“The throne of India sits in Delhi…the gilded pedestal of Indraprastha has been the most coveted prize by leaders from India’s 29 states and seven Union Territories,” said journalist Ravi Shankar.
Beginning tomorrow, approximately 900 million Indian voters will begin to vote in the world’s largest democratic exercise to elect the country’s 17th prime minister. Significantly, 2019 marks a contest not just between the national leadership of the BJP and the Congress, but also between a new legion of strong regional aspirants for 7 Lok Kalyan Marg.
Unlike the regional stalwarts of the late 1990s and early 2000s like the Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, or Sharad Pawar of Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu’s ex-chief minister late J. Jayalalithaa, the non-Congress, non-BJP space is dominated by a new cohort of leaders such as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, BSP supremo Mayawati and Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao among others.
Dalit powerhouse Mayawati
Mayawati, the undisputed leader of the BSP, is stepping up as a rallying force with a credible and solid Dalit vote bank in north India. Over the last two decades, the four-time chief minister of India’s politically most important state has positioned herself as a strong leader against the political clout and hegemony of leaders of the Yadav clan in the Hindi heartland. While she failed to win a single parliamentary seat in 2014, the vote share of her party has remained fairly constant over the years with a negligible shift in her core voter constituency.
Following the disastrous performance in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, several parleys and negotiations led to her aligning with her nemesis, the Samajwadi Party (SP) for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The two parties have decided to contest on 38 seats each out of the total 80 Lok Sabha seats, and left two for the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a junior partner in the coalition. The alliance, successfully tried and tested in the by-poll elections in three key constituencies in the state, bases itself on the twin principles of simple caste arithmetic and addition of individual party vote shares. Theoretically, the distribution of seats as per the coalition arrangement works effectively in the state’s six regions as their strongholds do not overlap. Secondly, with the generational change in the leadership, the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav is much more accommodative and pragmatic as opposed to his father Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The coalition, touted as “rare, formidable and perfect,” holds immense political significance for two reasons. First, it is a major threat to the BJP’s political fortunes in the most crucial state, which accounts for nearly 15.75% of the total strength of the lower house. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spectacular performance in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 catapulted the BJP to a majority in the Lok Sabha. No wonder, the BSP-SP combine is key to the electoral fortunes of India’s future prime ministerial aspirants.
Secondly, and consequently, the political truism of Indian elections that “the road to Delhi passes through Uttar Pradesh” makes Mayawati a political stakeholder in the 2019 general elections.
The Iron Lady of Uttar Pradesh and an icon of Dalit-Bahujan political and social mobility, Mayawati’s strategic alliance with the SP marks the shift of battlegrounds from the presidential national level to the federalised state level. By pitting local caste chemistry against overarching personality wars between Modi and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati has placed herself as a credible and winnable alternative in the opposition camp.
Bengal’s chief minister eyes Delhi
The “historic blunder” of the 1990s, when the Communist bloc denied ex-Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu the opportunity to become the Prime Minister of the United Front, led to two consequences for regional forces in Indian political history. One, the possibility of stability among regional third front forces became a distant dream with the subsequent collapse of the United Front under weaker leaderships. And two, it disallowed a prime ministerial nomination from West Bengal, dealing a blow to regional pride and the strengthening of Bengal’s federal stance.
Almost two decades later, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of India’s third most crucial state (42 seats), is nurturing her prime ministerial ambitions. A seven-time MP, three-time Union cabinet minister and two-time chief minister, Banerjee has been one of the most vocal voices in the opposition camp against the Modi-led BJP. From criticising the cash ban to vociferously railing against Assam’s National Register of Citizen exercise to staging a sit-in demonstration against the questioning and imminent arrest of the Kolkata police commissioner as an assault on federal rights, Banerjee has shown her political acumen and courage at taking on the Modi-Amit Shah duo in the state and nationally.
Most importantly, Banerjee has been courting several regional leaders with intent to shore up support for a federal front. She has been voicing support for regional leaders like Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, while projecting herself as the most senior leader in the federal matrix. More than 20 opposition parties attended Banerjee’s mega opposition rally in Kolkata, including three sitting chief ministers—Kejriwal of Delhi, N. Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and H.D. Kumaraswamy of Karnataka.
According to political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, “It is well known that everyone is in the fray as a possible prime ministerial candidate…Didi, as the most aggressive advocate of this union if not its engineer, is understood to be laying the biggest claim.” With 34 seats in the present Lok Sabha and a vote share of 39.35% in her state, Banerjee seeks to make the most of her iron grip in the eastern state and stake a claim for the prime minister’s position in case of a hung parliament.
The southern challenge
Perhaps the only southern leader to actively pursue national dreams, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, or KCR, made history by storming back to power in Telangana with an impressive and decisive victory in the assembly elections of 2018. His party, credited with leading the movement for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and the formation of Telangana, won 88 of the 119 seats in the state, clocking 46.9% of the total vote share in Telangana.
With his victory, KCR announced, “I wanted to finish this election and look into the national scenario…I want to contribute something to the nation.” Although a far claimant to the top post, KCR is considered a “political craftsman, a blend of abrasiveness and accomodation, could well seek greater space for himself in national politics should a non-BJP, non-Congress front materialise amid growing aspirations of regional satraps eyeing a piece of New Delhi’s power pie.” KCR has, in the past, met with key leaders of the opposition, including former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal (Secular) and Banerjee. However, with the bifurcation of united Andhra Pradesh and the division of seats in the southern state, leaders of the Telugu region hold little sway over national politics. With a mere 17 seats in Telangana, the negotiating bid for the TRS is limited even if it wins a majority of the seats in the state. It remains to be seen whether KCR can materialize his ambitions of being the leader of a non-BJP, non-Congress front or play kingmaker.
The road to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg
According to veteran journalist and psephologist Prannoy Roy, the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 are “not just a national election, but a federation of states election.” Based on the present pre-poll alliance structures, the vote share of the NDA, the UPA and the regional front, according to the 2014 results, amount to 39.21%, 26.08% and 27.8% respectively. With the BJP seat tally most likely to come down in the Hindi heartland after having achieved the electoral pinnacle of 2014, the vote share of the political blocs assume tremendous significance. Major post-poll electoral configurations may be defined by the strength of the parties and alliances to retain their vote share or increase it, and convert them into seats.
The regional parties and their leaders have harnessed national ambitions for a long period of time. The top spot has been taken by either the Congress or the BJP for the last two decades based on their electoral superiority. However, in the choice for leadership in a non-BJP dominated political space and a weakened Congress, this new legion of regional leaders may very well pluck the plum post.
Avishek Jha is a 2018 Young India Fellow, and is currently a Programme Fellow with Academe India.