It is really too early to start crunching numbers for 2019, but it is becoming clear what the main pegs on the chessboard are.
As much as we political nerds might wish, the public isn’t always thinking about elections. Right now, they are in a state of flux, evaluating the performance of their government, talking to their neighbors, trying to see if they are better or worse off than before. Of course, in the final six months, the election will “break” decisively in favor of one party.
So at the moment we can only get a sense of what are the big pieces on the board and which pieces to control.
In reality it is not two but three states that hold the key to the election : Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. I didn’t include Gujarat in the headline because BJP is sure to dominate the state in 2019.
Here are the basic numbers :
UP (80 seats)
Maharashtra (50 seats)
Gujarat (27 seats)
If the numbers look wrong, that’s because I am counting the two Goa seats with Maharashtra and Diu seat (which is a union territory) as part of Gujarat.
Together, this adds up to almost 160 seats. For Modi, this is where the foundation for 2019 will come from.
Right now, the BJP is sitting on nearly 125 of these 160 seats. A repeat or even near repeat of this performance, say even 105 of these 160 seats will almost guarantee a Modi government in 2019.
Of course Modi and Shah are looking after Gujarat directly. Not much to worry there. Ultimately, the prestige of having a PM who is so closely identified with Gujarat will prevail over incumbency issues.
Let’s look at Uttar Pradesh now. After the historic 3/4 majority in March this year, it seemed that a Mahagathbandhan would be formed immediately. When Yogi Adityanath was pushed into the CM post (ahead of Keshav Maurya), I said that it was a desperate move. The upcoming Yadav + Muslim + Jatav mahagathbandhan left BJP with no choice but to clearly pit the 80% vs the 20%.
Six months later, there is no sign of the mahagathbandhan. Mayawati tried to make a splash with a dramatic resignation, but she has achieved little more than receding further into oblivion. On the ground, Akhilesh Yadav has proved to be at least 10 times more listless as an opposition than I expected. He still seems to be licking his wounds, unable to recover from the scale of the defeat.
As a dynast, Akhilesh is likely inherently lazy. Whatever Mahagathbandhan they are working on, I see nowhere near the energy nor the urgency that two self made leaders: Laloo and Nitish showed in Bihar.
This does not mean that a grand alliance won’t be formed in UP, just that Yogi is facing a slightly easier battle than I expected.
The other state that is going absolutely great for BJP is Maharashtra. Fadnavis seems to have put himself very firmly in the saddle. One must remember that BJP was a perennial number 4 in Maharashtra … and the ride to No. 1 has been a long one. Especially considering the nature of Maharashtra : power in the state has always been held by satraps at the very local level … and the one who rules from Mumbai is the one who can secure the loyalty of maximum number of these feudal lords.
It is with this in mind that BJP has worked constantly to “dissolve” NCP within itself at the grassroots. This is mostly about talking to the local feudal lords and offering them a deal they can’t refuse.
I know that many BJP supporters will be disappointed with the inclusion of Narayan Rane. But that’s politics. He brings with himself multiple pockets of support in Konkan region. Every additional vote in Maharashtra matters now, especially because we simply can’t count on the Shiv Sena.
Ever since 2014, Fadnavis has been on a mission to win local elections and has done exceptionally well in this. He won 9/10 of the cities earlier this year and made BJP the number 1 party in Zila Parishads. There was some hope on the secular side that the BJP would struggle in rural Maharashtra, but the Gram Panchayat results have poured cold water all over that.
But pockets remain. Today as I write, the BJP has been beaten black and blue in Nanded, the den of Ashok Chavan. I think the results turned out something like Congress 58 and BJP 2. Yes, Nanded is like another Amethi, only worse because Nanded has a huge Muslim population. But it shows that pockets remain where the Congress is just as strong as it was 50 years ago.
It is nearly impossible to predict an election 18 months in advance. But it is generally easy to identify the “dominant” player. We cannot say with certainty who will win an election on a given day, but we know who will win more “on average”. From independence till 2014, the Congress always had more MLAs in state assemblies than BJP. Yes, the Congress lost some elections, but we know they always dominated.
Like a game at the casino. We know that in the long run, the casino always wins. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good day when you win at the casino.
18 months before the Lok Sabha polls, it is too early to count seats. The strategy has to be focused on denying the Congress a chance to become “dominant”. Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have always been the Congress’ 2 “reservoir states”, which gave them a respectable number of seats. The Congress is already finished in Andhra Pradesh. If Fadnavis can blank them out in Maharashtra, the Congress will never be dominant player in Indian politics again.