With the dramatic resignation of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati from the Rajya Sabha earlier this week, one more plank in the opposition strategy to take on Narendra Modi in 2019 is falling into place.
While it is fair to point out that the reasons for the resignation are flaky (she was allegedly not allowed to speak on Dalit atrocities), and also that the resignation was forced by the realisation that she does not have enough MLAs in Uttar Pradesh to get herself re-elected to the Upper House when her term expires in April 2018 (she has 18 MLAs, when the minimum required is 38), one can’t really hold it against a politician to time her moves according to her convenience. And let’s be clear. This is her attempt to revive her fortunes, and it fits in neatly into the opposition strategy of cornering the Modi government in Delhi and the Yogi Adityanath government in Lucknow on the Dalit issue.
Mayawati’s problem has been that Modi has been slowly eating her lunch, by getting some of the non-Jatav Dalits to shift allegiance from caste to aspirational politics. The elevation of Ram Nath Kovind to the presidency, and the steady wooing of Dalits by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) portended a further erosion in her Dalit vote base, and she needed to do something. The resignation will free her from being limited to narrow forum of Parliament, and become the cynosure of eyes wherever she goes to make her political points. She will be seen in Saharanpur, Una, or wherever there are Dalit votes to be wooed. We saw the media trailing Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi when they looked like potential rivals to the BJP; it will do the same with Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee.
The opposition is slowly discovering elements of the strategy that can ultimately roll back the Modi juggernaut in 2019, or at least deny the BJP a majority of its own.
The key elements of this strategy are the following:
One, cleave the Dalit vote away from the BJP, both by playing up anti-Dalit violence and rebuilding Mayawati as the bulwark against upper caste rule. Mayawati’s efforts to re-energise her vote bank will, at the very least, embarrass the Dalit leaders now on the BJP’s side, including Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party. And if she wins from any of the two Lok Sabha seats now set to fall vacant (Phulpur and Gorakhpur, which will vacated by K P Maurya, Deputy Chief Minister of UP, and Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister), she will regain her prima donna status.
Two, counter the BJP’s aggressive nationalism by stoking regionalism. This is what Banerjee is trying to do by taking a tough line on Darjeeling’s Gorkhaland protests, which has forced the rising BJP to stop in its tracks and show it is for Bengal, and not Gorkhaland. The same strategy is visible in Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah’s decision to fuel a Kannada language row, and demand a separate flag for the state.
The Biju Janata Dal, which has played the role of benign opposition so far, is breaking ranks with the BJP on the vice-presidential elections. This is partly because the BJP has been making gains in local body elections, and could pose a threat in 2019 to Naveen Patnaik’s dominance of the last 15 years. One can expect Patnaik to raise issues like discrimination against Odisha and tribal states shortly.
The piece that does not yet fit the opposition strategy is the covert war between Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Yadav’s RJD in Bihar. In theory, they should be able to accommodate each other’s ambitions, with Lalu Yadav willing to let Nitish Kumar be Chief Minister until 2019 and nurture his ambitions for a future role as prime minister in a coalition. Reason: any elevation of Nitish Kumar to Delhi means his son Tejashwi gets to be Chief Minister in Bihar. Nitish Kumar as prime minister will not worry Lalu Yadav for he can be brought down any time, like Deve Gowda was and like I K Gujral were during the United Front days of 1996-98.
Multi-party coalitions led by small parties seldom last. Nitish Kumar is a leader without a real strong support base, and his best bet is actually with the BJP, where he can be senior partner and retain real power. As Chief Minister in a RJD-dominated Bihar assembly, he can’t call the shots. This is at the root of the current standoff between him and Lalu Yadav over Tejashwi’s corruption cases. But the price he has to pay by siding with the BJP is a loss of the Muslim vote, and kissing goodbye to his prime ministerial dreams.
When the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav fight is finally settled, most elements of the opposition strategy in north and east India 2019 will be in place. We should see a mahagathbandhan, or at least clear seat sharing arrangements, in UP, Bihar, Assam and Haryana; but Punjab and Delhi will be tougher to pull off, for this will involve the Congress doing a covert or overt deal with the Aam Aadmi Party.
In West Bengal, Trinamool Congress will probably fight alone or with the Congress, Patnaik will fight alone in Odisha, and Congress will align with National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, while fighting alone in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress’ chances of returning to power needs it to do well in these states, and Karnataka and Assam.
The 2019 Lok Sabha polls will surely be an interesting contest of Modi versus the rest.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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