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View: 2019 polls are all about consolidating the anti-vote

While in UP, the effort of the Gathbandhan is to consolidate the vote against Modi, the BJP is trying to do just the same in Odisha and West Bengal.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 05, 2019, 11.30 PM IST
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Modi-polls
For an election meant to be an incumbent’s campaign to seek another term, it’s quite intriguing to note the focus almost all parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have laid on devising strategies to consolidate the ‘anti-vote’ – essentially, the voters who cast their lot against the ruling establishment.

Three clear examples stand out – Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha. While in UP, the effort of the Gathbandhan is to consolidate the vote against Modi, the BJP is trying to do just the same against Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha.

In many ways, this has been one of the underlying themes of this general election, felt across all seven phases as these also happened to be the states where elections were staggered.

Let’s start with UP, which is the clearest instance of parties trying to consolidate the ‘anti-vote’. Two traditional rivals – Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – have combined to take on the might of Modi’s BJP. The logic is simple. Their pollsters told them that if their respective vote shares of 2014 were to be added, then the BJP would be down to mere 35 seats, even by ‘Modi wave’ standards.

So, the unthinkable happened as SP and BSP thrashed out an alliance for survival. The big idea: give the anti-Modi vote, essentially the 50% electorate that voted against him, a common platform to express their dissent and not allow their vote to split in a first past the post system.

In West Bengal, the shoe was on the other foot as the BJP adopted the same strategy against Mamata Banerjee. The big difference was that it didn’t form an alliance but actively poached leaders at every level from the Trinamool, Left and the Congress to create a credible anti-Mamata platform.

Party Strategy
The BJP saw that this strategy worked wonders for the party in Assam and rest of the Northeast. Ex-Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is now a senior minister in Assam, joined the BJP and turned its fortunes through some clever defections from the Congress. He later created a North-East Democratic Alliance to unite anti-Congress forces across Northeast. These included former Congress rebels, who helped BJP grow in the region to the extent that they now expect to double their tally in N-E.

In West Bengal, BJP placed a similar bet on former Mamata confidant Mukul Roy, who was facing some heat in the chit fund case. Much like Sarma, he has carefully poached leaders from the other side to create an anti-Mamata front under the banner of the BJP. At least a dozen of BJP’s Lok Sabha candidates in West Bengal are ‘imports’ from other parties.

One can’t say how many seats this vote shift will translate into for the BJP, but what is certain is that it has created a platform to consolidate the anti-Mamata vote which would, otherwise, have splintered between Congress and the Left. This consolidation of the anti-Mamata vote is what has given BJP hope for a big jump in its tally in the state.

In Odisha, where polls got over on April 29, the BJP adopted a similar approach. However, unlike West Bengal, the BJP has a healthy presence in the state. The problem is the coastal areas of Puri, Ganjam, Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Kendrapara, where bulk of the Lok Sabha constituencies are concentrated.

The 2014 elections showed a UP-like situation for the Biju Janata Dal, where the anti-Naveen vote was split almost evenly between Congress and the BJP. The former, in fact, had a few percentage points more share. What the BJP has managed to do is organise itself effectively, given that it came to power in the Centre, and attract disenchanted Congress and BJD local leaders into its fold.

New Entrants
Most of BJP’s candidates in key coastal constituencies are new entrants to the party like Baijayant Panda in Kendrapara, Prakash Mishra in Cuttack and Aparajit Sarangi in Bhubaneswar. This trend is visible in the state elections, which happened simultaneously in Odisha.

The arithmetic and benefit of the ‘anti-vote’ was, thus, lost on none except for the fact that the BJP also needed a counter strategy to prevent anti-Modi consolidation where it could. In all the flourish about the ‘Modi vote’, adequate attention has not gone to the compromises the BJP had to make to prevent such a counter consolidation.

Bihar is the best example. BJP had actually done well minus Nitish Kumar in 2014. However, it could not brush aside the reality of 2015 when Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish combined to deliver a strong blow to the BJP. So, when the opportunity presented itself, BJP had to ask some of its sitting MPs to sit it out and let JD (U) contest in equal number of seats just so that the possibility of a counter-alliance is shut.

The same logic worked with Shiv Sena, which has been extremely critical of the BJP in recent times. The prospect of the Sena adding its vote share into a united anti-Modi platform would have been disastrous. The BJP sealed the deal well in time, leaving the Congress-NCP to stitch deals with smaller sub-regional parties.

At a broader level, consolidation more than genuine expansion has been the undercurrent defining Elections 2019. The last three phases, if at all, will reflect this more as focus will fall on the war of attrition underway in UP, West Bengal and Bihar.
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