelated. But they both aim to influence the choice of the next prime minister.
The Congress expects to inflict heavy losses on the BJP in states where there are direct contests. For example, the party is confident of winning substantial seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Delhi, where it currently holds less than half a dozen seats. However, the BJP is super-confident of making up for the losses by defeating the regional parties in West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. Its election strategy would be to eliminate smaller parties everywhere. For example, of the 34 political parties represented in the Lok Sabha, 27 have less than 10 MPs each. Nine of them have just one member. And most of them support the NDA.
But the Opposition’s confidence stems from the belief that the south and the east will be Modi’s nemesis next year. Currently, the BJP holds only 22 of the 131 southern Lok Sabha seats—17 from Karnataka, two each from Andhra and Telangana and one from Tamil Nadu. Though it has captured the north-east, it is yet to make serious inroads in West Bengal and Odisha, whose chief ministers are holding their fort with monolithic confidence. As of now, the BJP has just 11 MPs (including 7 from Assam) out of the 87 Lok Sabha members from these states. Amit Shah and Modi have identified West Bengal and Odisha as their next targets and the BJP plans to go for gold and dethrone the reigning deities.
However, the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” appears to be dominating the current political narrative. Barring a few tiny allies of the BJP, all major political parties have chosen “Minimise and Marginalise Modi”, even if it means compromising on ideologies and individuals. Modi’s foes are planning to revive the Utopia of Opposition unity, as it happened after Emergency, when the Janata Party trounced the once-invincible Indira Gandhi. The act was repeated at Chennai’s Marine Drive in 1988 when leaders from the extreme Left to the extreme Right posed for an era-defining photograph with hands clasped together, advertising their combined determination to defeat Rajiv Gandhi.
It appears that today, all anti-Modi forces have decided to convert E-2019 into a colourful stage of well-choreographed bonhomie. Sonia, Sharad Pawar, Karunanidhi, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu. KCR, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Pinarayi Vijayan and Siddaramaiah are coming together on a single platform to win the war of optics against Modi, who would be seen towering over just a few local pygmies. Leaders may rave and rant all they want, but ultimately the numbers will speak for themselves in the aggressive arithmetic of political possibilities.