BJP President Amit Shah has set a target of 350 seats for the party in the 2019 general election. He is gearing up the cadre for this fantastic task in right earnest. One cannot predict an electoral outcome 21 months in advance unless one is a soothsayer. Still, there is enough reason to take the BJP target seriously. A recent nationwide opinion survey rated Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a strong wicket and predicted a runaway victory for the NDA if polls were to be held now. But what both the BJP supporters and adversaries are watching more closely is the track record of the party since 2014 when it has hit many astonishing electoral victories in regions so far considered impossible.
To achieve the latest target, the BJP has to win big in states till now seen as impregnable for the party. Not only that, it also has to retain almost all that it has gained since the last general election. The Modi-Shah team has so far exhibited excellent marksmanship and political savvy in setting targets and achieving them. The team erred only in Bihar and Delhi, but the recent moves by the party have cancelled out even those temporary setbacks. In Bihar, the party's sole credible rival is today, after jeopardizing his own carefully cultivated grand alliance, in great camaraderie and bonhomie with the saffron brand. The municipal corporation elections in April in Delhi gave a chance to the BJP to substantially reduce Arvind Kejriwal's clout in the national capital.
On the face of it, the BJP alliance is invincible. The only one to challenge this formidable colossus is Rahul Gandhi who, of late, has become a cartoonist's delight. History, as we all know, repeats crudely. And a cartoon sometimes makes a better political commentary. A recent cartoon depicted the man who once sold tea as Prime Minister and the one who wanted to be Prime Minister opening tea stalls all over Karnataka. The reference is to Rahul Gandhi's announcement of Congress canteens across the state on the lines of the famous Amma Canteens in Tamil Nadu. Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar should be squirming for his ill-mannered 'chaiwala
' remark on Modi in the run-up to the 2014 polls.
The Congress tried, after a closely-fought Rajya Sabha win in Gujarat, to put up a show of opposition unity which again proved a non-starter for a number of reasons. The meet was not attended by Sharad Pawar and his party. Further, only some individuals from the Janata Dal (U) attended it with the party lock, stock and barrel siding with Nitish Kumar. The bigger challenge for the Congress is to sew up a credible alliance between itself, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh to put up a joint fight against the BJP.
With Bihar in the bag for the BJP, it is Uttar Pradesh that is proving to be the most fascinating theatre of action in the coming months for the opposition.
Another state where new and interesting twists are taking place is Tamil Nadu. Equally gripping political drama is being scripted with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Tripura seems to be the precursor. Here, all TMC MLAs joined the BJP, which is emerging the sole challenger to the CPM, replacing the Congress. A similar development is taking place in Bengal. In the recent local polls, it is true that the BJP emerged a distant second. But the real news is the total rout of the CPM and the Congress. Reports indicate that the BJP is emerging stronger and a section of TMC MLAs are hobnobbing with the BJP with a plan to desert Mamata.
The UP developments will be keenly watched. Mayawati, who resigned from the Rajya Sabha last month, is trying to put up a joint fight against the BJP in the company of the Samajwadi Party and the Congress in the dozen by-polls slated to be held next month. This will prove a crucial test of the Index of Opposition Unity against the BJP. UP had sent 75 NDA MPs to the Lok Sabha last time. The BJP improved further on this tally in the assembly polls three months ago. There are many states in the north where the BJP scored cent percent last time. These include Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal, Delhi, and in states like Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Haryana, over 90 per cent of the seats were bagged by the NDA. The total seats the ruling alliance got were 335, of which the BJP alone had won 282. In about 150 constituencies, the BJP stood second. If the party has to win 350 seats in the next election, the party has to maintain the tempo in the states where it got the maximum seats and gain more in states like Bengal, the North East, Orissa, Telangana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Between now and 2019, more parties are likely to switch sides and newer combinations can emerge.
The BJP is working towards getting new allies in all states where it is weak. This can lead to a larger NDA than that which existed before the 2014 election. The tremendous interest the party is taking in the developments in AIADMK, Trinamool, etc., are indicative of the new strategy of expansion. As of now, there are many parties in the opposition like INLD, BJD, TRS, AIADMK, etc who are closer to the NDA than the Congress. That these parties should gravitate toward the BJP in the run-up to the polls is a natural corollary. And so in the given situation, Amit Shah's intention to win 350 seats is no grandstanding. The moot point is: will this mood sustain till 2019?
The opposition believes the present euphoria is like the misperceived India Shining mood the that the BJP counted on in 2004. Their calculation is that the GST, demonetization and higher taxes that people are being forced to pay, coupled with the image of an intrusive regime, will make it difficult for the BJP to sustain its popularity. They bank on common Indian lethargy to change and a proclivity for corruption to deliver gains for the Congress. Modi on the other hand is banking on the desire for change, transparency, accountability and the pro-poor component in demonetization, GST and higher tax burden on the rich and well-to-do. The BJP will also gain from the Nitish factor and new tie-ups in the south. The game may not yet be over for the opposition. But the element of realism in Amit Shah's 350+ target is worth a thought. And a good study in mind games.
(Dr R. Balashankar is Member, BJP Central Committee on Training, and Committee on Publications and former Convener BJP National Intellectual Cell and former Editor Organiser
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