Masters of the jigsaw
Modi wave in ebb, the 2019 post-election scenario looks set for a surge of strategists, mediators and deal makers

The numbers game

In New Delhi, it is politics and politicking all 365 days. The air in Lutyen’s Delhi is always abuzz with talk of new alliances and formulations. Machinations and manipulation for grabbing power are beyond the grasp of even brilliant minds. With the next general elections not far — it could well be held as early as in November-December — political manoeuvring is getting an impetus. So is the excitement.

The fact that the ruling dispensations is on a sticky wicket only adds to speculation and presumptions. Possible permutations and combinations are anybody’s wild guess right now. The countdown to the  next Lok Sabha polls in fact started when the Karnataka assembly poll ended.

Strange as it may sound, even before the votes were to be counted in Karnataka, the whiff of a deal between Congress and JD(S) began to emerge. Never mind, the two bitterly fought the elections on different manifestos. A day after the polling, Congress chief minister Siddarmaiah talked about stepping aside in favour of a Dalit successor — the first indication of a fractured mandate. The drama had just started unfolding. JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy had flown to Singapore, reportedly for a medical check up, where the contours of an alliance with the Congress were worked out, far away from the intense media glare in Bangalore. Even before the last vote was counted, the Congress had declared full support to Kumaraswamy’s taking over as the next the chief minister. It was a move that stumped BJP chief Amit Shah, considered at least in outlandish 9 o’clock TV debates as the master tactician who left nothing untouched to taste success in polls after polls since 2014. For once, BJP was check-mated. And it was the harbinger for the political climate in the country. Sonia Gandhi reportedly had personally intervened speaking directly with HD Deve Gowda, the JD(S) boss. The idea was to keep the BJP out at all costs. That is the template of the index of opposition unity — Keep Modi and BJP out by structuring a grand anti-communal alliance.

In 2014, BJP-led NDA rode to power on an unprecedented Modi wave. As things stand today, it looks that the political wind is blowing in a different direction. Prime minister Narendra Modi is apparently slipping on the popularity charts with the opposition showing a strong and uncanny resolve to put up a united front. Political observers are unanimous that there is no clear sign of a wave, unlike in 2014. The possibility of a single party sweeping the Lok Sabha elections is diminishing fast by each passing day. In other words, the stage is being set for strategists, backroom operators, negotiators, mediators and of course deal makers.

The architect of the Karnataka operation was said to be none other than Sonia Gandhi whose swift action and perfect timing deprived BJP of any chances of assuming power in the southern state. Such deft moves will be called for on either side of the political alignment as the nation moves closer to general elections.

Far from the cool climes of Karnataka, away in the heat and dust of Uttar Pradesh a similar clever act was on display for the crucial Kairana bypoll.  Akhilesh Yadav of SP, Mayawati of BSP and Jayant Singh of RLD plotted a scheme. Jayant chalked out a master plan. Akhilesh and Mayawati lent strategic support. It was a Jayant show all the way, Akhilesh and Mayawati conspicuously stayed away from the campaign respecting the local sentiment that ensured en mass transfer of their vote base to the RLD candidate. The tactic worked to the script. BJP couldn’t retain Kairana and the loss hurt the party. It was a loss of face for chief minister Yogi Adityanath who had lost in his own backyard in Gorakhpur too. UP, which has 80 Lok Sabha seas, is central to BJP to 2019 plans.

The writing on the wall is clear — it is the season of  political deals. And the leaders are not averse to playing their games. However, for now, they are keeping their cards close to their chest. The  opposition looks set to go for the jugular. Modi and Shah are gearing up for repulsing the attack and turning it into an opportunity to return to power with comfortable margins.

States that need meticulous strategising
Aclose look at the states says the ruling BJP will need partners every where. Alliances would require hard, really hard, negotiations and deal making. Here is a take on the key states, where they stand in the electoral game plan, how the math breaks up and the key players there.

