RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, with then-BJP President Nitin Gadkari and then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Vrindavan in 2010. (Photograph: PTI)

Elections 2019: The Outcome When Modi Won’t Be Sangh Parivar’s Choice

BloombergQuintOpinion

What extent of a setback, in terms of Lok Sabha seats, can an incumbent prime minister suffer and still have a chance of retaining political power? This question becomes significant in the context of several surveys suggesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has consistently dipped from August 2017 and now the prospect of a hung Parliament looms large.

True that when future historians appraise the elections for the 17th Lok Sabha, they would, in all probability, divide Modi’s bid for re-election into two distinct phases - before and after the Pulwama terror strike. These are, however, early days to estimate how the death of 40 CRPF personnel will play out during the campaign because there has been no retributive action up till now, as Modi promised.

Consequently, people do not have an opinion on the government’s response and there is no evidence if the mood is turning in any favour. As a result, we have just the pre-Pulwama surveys and projections.

That Modi has a realistic bid to form the government again as long as the BJP’s drop from 2014’s 282 is kept to 200 and above, was an argument made in the previous column of this series.

But what happens if the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tally drops below 200?

Would Modi be morally able to argue that the verdict is ‘not against’ him and try forming the government once again?

Allies And The Vajpayee Benchmark

A tally below 200 would mean that the BJP is back to the numerical equation of the Vajpayee-era when the party won 182 seats in 1998 and 1999.

When the Sangh Parivar accepted Modi’s leadership in 2013-14, it was on the premise that he would secure significantly more seats than Vajpayee did for the BJP.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Narendra Modi, on Jan. 14, 2004. (Photograph: PIB)
Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Narendra Modi, on Jan. 14, 2004. (Photograph: PIB)

Modi was accepted as the prime ministerial candidate by the parivar only because it assessed that with him leading the campaign, the BJP won’t need to depend on allies as much as Atal Bihari Vajpayee did or even Manmohan Singh had to in his first term. But there’s a flip side to that.

The poet-politician Vajpayee was personally liked and respected by colleagues across the political spectrum, and carried the moniker of ‘right man in the wrong party’. Vajpayee’s double-score of 182 in 1998 and 1999 was at 90 short of the half-way mark of 272. But he was able to take along nearly 100 allied MPs in the Lok Sabha.

In contrast, Modi has an image of a non-accommodative leader or a strongman and scores significantly lower on the ‘likeability’ index. That image makes it very difficult for Modi to become prime minister again in the sub-200 BJP scenario. If the party’s tally dips below 200, it would mean that the BJP will need at least 72 allied MPs to either back the coalition from outside or join it.

In such a scenario, Modi could end up paying the price for running a highly-centralised government that abandoned the consensual style of governance.

He has not particularly endeared himself with NDA allies – remember the repeated grievances of the Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and even smaller allies like Ram Vilas Paswan, Om Prakash Rajbhar of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and others, and the exit of smaller allies in Bihar. Furthermore, the BJP has yielded more ground than expected while negotiating alliances with the Shiv Sena and JD(U).

BJP President Amit Shah greets Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray after announcement of an alliance, in Mumbai, on Feb 18, 2019. (Photographer: Shirish Shete/PTI)
BJP President Amit Shah greets Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray after announcement of an alliance, in Mumbai, on Feb 18, 2019. (Photographer: Shirish Shete/PTI)

This suggests that the BJP realises that the dice roll is not in its favour to the extent it was in 2014. Consequently, it can no longer dictate terms to allies. In the post-poll situation, this clout is sure to be reduced further if the BJP wins less than 200 seats. Already, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut has said that the alliance will select another prime minister if the BJP loses one hundred seats. But then, Raut’s is not the final word – others in NDA may not be so kind to Modi and may declare that anything less than 200 is a defeat of Moditva.

But, even before Modi secures allies’ support, he has to secure the endorsement from within the Sangh Parivar.

The parivar would back Modi only if it assesses that the verdict is not his personal defeat. Additionally, it would weigh the stability of a government under Modi with fewer numbers.

Amit Shah,  Mohan Bhagwat and Rajnath Singh during a book release function, in New Delhi, on Sept. 20, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Amit Shah, Mohan Bhagwat and Rajnath Singh during a book release function, in New Delhi, on Sept. 20, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

To go back to the first question – the extent of loss Modi can take in his stride and become prime minister again – it would be worthwhile examining the instances when previous incumbents in the coalition era after 1996 failed to regain power. The Congress under PV Narasimha Rao lost almost 100 seats to drop to 140 in 1996 from 244 in 1991, or almost forty percent of its seats. In 2004, the BJP’s tally slipped from 182 to 138, effectively a loss of nearly a quarter of seats.

Now if the BJP tally slips below 200 in 2019, it would be a bigger loss than what Vajpayee suffered. That alone could make Modi’s position untenable.

Modi’s Options If He Can’t Be PM

In the previous article, we noted how between 1996 and 2014 - the sum total of BJP and Congress seats has ranged between 286 and 326. If that trend remains, and the BJP falls slightly below 200, the Congress could be looking at a tally somehat over 100. This would still leave the BJP in a position to determine which parties form the government, even if Modi can’t be prime minister again.

Even in the event of a sub-200 figure, Modi and Amit Shah are likely to continue calling the shots within BJP in the immediate aftermath of the polls, and play a major role in deciding who would be the next prime minister. This could be from within the BJP, a current ally – possibly someone like Nitish Kumar, or even one of its likely post-poll partners – for instance, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao.

For long, Nitin Gadkari has been making cryptic remarks that are unlikely to have gone down well for the power duo in the BJP. Despite his protestations of being quoted out of context, Gadkari remains the most serious prime ministerial candidate from within BJP if its numbers rule out Modi. This, however, would not the most preferred choice for Modi-Shah because the Nagpur man has a wide network within the Sangh Parivar and can sideline Modi and his loyalists. The case is similar for others, like Rajnath Singh, who may throw their hat into the ring.

 Rajnath Singh with Nitin Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis, in Nagpur, on Jan. 20, 2019. (Photograph)
Rajnath Singh with Nitin Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis, in Nagpur, on Jan. 20, 2019. (Photograph)

In his own party and opposition alike, Modi is held in awe but has few friends. He is backed chiefly by yes-men parroting praises.

In such a situation Modi may well contend that a sub-200 tally is a vote against the BJP and consequently, it should either stay out of government or work under a prime minister from another party. Because nothing can be ruled out in politics, it is also possible for a dark horse, possibly not even an active politician, emerging in that scenario.

This situation, of Modi not being prime minister, but the BJP as the power centre, would be a distinct probability only when the BJP count remains in the range of 175-199. Any further dip in the party’s numbers will, of course, open up other possible scenarios.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’, ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’, and ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.