2019 countdown is on: Exit, entry doors open

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leaving the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is politics as usual, and anyone pretending that it is either serious or unprecedented is being dishonest or foolish, or both. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, every party will recalibrate its position, and the TDP is doing it, but so is the BJP. The demand for the special category status for Andhra Pradesh is a pretext, though a genuine one at that. The technicalities are important, and the contention of the Andhra Pradesh parties, including Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s Yuva Sramika Rythu Congress (YSR Congress), and the defence of the BJP make sense as well. But no one is interested in sorting out the issue. It should not matter if Andhra Pradesh gets the financial assistance it needs even if the special category status is not used. And it does not matter if the BJP government takes the decision to grant the special category status to all the states — such as Bihar and West Bengal et al — who are demanding it. But solutions do not matter to political parties when they have to fight elections.

It is quite easy to predict the future trajectory of Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu going the way of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, leaving the NDA at the time of the election, and getting back to it later. A post-2019 Lok Sabha poll will be worked out between the TDP and BJP if the BJP retains its pole position. The NDA appears to be unravelling as it did in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Even at that time, Ram Vilas Paswan was the only one who had walked out of the alliance. Others stayed back, including the TDP. 
Mr Naidu had second thoughts about the NDA only after the defeat. And he did not come back till 2013. There has always been a clash of interests between the TDP and the BJP in Andhra Pradesh.  A long time ago, then BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu had told this writer at the time of the passing of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao, who was disowned by Chandrababu Naidu and the others in the party in 1995, that the BJP would have emerged as a party to reckon with in state politics had not NTR and his TDP emerged in 1982-83. And in 1995, he again expressed the hope that the BJP would grab the opportunity. It failed to do so, of course. The BJP feels that it is being thwarted by the likes of the TDP, and that the TDP is benefiting from the BJP-led coalition government at the Centre. 

This time too, the struggle on the ground is for a BJP struggling to shake off its tutelage to the regional party. The BJP had succeeded in throwing off the dominance of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. It wants to do the same in Andhra Pradesh, and BJP president Amit Shah is focused on extending the footprint of the party. The TDP is forced to fight off the political encroachment of the BJP. And it is likely to succeed as the BJP does not have much of a foothold in the state. It is same fear that triggered the exit of Nitish Kumar in Bihar from the NDA in 2013. The BJP is in a weaker position because a key regional ally like the TDP is abandoning the ship, or that another regional ally, the Shiv Sena, is flexing its political muscle. The BJP has lost its sheen in the last three years and nine months (May 2014-February 2018) due to various acts of omission and commission by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The Prime Minister is not any more the mascot of the party and of the government as he had appeared to be in the first three years in office. The rhetoric of the Prime Minister, which was energetic and refreshing in 2014 and 2015, has flagged and it is sounding hollow. The government’s lacklustre performance on the economic front has disenchanted and disillusioned many of those who had enthusiastically voted for Mr Modi in 2014.

It is against this background that the Congress seems to be on the comeback trail, that party president Rahul Gandhi appears to be a serious leader with energy and purpose. The repositioning of the Congress as the voice of an alternative national party is a corollary to the BJP slipping from its dominant position. The Congress is occupying the mindspace that the BJP has been forced to vacate. It is not necessary to ask whether Rahul Gandhi and his party have a meaningful alternative national agenda. In the political see-saw, parties gain an upper hand without bringing anything new to the table. In 2013, Mr Modi had made exaggerated claims as to what he would do to transform the country. The Congress, which has a better perception of political reality, will not offer an utopia. 

It will content itself with policy tinkering. The Congress will appear as a party to turn to for the voter who is unhappy with the Modi government, and who is looking for a change. That does not make the Congress a better alternative. But the lack of virtue is not going to hurt the Congress’ electoral prospects. What Mr Modi,  Mr Shah and the BJP will have to recognise is that people are not enamoured of ideology, and they show no partisan preference when they judge the performance of a government. The people are quite fair and impartial when they choose a party that will govern them. The BJP had benefited from this sense of fairness in 2014. And it the same sense of fairness of the people that will affect the political fortunes of the BJP in 2019. All that  Mr Modi, Mr Shah and their tribe can do is to take it on the chin and bear it with a grin.

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