As a thumb rule of Indian politics, the fourth year of any government begins the countdown to win the next general election. All political parties start viewing each other’s moves with suspicion and every political manoeuvre aims to gain maximum political mileage. As such, both the opposition and the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are gearing up for a no-holds-barred battle.
Historically, there have very few exceptions to this thumb rule. Most of them have related to challenges that an incumbent government was facing or when it opted for an early election on the hope of getting a fresh mandate. The best-known instance was Indira Gandhi’s decision to go for a mid-term election in 1971 as she faced a daunting challenge from her powerful rivals.
In 1969, Mrs Gandhi had split the grand old party, the Congress. She was dependent on a section of the Communist Party and the regional Dravid Munnetram Kazhgam (DMK) to run a minority government at the Centre. It was an uphill task. The Supreme Court struck down her moves to nationalise banks and abolish privy purses. She also faced reverses in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. The abolition of privy purses was defeated by one vote.
However, today’s political landscape is placid and no stormy trends are visible. Even so, in recent months, the Modi government has moved in a manner as if general elections are around the corner. The government would be completing three years in office later this month and has shown robust electoral gains in the regional elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party is unlikely to face rough weather in political battles in the coming 18 months.
The results of presidential and vice-presidential elections later this summer are a foregone conclusion. BJP nominees are all set to win both the top constitutional posts even if there is a combined opposition challenge. Of course, many in the opposition see a combined candidate against NDA nominee as the first step towards putting up a united fight against Modi in 2019.
However, bringing non-BJP parties together is a difficult task as most of them have cut their teeth in anti-Congress politics and will find it difficult to give up the idiom of the past. Moreover, the political support base of many parties does not gel and a situation like a Nitish Kumar-Laloo Yadav alliance in Bihar may not materialise.
Even uniting former Congress groupings like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Trinamool Congress requires a major initiative by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. While addressing concerns of one-time Congressmen, the Congress president has to field a candidate acceptable to other groups as well. Many may not be comfortable working under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
Modi and his confidant, BJP president Amit Shah, have made sweeping changes in the party structure and built completely new leaders in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Similar trends may be visible in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which will go to polls in the coming 18 months. A clear trend on Modi-Shah thinking will be available when the party reorganization and Cabinet reshuffle is undertaken soon after the election of the President of India next month.
The Prime Minister had changed the electoral landscape in the 2014 general elections and may be upstaging the opposition again by going into election mode relatively early in his term. The time has come for the opposition to re-invent itself with a new leadership and a new language of discourse. Otherwise, Modi and Shah will set the agenda for 2019 and outpace the non-BJP parties once again.