It’s Advantage Opposition as India Stares at Epic Clash of Coalitions


The May 2018 bypolls result highlights the drastic change in poll math wrought by opposition unity. It also poses a challenge to both national parties. While the BJP must crank up its alliance quotient to take on the fledgling federal front, the Congress must ask itself whether it is giving away too much.

The final tally of NDA-2 and Opposition-2 in the Lok Sabha and NDA-1 and Others-11 in the Assembly seats does not necessarily presage the 17th Lok Sabha, but it does underline the fact that currently, the numbers are overwhelmingly in favour of a united Opposition. In the forthcoming epic clash of coalitions, it has the advantage.

The BJP’s loss in the Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll was a foregone conclusion. The party had wrested the RLD stronghold in 2014 only because the non-BJP votebank was divided. It had won the Noorpur Assembly seat in 2017 for precisely the same reason. Note to SP, BSP & Co: stick together, as if joined at the hip.

The Jokihat assembly seat, likewise, could have been called even before counting. The majority community is in a minority in this constituency. What’s more, the sitting JD(U) MLA had switched sides, become the MP and handed over his seat to his younger brother. Note to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar: Jokihat was a lost cause, but take a minute to weigh the strength of JD(U)-BJP’s upper caste-lower OBC/EBC combine against RJD’s minority-Yadav combo.

The triumph of the Congress-powered Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in the assembly seats of Silli and Gomia is a big setback for CM Raghubar Das, who had been lauded by the BJP’s central leadership for ‘development-oriented’ governance. Note to BJP: admit that ousting Babulal Marandi in 2006 and splitting his JVM in 2015 was a mistake.

The BJP retained the Palghar Lok Sabha seat in Maharashtra in the face of a strong challenge from the Shiv Sena. A divided opposition worked to its advantage. But it lost Bhandara Godiya to the NCP, which was backed by erstwhile MP Nana Patole (he had resigned the seat after skipping from BJP to Congress earlier this year).

The Palus Kadegaon assembly seat, it may be recalled, had already been ceded to the Congress nominee, after the Shiv Sena declared its support for him and the BJP withdrew from the contest. Note to Shiv Sena: rethink on divorce with BJP.

Nagaland’s lone Lok Sabha seat, which fell vacant after sitting MP Neiphiu Rio became chief minister, has gone to the NDPP’s Tokheho Yepthomi, rather than the Congress-supported Naga People’s Front candidate C Apok Jamir. But then, voters in the north-east generally sway towards the ruling party. Note to NDA: no cause for self-congratulation.

The Tharali assembly seat in Uttarakhand, where sitting BJP MLA Magan Lal Shah had passed away, was a direct contest between Congress and BJP. Given that the BJP had won 57 of the 70 assembly seats just last year, it was important for CM Trivendra Singh Rawat to pull it off and he did. The sympathy factor for Magan Lal’s widow, Munni Devi, robbed Congress nominee Jeet Kumar of his ‘jeet’. Note to Congress: there’s more to politics than riding on someone’s coat-tails.

The remaining assembly bypoll results were as expected. In Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh proved he retains his mojo by displacing the SAD from its bastion in Shahkot. The ruling Trinamool secured Maheshtala and in Chengannur, the CPI(M) trounced the Congress. In Meghalaya, former Congress CM Mukul Sangma’s daughter proved herself a chip off the old block by retaining Ampati.

The only silver lining for the BJP is the fact that it retained Palghar and in the event of negotiations with the Shiv Sena under the aegis of the RSS, it will be in a position of relative strength. In all other states, barring those where it is in a direct confrontation with the Congress, it cannot go it alone (Odisha is an exception). First-past-the-post has worked for the BJP in multi-party contests, but the altered ground situation demands a new strategy.

The Congress, for its part, seems content to play second fiddle to its allies. After giving way to the JD(S) in Karnataka, it gave Bhandara Gondiya to the NCP (although Patole had staked his claim) and both seats in Jharkhand to the JMM. It must take care to guard its own vote base, while accommodating the aspirations of regional players.

For the BJP, relying solely on the power of Brand Modi would be a mistake, because committed vote banks cannot be influenced in the same manner as floating voters. Also, the happy assumption that opposition unity will not hold over the next 10-12 months is a risky gamble.

Anti-incumbency against the Centre may certainly have played a role in the by-elections, but it was not the decisive factor. The consolidation of opposition votes at the level of individual constituencies did the trick. The message to the BJP is clear: exchange hubris for humility and win friends to influence voters.