The stakes are certainly high as regional parties eye the general elections of 2019. With the Trinamool Congress out on the streets, protesting the arrest of its senior MPs and the Samajwadi Party hit by a Mahabharata between the brothers, uncles and nephews, the regional players are fighting for the larger share of political power in Delhi. Mamata Banerjee seems to have rekindled her fighting spirit and is out on the streets, something, which has managed to catapult her to the Chief Minister’s post in the crucial state of Bengal. Street protest has always been her forte and strength—something that the Centre cannot take lightly. She is bound to fight; the arrests have merely pushed her to the centre stage of the anti-BJP protests. The arrests couldn’t have come at a better time for her, when she is fighting what she calls the biggest anti-people drive launched by the Central government. The fact that demonetisation has caused hardships to the countryside and the poor adds substance to her claims and ensures her relevance as far as this debate is concerned. As long as it is a people’s war, there will no problem as far as popular support is concerned. After serving one and a half term as Chief Minister, Didi seems to be eyeing a greater role: she wants more power and wouldn’t settle for anything else. She sees her self as a potential alternative, a secular one to the BJP. No wonder she constantly claims to fight communal forces. This view resonates with her most crucial vote-bank, i.e. Muslims, who form a substantial electorate in Bengal. With the Congress not showing signs of any improvement, Didi is poised for a bigger role on the national stage.
In Delhi, the anti-corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal has paid huge dividends, for Anna emerged as a genuine anti-corruption crusader and Kejriwal as aam aadmi ki awaaz. Despite its controversies and failings, the Aam Aadmi Party has managed to remain relevant across many states and is a strong contender in two states that go to the polls in February. Politicians could take a cue from the statements of the Aam Aadmi Party. By taking the Central government head on, they have remained relevant in the political discourse, at times acquiring the political centre-stage. Didi is only following suit.
Akhilesh Yadav, on the other hand, is set for a bigger game. If 2017 is not his year, 2019 will certainly be, especially as brand Akhilesh is unchallenged and largely unscathed. His popularity can be seen across caste and class lines, and among all age groups. He is acceptable to prospective alliance partners and his moves so far have demonstrated political maturity and astuteness. His father seems to be fighting a losing battle, since it is Akhilesh that the people want to see. His disdain for Amar Singh and his uncle strikes a chord with people, who are fed up of backroom movers and shakers who do not command a solid base in UP but are at best armchair politicians. Again, we see the same trend that we are witnessing in Bengal, for an internal family feud is being branded as a fight against the communal forces. Mayawati is also fighting communal forces in the country by allotting a record number of tickets to Muslims. For Mamata, Mayawati and Akhilesh know one thing very well: nothing unites them better than the fight against communal forces. It not only sounds better, it is bound to pay political dividends. The Congress better ally with these “secular” parties if it hopes to remain relevant to the electorate. The Congress could gain from their local level party organisation, which it completely lacks and provide a breather for those who are not yet ready to forgive the party for the UPA-II scams.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Congress dominated the political system and the situation only changed in the early 1970s, with the split in the Congress in 1969 and the emergence of regional satraps who could challenge the Congress system. The regional players, whether it was muscle man Mulayum Singh Yadav, Kanshi Ram, Lalu Prasad Yadav, M.K. Karunanidhi and MGR or Sharad Pawar, to name a few, picked up regional issues, displayed an extreme opposition to the Congress system and captured their constituencies at a time when the Congress seemed to be weakening as a party organisation. The spurts of growth the Congress witnessed in the late 1970s and 1980s were due to the strong leadership of Indira Gandhi. That success was never replicated by either of her daughters-in-law.
Similarly, an ailing Karunanidhi, sensing an opportunity in the rapidly changing Tamil Nadu politics, has anointed his son Stalin to lead the party. This seems to be the best course to help Stalin consolidate himself and prevent an escalation of conflict between his two sons. The AIADMK is going to struggle in the post-Jayalalithaa scenario and Chinnamma Sasikala, her close confidant, lacks the fighting spirit of her predecessor or her political capital in Delhi. Undoubtedly, the power struggle at the regional level is important before the general elections of 2019.
If the elections in February 2017 are a dress rehearsal for May 2019, is too early to say. However, the importance of their outcome cannot be denied, primarily for the BJP. It is a crucial test for them to see if they have retained their vote share. If they slide downhill it would be enough for the opposition to cash in on the trend. This will not be a verdict on demonetisation alone; describing the outcome a result of just one factor is political naivety. It seems to be a fight for an alternative, a potent one.