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Division and disarray: BJP's strategy to hobble the Opposition

There can be little doubt that the failure of Opposition unity in the coming assembly elections does not portend well for chances of a united front against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election.

The Centre’s machinations may well have contributed to a fragmented Opposition in the three election-going states. However, it is important to ask: Can the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) help any government win elections? If they could determine poll results then no party in power would ever lose. So it is still premature to conclude that Mayawati’s decision to fight alone in the coming state assembly elections will set the tone for Opposition unity in 2019.

Mayawati’s importance may be limited to Uttar Pradesh alone. There the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP will determine the election outcome in 2019 rather than the Congress. The disenchantment of the Dalits, tribals and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) with the BJP is a pan-Indian phenomenon and angry Dalits have other options outside UP.

In the recent student body elections in colleges in Rajasthan, for example, nearly three-fourths have elected Dalit candidates; there is a mushrooming of Ambedkarite youth organisations and the emergence of a decentralised Dalit leadership. This development is as much of a potential threat to Mayawati as to the upper caste dominated parties, especially the BJP. Therefore, weakening Mayawati’s morale or limiting her degrees of freedom may not directly help the BJP to win the Dalit vote in the country.

As of now, it is not clear how much the Congress has been damaged by Mayawati opting to go alone in the state assembly elections. In fact, the BSP could suffer in the seat-sharing arrangements for the general election in these states if it does not post good results now. Moreover, Mayawati’s conciliatory statements about Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi seem to have left the window open for future negotiations for Opposition unity.

The BJP will do its best to close that window. It would like a multi-cornered contest. A divided Opposition will be crucial for it in three states – UP, Bihar and Maharashtra. They account for 167 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP had secured 143 in 2014.

The latest “ABP News-C-Voter” poll shows that if the Samajwadi Party, BSP, Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal come together in UP, the BJP may be reduced to just 24 seats out of 80. If the BSP and SP contest together but without the Congress, the BJP is expected to get 36 seats. If, however, the BSP contests alone, then the BJP can virtually repeat its performance of 2014 and get 70 seats. Therefore, it will be the BJP’s first priority to ensure that the BSP contests separately in UP.

Should a grand-alliance of the Opposition nevertheless come through in UP, the BJP is exploring other fall-back options. There is speculation that the party is encouraging Shivpal Yadav’s Samajwadi Secular Morcha to put up candidates in all constituencies in the state. His nascent party is also trying to ally with other smaller parties, including Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja Bhaiyya’s new party, expected to be launched in November.

In Bihar, there is speculation that the BJP may part ways with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) by December as some in the party believe that it will not be able to bring much in the Lok Sabha elections. However with the next generation leadership of Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) opposed to Kumar joining the Opposition’s grand-alliance, the JD(U) may have to contest alone. This will be to the BJP’s advantage.

Smaller parties such as Sharad Yadav’s Loktantrik Janata Dal, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and the Left parties are yet to decide whether they will join the RJD-led grand-alliance. There are other outliers in Bihar too; like Pappu Yadav and Sadhu Yadav, who could be used to mine the Opposition’s support base wherever they can.

In Maharashtra, prospects of a three-cornered contest have increased in some constituencies with the alliance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittahadul Musalmeen (AIMIM) and Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM).  This is not insignificant. The AIMIM has influence in Marathwada, Bhiwandi, Malegaon and some parts of Mumbai, while the BBM enjoys support in Vidarbha, Marathwada and Mumbai. In 2015, in the Aurangabad municipal elections, the AIMIM won 25 corporation seats, second only to the Shiv Sena. A year earlier in the state assembly elections, the party had won two seats and was placed second in three. An alliance with the BBM may give it a leg up in the Lok Sabha elections.

The BJP expects to make good any losses in UP, Bihar and Maharashtra, with gains in West Bengal, Orissa and the Northeast. In West Bengal, although the chances of a Congress-Trinamul Congress alliance are brighter with the removal of Adhir Choudhury as Congress president and the appointment of Somen Mitra, it would leave the Left parties to contest alone – resulting in a three-cornered contest. In Odisha, Jay Panda and Damodar Raut may oblige the BJP by forming a party to ensure a four-cornered contest in the state.

Multi-cornered contests would also be pursued in other states like Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In the Northeast, the BJP is forcing regional parties to decide on partnering with it for 2019 before this December, i.e. before the results of state election in North India are out.

Meanwhile, the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its front organisations of Sadhus are timing their Ram Mandir agitation to culminate in large-scale protests four months from now, to coincide with the Kumbh Mela and announcement of the general election. With the outgoing Chief Justice of India, clearing the way for a regular hearing on the land title of the disputed site, a judgment on the issue could come by that time. In the ensuing communal climate, the BJP’s chances of stealing a multi-cornered match might just increase.

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