The results of the two recent Lok Sabha byelections in Maharashtra have thrown up interesting possibilities. In one—Palghar—the BJP pipped the Shiv Sena while in the other—Bhandara-Gondia—it was the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that proved the efficacy of the Opposition unity in trouncing the BJP.
While the Palghar victory is a rebuff to the Shiv Sena that has been proclaiming from rooftops that it will not fight any future elections in alliance with the BJP, the Bhandara-Gondia message is that the NCP may be a pushover by itself. However, in the present mood of the electorate and in the context of a combined opposition challenging the BJP, there is a dire need for the saffron outfit to wake up and come up with effective counter-strategy.
In effect, the people’s verdict in Bhandara-Gonda is a reminder that NCP founder Sharad Pawar could well be knocking at the door of the national stage. The biggest hurdle for the Opposition in the national sweepstakes is the absence of a credible leader with the right credentials to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Congress’ Rahul Gandhi is neither a crowd puller nor a strategist of consequence. That he would be unacceptable to some parties as a leader of the combined opposition is no secret. Mamata Banerjee may be a darling of the masses in West Bengal but her acceptability outside Bengal is minimal. Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati lack national stature. Nitish Kumar is under siege in Bihar and is in any case aligned to the BJP.
In the circumstances, Pawar could be a man to watch, with his vast political experience and proven administrative abilities. But he leads a small party and until recently was anathema to the Congress.
After the general elections, the choice could well fall on Rahul Gandhi with his mother Sonia Gandhi pushing hard for him if the Congress does exceptionally well in the elections but he would be like a babe in the woods with little longevity.
Not announcing an Opposition candidate to fight Narendra Modi for prime ministership before the elections would expose the Opposition as a motley crowd with little sense of direction. The battle would be lost for the Opposition even before it has begun.
The BJP’s problem is that while it could gloat over the Opposition predicament on the choice of leader, it is itself losing allies and unable to make new friends.
The lessons for the BJP in Maharashtra are no different from those elsewhere. A division in the Hindutva vote between the BJP and the Shiv Sena is doing the saffron brigade no good. While a good part of the blame for the estrangement between the parties is Sena’s intransigence and stiff-upper-lip attitude, the same can be said of the BJP. The ego clash needs to be averted but if rapprochement fails, the BJP must gear up for standing alone.
As for the NCP, there was a time that it saw merit in aligning with the BJP but seeing the mood across the country, it wants to try its luck in Pawar making a bid for prime ministership.
BJP’s defeat in Bhandara-Gondia had another lesson for it. It was the resignation of Nana Patole, the incumbent BJP MP who had joined the Congress last year that necessitated the bypoll. Patole was snubbed by Modi when he interjected on behalf of farmers while the prime minister was on a visit to the constituency last year. Mass leaders need to be treated with greater sensitivity by the BJP top brass. Patole is determined to contest against Union minister Nitin Gadkari in the Lok Sabha elections.
Another lesson the BJP needs to learn is to keep the dalits in good humour. In the recent round of byelections the dalits voted largely against the BJP. In the present state of politics, there is indeed no escape from pandering to an important vote bank like dalits.
The middle class too is drifting away with demonetisation, GST and now the continuing hike in petrol prices souring the pitch for the ruling party.