Uttar Pradesh: Most critical

As they say the road to Delhi is via Uttar Pradesh. The BJP swept Uttar Pradesh in 2014 riding on a frenetic Modi wave. SP, BSP, Congress and RLD were routed without a trace in the assembly elections as well. The BJP won a mammoth 312 seats and formed the government with the support of 325 MLAs, including those from allies. The SP got a mere 47 seats, BSP 19 and Congress 7 in the 404-member assembly. Smarting under the stinging losses, the opposition managed to turn the tables by joining hands. They wrested Gorakhpur and Phulpur assembly seats and Kairana Lok Sabha seat from the BJP in by elections. Modi-Shah duo now will be pitted against the combined strength of BSP’s Mayawati, SP’s Akhilesh, Congress and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). For the BJP, the hold over Uttar Pradesh is of paramount importance to come back to power at the Centre.

Political observers say BJP has already hit saturation point in the state and can only go downhill from here. The BJP will look for partners in UP to upset the opposition’s unity.

With its 70 seats, UP is key not just to BJP. The state offers SP, BSP, Congress and even RLD the perfect breeding ground as they look to increase their individual tally to augment their bargaining power in case a fluid situation emerges post-2019.

Bihar: Battle of alliances

Bihar will remain a hard nut to crack for the BJP. The victory of JD(U), RJD and the Congress combine in Bihar was the first experiment of forming a grand alliance to defeat the BJP. The Mahagathbandhan experiment was successful and showed the opposition the way. The collapse of the ruling coalition of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Prasad’s RJD after two years helped the BJP to sneak in. JD(U) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP are in alliance with BJP now and they rule the state. Seat allocation would be a stumbling block for the partners. There is already a jostling for space with JD(U) declaring itself as big brother.

Political circles are abuzz with rumours of Nitish staging another somersault to join forces with RJD-Congress combine. NDA has already lost a partner with Jitan Manjhi quitting the alliance. It will be alliances as the way forward for the 40 seats in what is one of the most backward states in India.

West Bengal: Green, saffron, red

The BJP is trying hard to make inroads in West Bengal. In the mind space of people, It has  occupied the position of the  dominant opposition to the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee. The two sides are fighting a pitched battle against each other from the streets to ballot papers. As of now. Mamata holds sway over the state. Trinamool holds most of the 42 LS seats. The BJP has a mere two MPs and three MLAs. It’s a long road ahead for the BJP in West Bengal.

The state, once the citadel of CPI(M) is, critical to the fortunes of the Left as well. Sitaram Yechury may go along with Congress in the state. He has won the battle with fellow comrade Prakash Karat on the party’s position on Congress. But for the party, it’s fingers crossed now, for Congress was the bigger beneficiary of the understanding between the two.

Maharashtra: Sweet and sour

Another key state where the BJP is in power. Politics has revolved around four parties — BJP, Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP. Relations are far from cordial between BJP and Shiv Sena. The BJP has 21 Lok Sabha MPs of 46. Shiv Sena has 18. The key question is will BJP and Shiv Sena go their separate ways or fight together in 2019.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar is already on record that NCP and Congress have agreed to join hands. Partnerships will be a decisive factor in this major sugar producing state. Yet another differentiator would be the support of Ambedkarites and Dalit organisations. They may well emerge as the new differentiator. In fact across the states, a new social engineering model of Dalits plus backwards plus Muslims may gravitate towards the opposition and provide them with the necessary heft. The Dalit vote bank may be the new emergent phenomenon in the next general elections. And the Dalit+Muslim vote bank a game changer. In both Bihar and UP, add the Yadav voters to this calculus and you may see a sweep in favour of the opposition parties. Dalit anger in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh will be another thing that pollsters will watch out for.

Karnataka: Test of time

Despite emerging as the single largest party in Karnataka, the BJP failed to form the government. It is the only southern state where the party has a sizeable presence. The going will be tough if the JD(S) and Congress manage to preserve their coalition in 2019. BJP has 17 MPs out of 28 in the state.

