Expert Speak India Matters
Published on May 23, 2016
2019 polls: A 'third front' in the making, all over again?

It may be too early for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but a closer look at the four state Assembly polls now may be an indicator of the shape of things to come. The current results indicate no trends per se, which could be a guiding principle for the future. Yet, the possibility of the emergence of a ‘third front’ at the national level, after the experiment/experience of the nineties, cannot be ruled out either.

The immediate temptation would be to see the four state polls as the continuance of an ‘anti-Congress’ vote of 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It’s only half true. If it’s interpreted as an ‘anti-incumbency wave’, as it should be in the case of Assam and Kerala, then the loss for the Congress is not necessarily a larger gain for the ruling BJP-NDA more than what is visible.

Not much difference

In Assam, for sure, the loss of the Congress has been a direct gain for the BJP. It was visible even during the Lok Sabha (LS) polls. The BJP’s LS tally already includes a substantial share from the state, and further improvements in seat share may not have much difference to the total score.

In Kerala, however, it’s not the truth. The BJP has opened the account in the State Assembly this time, but the loss to the Congress has been a gain to the real rival, the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). Unless the BJP is able to build upon the percentile gains of the Assembly polls and convert them into seats, the next LS polls may not make any difference to the anti-BJP plank from the state.

In the recent past, including the LS polls, the BJP in Kerala used to be seen as cutting into the Left’s vote-share, but this time round, this does not seem to be the case. To an extent, the BJP’s 10 vote-share has come from the Congress, but much of the latter’s loss has gone to the LDF, which is again not on talking terms, with the BJP, if at all it was any, after the ‘V. P. Singh polls’ of 1989.

Incumbency advantage

It’s in the other two and relatively bigger states that ‘anti-incumbency’ has failed to click this time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated both Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, even before the trend became very clear. The results, if any, proved that the BJP fared badly in both states.

The ‘disadvantage’ for the Congress thus did not really translate into perceptible ‘advantage’ for the BJP long ahead of the LS polls in 2019 — whatever the perception and interpretation. Both the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal are anti-Congress, non-BJP in nature, or anti-Congress, anti-BJP in nature, this time round.

It’s one thing for the two women leaders to support the Modi government in parliamentary votes, on issues. It is another thing for them to be seen as aligning with the BJP-NDA in future elections in their respective states, or work with the BJP, post poll, either.

The less said about the losing rivals of these two parties in the respective states, worse maybe for the BJP. The Congress rival of the BJP at the national-level was already an ally of the losing DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Left Front in West Bengal.

The DMK may have lost out heavily in seats allotted to the Congress this time, but it does not flow that the party could drop the national ally for the LS polls, or align with the BJP, if it came to that. The situation does not change, post-poll in 2019, at least not just now.

Nineties’ precedent

It’s the kind of precedent that was evident in the early nineties, ahead of the 1996 Lok Sabha polls. The writing was on the wall that a non-BJP, non-Congress government would come up, with the ‘outside support’ of one of them, depending on the exact numbers, but neither saw or read the same.

It was the same case in 1998, and later on in 2004, but with the premise in the latter case that an alliance of ‘regional parties’ could survive longer only under the stewardship of one of the national parties. It was the case for the BJP in 1998 and more so in 1999.

On both occasions, the BJP was short of numbers, but as leader of the NDA, readjusted between the two polls, the combine survived and prospered, but only up to a point. Elections-2004, after NDA partners, as the DMK-PMK-MDMK combine in Tamil Nadu, discovered that even Vajpayee’s moderate leadership did not have ‘transferrable votes’ for them.

Election mode

It may thus be too early to talk about Elections 2019, but the Bihar Assembly polls last year, and the four state polls just now may have send out confusing signals to the national polity. Rather, it seems to be a reiteration of the regional alternative to a national party where one is available, or a swapping of place between two national parties.

The nation seems to be already on ‘election mode’, far ahead of 2019. This would mean that at the end of two years in office, the ruling BJP-NDA at the national-level, and PM Modi in particular, are to tune themselves even more to the demands of campaign strategy in other states that are due to have Assembly polls between now and 2019.

The list would include almost every other state, big and small, where Assembly elections have not been held since Modi became PM in May 2016. Included in the list is Uttar Pradesh, with the single largest poll of MPs in the Lok Sabha.

If anti-incumbency works in UP and Karnataka, where Congress is in power just now, at least the assumption has to be that it could work elsewhere too — and the Congress ‘rival’ might be the gainer. That should include the BJP-ruled states, as also those ruled by BJP-friendly parties like the TDP in Andhra Pradesh.

It’s in this context that Odisha’s BJD chief minister Navin Patnaik’s congratulatory call to Tamil Nadu’s Jayalalithaa, soon after PM Modi’s own to her, needs to be viewed — and reviewed in the months and years to come. All of it means that the BJP would need to retain the states that it is now ruling, if not take gains from national and regional adversaries, to stay the course or closely so in 2019, too.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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