An anti-BJP plank nurtured by the opposition parties in the name of fighting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tasted a big defeat in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.
Barely a week since 15 parties assembled in Patna in what was seen as the first official gathering to form an opposition alliance, the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) split. Pawar was a principal player in this effort to ensure a common nominee against BJP and NDA candidates in as many of 543 parliamentary constituencies to bring down BJP’s tally to less than 225.
The act of Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar, along with NCP stalwarts like Praful Patel, who is known to be very close to him, and former minister Chhagan Bhujbal, to join hands with the BJP has poured cold water on all such plans.
On July 2, Ajit, Bhujbal and seven other NCP leaders became ministers in the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra. Initially, Pawar did not appear to stop his nephew. But, egged on by daughter Supriya Sule, Pawar later came out against him and sought to assert his authority over the NCP even as Ajit made a counterclaim.
With more MLAs on his side, Ajit seemed to have gained control of the NCP apparatus while Pawar has vowed to fight back though neither his age nor daughter’s appeal among the rank and file appeared to be a big advantage. For all one knows, Pawar may compromise with Ajit and eventually declare support for Modi ahead of 2024. That is nothing can be ruled out if it comes to Pawar.
Nevertheless, there are two reasons, which can be discerned, behind the developments.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP looks more likely to repeat another term after the Lok Sabha polls though there are challenges in many States. There is little hope of the opposition parties coming with a viable alternative to the BJP.
Aware of this reality, Ajit and other NCP leaders were upset that, disregarding the wish of a majority of MLAs to align with the BJP, Pawar and his daughter favoured the moves of an opposition unity, which envisaged a big role for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as the undeclared face of the opposition.
Secondly, Ajit and other NCP leaders did not see any future in the Maha Vikas Aghadi, of which Pawar was the chief architect. That arrangement, which had seen Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister and was backed by the Congress, collapsed when Thackeray could not stop a large number of Sena MLAs joining hands with the BJP to successfully form an alternative Government under Eknath Shinde.
Dynastic regional or national parties can no longer hide behind the veil of an anti-BJP posturing or even an anti- Modi plank to further their narrow politics
Thackeray’s style of functioning, which earned the censure of even Pawar (in the latest edition of his autobiography), was thought to be a bad experiment even as a one-time Maratha strongman, as Pawar was known, kept engaging the BJP on the sly – in pursuit of an alternative arrangement, which his nephew decided to take forward.
It was Now or Never
Cut to 2019. For reasons best known to him, Pawar had scuttled a move that he had himself undertaken by engaging top BJP leaders to form a government after the Maharashtra assembly elections because pre-poll allies BJP and Shiv Sena parted ways on the issue of chief minister’s post.
Upset by Pawar’s recalcitrant approach, Ajit Pawar went ahead to get sworn in as deputy CM and Devendra Fadnavis as CM. However, the arrangement did not last as Pawar vetoed it and ensured none of the NCP MLAs backed the BJP though a majority of them favoured it.
Therefore, it came as no surprise that discussions between Ajit and the BJP were on for several months, with NCP legislators seeing no future for the NCP in 2024 under the unity of all opposition parties.
Ajit realised that it was a “now or never” moment for the NCP to back the Shinde-Fadnavis Government and even join it, even though the coalition was sufficient in numbers. Ajit’s confidence also stemmed from the belief that Pawar would, sooner or later, see the futility of continuing a “hopeless” arrangement with the Congress and a truncated Sena under Uddhav Thackeray, and back the PM’s leadership ahead of the parliamentary elections. Contrary to all speculations, Eknath Shinde is not quitting as CM. He was taken into confidence by the top BJP leadership, though Sena MLAs loyal to him remain worried about the entry of a NCP contingent under Ajit.
The consequences of this fallout are beyond Maharashtra, even pointers to the run-up to the next parliamentary elections in 2024. One thing that comes across very clearly is that dynastic regional or national parties can no longer hide behind the veil of an anti-BJP posturing or even an anti-Prime Minister Narendra Modi plank to further their narrow politics.
That’s because opposing Modi and the BJP for the sake of the opposition is no longer a viable or an attractive model. As shown by several opinion polls and surveys about the “mood of the nation”, a majority of voters across India are yet to lose confidence in Modi’s model of governance. Backed by an ideology and politics that considers development and national interest as non-negotiable terms for India’s growth story, Modi remains the best bet for these voters.
For all the sound and fury generated by an ecosystem, the Congress and its allies appear to have failed to re-engage a vast lot of Indians in their favour. An upset for the BJP or a win for the Congress in Karnataka or Himachal Pradesh seemed more of an exception rather than an indication of the shape of things to come before the parliamentary elections.
Next Round of Polls
With the next round of elections due in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana, the direct fight between the Congress and the BJP will definitely be put to test in at least three states.
In Telangana, it will be a three-cornered fight as Bharat Rashtriya Samithi leader and CM K Chandrashekar Rao works for a third mandate. Of late, a resurgent Congress in neighbouring Karnataka has forced KCR to reassess his friends and foes. Modi is back as “a friend” for him as he declared at a function in Nagpur recently.
The outcome of these elections are further likely to define the equations among the opposition parties who still hope for some kind of “unity of approach” to vanquish Modi.
In the case of the Congress winning a state or two, the other opposition parties will have to grapple with even more assertive Rahul Gandhi who is in no mood to relinquish his undeclared role in shaping an alternative against the BJP.
Can a Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal or a MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu take dictations from the Congress to handle the seat-arrangement in their states?
In fact, both the leaders have made it clear that it should be left to them to craft a victory against the BJP. As far as Mamata is concerned, she is in no mood to accom modate the Congress if it brings the Left along as a double barrel arrangement.
Already stung by the attitude of the Congress over the Central ordinance issue, Arvind Kerjriwal has realised that the best interest of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will be served by going it alone in Delhi and Punjab and elsewhere. He would rather not submit to Rahul Gandhi who calls the shots in the Congress though Mallikarjun Kharge remains its chief.
None of the other regional players – be it Naveen Patnaik (Odisha) and Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh) – see any advantage in trying to be friendly with the Congress, which remains a challenger in their states though it remains diminished to a great extent. N. Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP is more than willing to re-enter the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
As for the BJP, the latest developments in States like Maharashtra present a new opportunity to woo sections of voters like the Maratha community for maximising its Lok Sabha tally to take it to a record number. The impact of Maharashtra has even rattled a player like Bihar CM Nitish Kumar who was planning to play a pivotal role in putting together a plan for the opposition parties in the hope of being rewarded later.
His own party, the Janata Dal (United), is said to be under a convulsion because of no-win arrangement with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The more the RJD insists on a merger between the RJD and the JD(U), a new realignment could be on cards in Bihar soon. The BJP may not be able to hide its glee.