Changed scenarios
Regional heavyweights

Chandrababu Naidu

Much before Modi burst on to the national political scenario, Chandrababu Naidu had caught the attention of the nation as CEO-chief minister of the undivided Andhra Pradesh. His vision, efficiency and quick decision making — the same qualities attributed to Modi as chief minister of Gujarat — were hailed but sans cacophonic voice. To his credit, Naidu earned Hyderabad the sobriquet of Cyberabad. He even sparked a healthy competition between Hyderabad and Bangalore. His CEO qualities apart, Naidu is a mass leader too. In 2014, he was by Modi’s side but now they are  in opposing camps. Modi may not have as many trophies to showcase as Naidu has. His oratorial skills may not impress the Telugu speaking populace as much as in Hindi heartland. But it is still a battle of equals in Andhra Pradesh.

K Chandrashekhar Rao
Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, or KCR, has grown beyond the man who fought for the division of Andhra Pradesh. Starting as a Congressman and then becoming a member of Telugu Desam Party, KCR will now face his biggest electoral test when his term as the first chief minister of Telangana ends next year. He has already started testing waters regarding his popularity by conducting house to house surveys. If reports of these indicators are right, then he seems to be standing on a shaky wicket, facing a tough challenge from both the Congress and a rising BJP. At the national level, Telangana with 17 Lok Sabha seats has a sizable presence in Parliament. He is one of the few leaders who has been pitching for a non-Congress, non-BJP federal front. But after a recent meeting with Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi, the TRS leader has maintained radio silence on the formation of an opposition front.  At the state level he is accused by the Congress of siding with the BJP and vice-versa. He is also toying with the idea of holding early elections lending credence to the fact that there is speculation that he has got a whiff of Modi governemnt’s plan of holding Lok Sabha polls ahead of schedule.

Naveen Patnaik
After being in power for 18 years, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is perhaps facing his biggest political test. The state will see elections next year and the BJD is working overtime to stop former ally BJP in its tracks. The BJP has sounded the war bugle to unseat Patnaik who had successfully countered the Modi wave in the 2014 general elections confining BJP to only a single seat won by former union minister and tribal leader Jugal Oram. The BJP has returned stronger and with a purpose. Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan is at the vanguard of this attack and the BJP has sensed a real chance to add the state to its kitty. The BJP did well in Panchayat polls but BJD won the Bijepur by elections and registered victories in local bodies held by the BJP.  Patnaik is looking to halt Modi juggernaut once again in Odisha.

Pinarayi Vijayan
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has taken blows from the BJP on the chin. He is unfazed by the accusations that he is spearheading a violent campaign against the RSS and the BJP in the coastal state. It is only ironical that his firm ways of dealing with issues are often compared to Narendra Modi. The victory in Chengannur by-elections came as an endorsement of his two years in office. He is playing a key role in forming an anti-BJP front at the national level. During a visit to Delhi he supported AAP chief minister in his tussle with BJP appointed lieutenant governor.

Amarinder Singh
Punjab is one of the few states where the Congress still remains relevant. Captain Amarinder Singh led the party to form the government in the States defeating the Akali-BJP government. Singh had claimed that it was his last election but his stature in the party has grown tremendously despite an uneasy relationship with the high command. Singh 's victory run was extended as the Congress won by-elections in the state as well.  Punjab is the only state where the Congress is winning and Captain Amarinder Singh is the sole architect of this success. He works as a regional satrap having a strong mind of his own. He will play a greater role in delivering the state for the Congress in 2019.

