Indian political parties gear up for general elections

Indian National Congress Party workers attend the 84th plenary session of Indian National Congress in New Delhi on March 17, 2018.
Indian National Congress Party workers attend the 84th plenary session of Indian National Congress in New Delhi on March 17, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is having trouble with the exit of one ally and criticism from others in what analysts say is a sign of political parties gearing up for the 2019 general elections.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), run by Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, quit the alliance last week over the BJP's refusal to grant special status to Andhra Pradesh, which would include federal funding - opening a floodgate of complaints from other allies.

Longtime ally Shiv Sena, a party which has been restive for some time, said there was an "environment of distrust" with the federal government and has predicted the BJP will not win a majority in 2019.

Federal Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, leader of another ally the Lok Janshakti Party, said the BJP needs to mend its image among Dalits -the lowest Indian caste - and minorities and that BJP leaders should not speak out against these communities.

A BJP MP was recently quoted as saying that Muslims should leave the country.

The exit of the TDP and noises by the other allies does not destabilise the government as the BJP has a majority on its own in the lower house of Parliament.

Still, analysts noted that the ruling party would find it difficult to replicate its landslide win next year without the help of such allies.

 

"The allies are feeling uneasy. They are not very sure of how well the BJP will do in the elections next year. This is all positioning before the general elections," said Delhi-based political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

"In all probability, the BJP may not get a majority all on its own."

The BJP, led by Mr Modi, thundered to victory in the 2014 elections on a wave of popularity. It won 282 out of the 543 seats and had the majority to form the government on its own.

While it included allies in government and gave them ministerial berths, they have had little say in government or in the alliance.

Since 2014, the BJP has also continued to dominate the Indian political landscape with successive wins in state elections, most recently in the north-eastern state of Tripura.

Yet last week it lost two crucial bypoll elections for the lower house of Parliament in Uttar Pradesh on the back of an unusual tie-up between two rival regional parties -the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

One of the two seats was held by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

The defeat has fuelled further talk of alliances among opposition members, who have so far been unable to counter the BJP and the popularity of Mr Modi.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi indicated that the Congress is ready for alliances at a weekend plenary meeting where the party in its political resolution noted it was open for cooperation with all "like-minded parties".

Some regional parties have also floated the idea of a third front without the Congress or BJP.

Mr Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, chief minister of Telangana and leader of Telangana Rashtriya Samiti, on Monday told reporters that there is a need for "an alternate force".

Analysts, however, said that the shape of the alliances and whether Congress President Rahul Gandhi could emerge as a leader of an opposition alliance depended on three upcoming state elections including in Karnataka, which is ruled by the Congress, and BJP-ruled Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

"We did see in the 60s and 70s, non-Congress parties to come together and do something similar like this. Right now the Congress is no longer at the centre of India politics, BJP is and non-BJP forces are now coming together to form alliances," noted Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

If the Congress can retain Karnataka or win in other state elections, Mr Gandhi can emerge as important point of rally, he said.

"He is making the right noises but it is early days for opposition unity.''