The timing of a general election after four years in office is the biggest weapon that a ruling party has and usually plays after going through the fine print of such a manoeuvre. The prospect of such a move always going as per plans is equally doubtful as its ability to stun the opposition. The double edged sword of an early election can cut both ways.
The talk of early general elections gained momentum after a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategist of the 2014 polls said it could happen within the next 100 days. Arguments both for and against such an eventuality have since been put forth.
In 2004, confident after its stupendous performance in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee decided to go in for elections six months ahead of schedule. Confident that a dispirited and splintered opposition would enable him an unprecedented win again, Vajpayee under estimated the capacity of the electorate to surprise cocky politicians. A Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with a diarchy of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi kept the BJP out of office for a decade.
The electorate can be equally unpredictable overseas as well. The British Prime Minister Theresa May realized much to her chagrin last year. With poll trends indicating that she was well ahead of her rivals, May opted for an early election to strengthen her position to bargain on Brexit. She managed to return to office with a reduced number.
However, Indira Gandhi successfully outsmarted the opposition in 1971 by calling general election more than a year before schedule and romped home with a record mandate. Her gamble had a sense of inevitability too as her efforts to nationalise banks and abolish privy purses had faced tough challenge in Parliament and the courts.
The political air is thick with rumours and plots on both sides of the political fence. Many believe that the Modi government may go for early general elections, instead of completing its full term till May 16, 2019. Though there are no indications on either side on the possible move, confabulations and posturing have begun in right earnest.
Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, an astute 24x7 politician, has been the first of the block by calling a protest march of major opposition parties on the Republic Day to outline their position on perceived assaults on the Constitution.He has followed it up with a meeting of opposition parties at his home in the capital. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is also expected to call a meeting of all opposition parties for better coordination in Parliament and draw up a strategy in case the government calls for early elections.
The BJP’s oldest ally – the Shiv Sena has announced that it would contest the next general elections on its own. However, it continues to be part of BJP governments both at the Centre and in Maharashtra. Teugu Desam Party supremo N. Chandrababu Naidu piqued at the regular sniping from BJP’s local leadership has threatened to walk out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). All these developments point to posturing for hard bargain that the allies may strike with the BJP.
BJP margdarshak mandal member Yashwant Sinha, who is bitter at the way party leadership has treated its senior leaders, has launched a National Forum to build a broad anti-government alliance. He is expected to attract dissident BJP leaders like Kirti Azad and Shatrughan Sinha among others. The forum hopes to emerge as rallying ground for parties that may position themselves as future “Third Front”. Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Bannerjee has already extended support to this Forum.
As all opposition parties begin exercise to prepare for the eventuality of an early election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah have given no indication of their plans.
Elections to eight regional assemblies are due in 2018, beginning next month. Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Karnataka, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly polls are expected to provide last indicator of people’s mood before the general elections scheduled for 2019. It may well be that the upcoming Budget provides some indirect hints on the prospects of the timing of the next general elections.