BJP strategists

Amit Shah

As president of the BJP,  the responsibility of finding a winning combination in each state lies with him. His track record in winning elections has been excellent. Before the 2014 elections, the BJP had stitched together  a formidable front under the NDA umbrella. The party did so well that it crossed the majority mark without the help of the NDA partners. But the narrative has changed in the last four years and here the negotiating skills of Amit Shah will be tested more now than anytime earlier. TDP, a key NDA constituent has quit. Shiv Sena, the other big partner, is not happy with the BJP and has threatened to go alone. The ally trouble is brewing from Bihar to Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The main headache for Shah lies in Uttar Pradesh, a state that sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha. With the opposition parties deciding to bury their differences to beat the BJP,  Shah’s worries have increased. The BJP president who takes every election very seriously and has worked hard to expand the party’s influence across the length and breadth of the country, has still to find a code to break the alliance arithmetic. The recent bypolls have shown that the BJP finds itself on a shaky foundation against a united Opposition. The BJP is moving carefully and of the ways through which it can move forward is by exploiting the inherent contradictions in the opposition’s alliance. Prime minister Narendra Modi remains popular but his charisma is losing sheen. The mandate in 2019 may not be as spectacular as in 2014 when the Modi wave swept the nation. The deficit in numbers will be fulfilled by the partners. The BJP has snapped ties with People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir after the failure of the ceasefire in the politically sensitive state. This shows that one more partner has been dropped from NDA. The development will have repercussions at the national level as the parties are positioning themselves ahead of the polls. Shah has a team of able negotiators who have swung it for the party in the past.

Ram Madhav

The senior BJP functionary is the RSS hand who played a crucial role in spreading the influence of the party. He was the man behind the BJP-PDP joining hands to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir. He struck the deal with a party diametrically opposed to the BJP. It was no surprise that he announced the break up as well with the Kashmir partner. Apart from J&K, Ram Madhav played a key role in taking the saffron flag all over the north east. He made sure that the BJP has enough alliance partners to defeat the Congress and banked on the support of the regional parties to keep the Congress out of equation in all the states. The party succeeded in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram and Nagaland after unseating the Congress and  in Assam, the biggest state in the north east. Ram Madhav continues to be the man to watch and will be marked in 2019. He will play a key role in case the BJP falls short of numbers. He has been working in the northeast for quiet sometime and has developed good rapport with local leaders. His biggest strength is working behind the scenes and turning it in favour for his party.

Himanta Biswa Sarma

Ram Madhav could not have pulled off the northeast victories without the assistance of local strongman Biswas Sarma, an ex Congressman who made BJP a force to reckon with in the northeast. Biswas is confident that the BJP will win most of the seats in northeast in the next general elections. He worked painstakingly with regional parties to ensure systematically that the Congress is decimated. For years, the Congress has been a dominant party in the region with the Left ruling Tripura being an exception. He has been entrusted with the task of winning maximum number of seats for the BJP in the region. The party has set itself an ambitious target of sweeping the state leaving nothing for the rivals. It is working on the strategy of “Congress mukt” Northeast replicating its national slogan in the region.

Bhupender Yadav

The BJP MP is a trusted lieutenant of Amit Shah. He has been entrusted with crucial tasks and has risen steadily in stature within the party. He is also being seen as a crisis man and has defended the government on various issues in Parliament through his effective oratory. The leader is also known to play a significant role in back channel talks with other parties to sync them with the BJP’s objectives. He will also play a crucial deal maker role in the coming days.

Nitin Gadkari

The Maharashtra strong man is walking away with all the accolades for being the most efficient minister in the Modi government. He is being hailed for speeding up road projects and delivering highways with express efficiency. Beyond his public image of being a performer, the Union minister is a key handler of the tricky political situations. He has the blessings if the RSS and will play a key role in plugging the holes in the rocky friendship with ally Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. The BJP has been a dominant partner but going alone in the next polls may not be a wise strategy in a scenario where every seat is going to count. Gadkari can become a bridge between the two parties. Being a former BJP president, he understands the nuances of striking alliances very well. He proved his skills when the BJP formed the government in Goa despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party.

Kailash Vijayvargiya

The leader from Madhya Pradesh is close to the BJP president and is playing a key role at the national level. He is taking on the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal where the BJP is desperate to make inroads. He is also well versed with the Hindi heartland states.

