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What early Lok Sabha elections will mean to PM Modi's BJP and Opposition

Astute political observers claim that Narendra Modi is not the kind of chaiwala who will close shop early – not until he has sold his last cup of tea. However, there is a renewed buzz about early elections. Although its plans remain impenetrable, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have begun preparations for the 2019 general elections in earnest. 

The arguments for holding simultaneous state assembly and an early general election are well known. The BJP would prefer not to face the general election in April-May 2019 after losing one or more of the states that go to polls this December. This scenario has been discussed to death and dismissed by many. 

But could the BJP leadership still surprise an inattentive Opposition? The longer the BJP waits, the worse things get for it. The party’s slide is faster than the fall of the rupee, which, having crossed Modi’s age already, is approaching Manmohan Singh’s age, to paraphrase the great communicator himself. 

So consider the following straws in the wind.

The traditional winter session of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly in Nagpur has been brought forward to a Monsoon session that will be held from 4th-24th July. Twice earlier, in1966 and 1976, such a move was followed by polls in the winter.

There is also a buzz that the BJP has begun making enquiries with private operators about the availability of aircraft. Apparently queries about hotel rooms in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities are also in progress as volunteers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh deputed for elections no longer like to stay at the homes of supporters.

Potential challengers to the great leader have also begun to be targeted. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was marginalised in the decision to impose Governor’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir. The vicious social media swarm attack against External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for facilitating the passport of a woman in Lucknow is another case in point. Next on the hit list could well be Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari.

The timing of the BJP’s pull-out from its government with Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party in J&K is strange and could also help prepare the ground for communal polarisation before the general elections. The roiling up of nationalist feeling by releasing a two-year-old video of ‘surgical strikes’ against Pakistan also makes sense only if it is to showcase Modi’s muscularity to the electorate. 

Another straw in the wind is the jostling to discuss seat-sharing in Bihar begun by BJP allies such as Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) and Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party. Perhaps they smell early elections.

These are a quite a few dots to connect. Although not definitive indicators of an early general election, they are pointers that the BJP is battle-ready while the Opposition is in disarray.

While BJP President Amit Shah has already held meetings on Lok Sabha polls in places as far apart as Uttarakhand and West Bengal, Congress leaders have been holidaying abroad. Three of its next generation leaders, including the party president and two worthies who come from states due for December polls, were on their de rigueur vacations in cooler climes abroad.

There is also a view that the prospect of an anti-BJP pre-election alliance is bleak and that it is much more practical and effective to have state-specific seat adjustment for direct contests with the BJP. But there are very good strategic reasons for forming a pre-poll national alliance.

Consider the possibilities if the BJP wins only about 150 to 180 Lok Sabha seats. 

The President could use his Constitutional discretion to appoint Narendra Modi, leader of the single largest party, as Prime Minister, giving him 15 days to prove his majority. 

Recent precedents in Parliament suggest that the government need not fall on the 15th day. On that day, the Speaker amidst din and chaos could either claim that the government had won the vote of confidence or not allow the motion to be put to vote day after day, citing the prevailing chaos in the House. This strategy was followed in the last session of Parliament to prevent the Opposition from introducing a vote of no-confidence against the government. After ‘failure’ to conduct an orderly vote of confidence, the Speaker could adjourn the House sine die. 

This would give the Modi-Shah duo extra time in hand to cobble up a majority. No one should underestimate the financial power of the BJP or the greed of our elected representatives. That the issue could be taken to court as well as to the street is another matter.

Could such an astounding scenario really unfold? Perhaps not. But it could be best avoided if the Opposition formed a pre-poll alliance. 

The easiest elements to pull together in an Opposition alliance are the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, Janata Dal (Secular), Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtirya Janata Dal, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. These parties have either worked together in recent elections or have made their intention public to contest the next general election together. This pre-electoral alliance, without declaring a prime ministerial candidate in advance, could easily emerge as the single largest group in the next Lok Sabha. 

This calculation leaves out some regional parties which would like to marginalise the role of the Congress through an alliance of their own. Mamata Banerjee wants to lead the regional alliance and is using Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Adami Party (AAP) to keep the Congress away. Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrasekhar Rao could swing towards the BJP after the election. Rao’s main contradiction in Telengana in any case is with the Congress. As for Navin Patnaik, although his main challenger in Odisha is the BJP, he might keep his options open at the Centre.

It is quite possible that given sufficient time, the contradictions between the regional parties and the national alliance which potentially already exists, may be sorted out. But a snap poll could leave an unprepared Opposition in tatters. 

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi

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