Congress tacticians

Rahul Gandhi

With Rahul Gandhi positioning himself for prime ministership, he would need acceptance from all the parties in the opposition camp. There are already murmurs in the anti-BJP front over the leadership abilities of Rahul Gandhi. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee and TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu are more than happy to form a non-BJP, non-Congress front. The Congress is weakest at the moment and would need numbers for Rahul Gandhi to take control of the alliance. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejaswi Yadav has already hinted that Rahul is not a natural claimant for the top job claiming that the Congress president has competition. Rahul Gandhi will need the help of his deal breakers to break the ice and bring the allies under the Congress umbrella by accepting his leadership. The recent events in Delhi where the Congress stayed away from the call given by non-BJP chief ministers in support of Aam Aadmi Party to end the logjam in New Delhi are a case in point. The Congress is pitched against AAP in Delhi which has grown at the expense of the grand old party. The game will be swung for the Congress by its senior as well as upcoming leaders.

Ghulam Nabi Azad

The seasoned politician brings with him enormous experience in dealing with crisis situations and handling alliances. The leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha is well respected across the political spectrum. He played a crucial role in brokering the deal with Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka in what is being seen as a game changing move that brought the entire opposition together on a common agenda of defeating the Modi government. Azad is a Gandhi family loyalist and has not confined himself to his home state Jammu and Kashmir because he has instead looked to build a pan India presence. He is trusted by Sonia Gandhi who assigns her difficult tasks to him as a mature trouble shooter.

Ahmed Patel

The astute political advisor to Sonia Gandhi is still finding his feet in the party  now being steered by Rahul Gandhi. The old hand enjoys a comfortable relationship with leaders in other parties. He has been instrumental in dealing with Mamata Banerjee. He has been central to Congress scheme of things for many years and even Rahul Gandhi will need his services. He has vast experience that would be useful in 2019 when the Congress will need numbers as well as the partners. For the party, Gujarat will be a crucial battleground where it came close to beating the BJP in the last assembly elections. Chinks have already surfaced in the BJP government in the state and a leader like Ahmad Patel can make a difference for the Congess. In the eventuality that the Congress manages to rack up 100 plus through its performance in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, MP, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka; then someone like Ahmed Patel will be a centrifugal force who will bring the glue to cement a big opposition bloc. In many ways this election may well be reminiscent of the 1989 polls where the Congress despite being the single largest party stayed out of power only to see a VP Singh led National Front form the government backed by BJP and Left Front. Of course this govt collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

Key regional negotiators

Ram Gopal Yadav

The Samajwadi Party leader is close to Akhikesh Yadav who is the central player in forging a grand alliance of the opposition against the BJP. For him, Ram Gopal Yadav is the backroom player who holds talks with the leaders of other parties. Akhikesh did a coup of sorts by aligning with BSP's Mayawati and the two leaders kept the deal secret to surprise all. The partnership between SP and BSP has been one of the most important political developments. He will play a key role for the SP to keep the alliance intact in the next election. For the moment, the top leadership is making all the right noises , it remains to be seen if the partnership can hold considering the odds and an acrimonious past. He is one man who will be much watched in the days to come.

Dinesh Trivedi

After falling out with Mamata Banerjee, this suave politician from Trinamool Congress is back in the reckoning. He is playing a role at the Centre where the TMC is at the forefront of forging an alliance against the Modi government. He has been representing Mamata at various opposition forums in the national capital carrying her message and her  mandate to bring the parties together. He has become her voice, eyes and ears in the political circles of Delhi which has been witnessing hectic activities in an election year.  The Mamata Banerjee government is facing a tough challenge from an aggressive BJP looking for making inroads into West Bengal. Trivedi is working on the math to deliver a pre election opposition with the requisite numbers to form the govt. This govt may well end up with Yashwant Sinha as the PM with other disgruntled BJP leaders like Arun Shourie and Shatrughan Sinha joining it.

Pawan Verma

The JD (U) face is also well versed with the politics of Delhi. Despite the JD (U) entering an alliance with the BJP,  Verma has not hesitated in criticising the Modi government on various issues. With JD(U) showing signs of discomfort with the BJP, Verma will be Nitish Kumar’s point person in knocking the doors of the opposition alliance. The former diplomat is articulate and enjoys good rapport with leaders across the political spectrum.

Columnist: 
Gautam Datt