Elections 2019: It’s Hard For Modi To Be PM Again If BJP Falls Below...BloombergQuintOpinion
Barely a couple of weeks remain before the Election Commission of India announces the schedule of polls for the seventeenth Lok Sabha. For several weeks, every punter and non-punter and each surveyor and non-surveyor has come up with a diverse array of ‘definitive numbers’. For years, the ‘mood of the nation’ or similarly named surveys have been telecast on various television channels, and it was no different after 2014.
But almost a year and a half ago, these surveys turned exhilarating because the previously-considered ‘certainty’ about the 2019 elections was abandoned in favour of the assessment that the contest would instead be closer. This may or not eventually be true, but what matters is that an altered public perception that emerged through these tracking polls, and what surfaced was not heartening for the ruling party.
The turning point coincided with the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax and Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the United States, particularly his public interaction at Berkeley. It is too early to decisively assert that these events triggered the decline in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political fortunes. But, for a majority of Indians, who even in 2014, had not cast their lot with the Bharatiya Janata Party or any of its allies, this was a welcome development.
After all, most non-aligned Indians constituting the ‘floating vote’, do not like walkovers because they are stingy when it comes to overwhelmingly supporting a single party.
Even the Congress which won five Lok Sabha elections on the trot after independence, two in succession after bouncing back following the 1977 defeat, and other not so impressive victorious performances in 1991, 2004 and 2009, never secured more than fifty percent of the vote.
The highest that the party ever polled was in 1984 ironically for a prime minister who did not have even ministerial experience before becoming the premier in tragic circumstances.
2014 A One-Off, Now Back To The Norm?
These are still early days in this year’s electoral tale and neither the Modi-driven BJP nor the diverse opposition parties have got down to serious campaigning. Even issues on which the parties are going to lock horns are yet to be categorically firmed up. We are now in the initial ‘testing phase’ where every player is checking out the wares of the adversary and assessing what is working best for them. Alliances are yet to be firmed up, although the BJP has made more headway than any of its rivals. Consequently, much of what is being forecast may turn out to be completely different from the final outcome.
But, at this stage, it is almost certain that there shall not be a national ‘Index of Opposition Unity’. Instead, it will have to be calculated on a state-to-state basis if not at constituency levels. Logically, this should be to the incumbent’s benefit.
But conversely, the benefit of a low score on the IOU may not accrue to the BJP because as yet, there is no discernible national issue, a wave in favour of any party or individual to ensure a ‘lamppost election’ as in 2014 when the identity of candidates became irrelevant because people voted in the name of Modi.
In such a scenario, and if there is no development which drastically overturns the entire electoral narrative, the BJP is quite unlikely to secure another clear majority on its own – at best Modi’s chances of becoming prime minister one more time would depend on allies, largely neglected for the past five years. This opens up Indian politics to various possibilities or likely scenarios after the elections.
The 200+ ‘Others’
The picture will vary on the basis of the number of seats won by different parties but most importantly what the BJP and Congress secure. This is so because from 1996 onward, when the coalition era set in decisively, the total seats jointly won by these two largest parties remained between 283 and 326.
For the sake of calculations and drawing the post-poll picture, it makes sense to presume that the BJP and Congress will again divide around 300 seats (plus-minus 20 seats) and thereby leave almost 240 seats to other parties. Of the other parties, some would be pre-poll allies of the BJP and others of the Congress. There would be a third lot among the ‘Others’, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party and Telangana Rashtriya Samithi for instance, who are not likely to be part of either the NDA or the UPA but would not be averse to supporting either a BJP-backed government or one which features the Congress.
Even among those from the ‘Others’ block, the possibility of few alliance hoppers crossing over to the other side cannot be ruled out because several of them have been part of both UPA and NDA – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Trinamool Congress, and Lok Janshakti Party being the most prominent of those.
The first scenario thereby will be thrown up by a BJP tally which gives the party and Modi another shot at governance. Remote though it appears at this stage, but the prime minister leading the party’s charge to yet another majority cannot be ruled out however high the odds may be stacked against him. Yet, the other possibility too must be factored in – that there is a decline in the seats that the BJP wins. If the fall in the party’s numbers is small, there would be the no hurdle in Modi remaining the occupant of 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. But if the dip in the BJP tally is a lot, then the probability of him returning to office will begin reducing.
In the jargon of TV game shows, Modi remains in the ‘completely safe’ zone until the BJP tally continues to be in the 220-plus region. Thereafter, with every loss, the chances of his return start becoming increasingly difficult.
The presumption is that even if BJP ends with seats close to 200, he still doesn’t slip below the psychological mark and it will not be very difficult to cobble up the remaining for a parliamentary majority. Thereafter, parties may seek a more amenable leader as head of government but that is a matter for another scenario.
These assumptions on Modi and his chances of another term are based on his ‘score’ on the ‘likeability’ index among allies and potential supporters of the BJP in the post-poll scenario. This argument is drawn from Modi’s personality not being inherently friendly towards allies.
In 2012 Modi had told this writer that allies look only at the BJP’s “winnability – if it is high they come, if not they don’t”.
By this argument, he will get support from them in the post-poll scenario only if they see other parties queuing up to partner him in government and this will happen only if the BJP’s final tally is not seen a moral defeat for Modi. After all, in 1989, the Congress was the single-largest party but the election was interpreted as a vote against Rajiv Gandhi.
In the 2014 elections, the Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party were the BJP's only two double-digit allies, meaning only these parties had a tally of more than ten in Lok Sabha – the former 18 and the latter 16. Of the two, N Chandrababu Naidu has signed out of the NDA. However, another potential double-digit ally, the Janata Dal (United) rejoined the NDA in July 2017. But Nitish Kumar’s outfit will contest only 17 seats and for it to win 10 or more seats, it will have a ‘strike-rate’ of close to sixty percent or more. There is no certainty of such a performance in Bihar given the nature of the alliance against it and the visible dip in Modi’s popularity in the state.
With Modi no longer having the support of large blocs in Lok Sabha in his bid for another term in the event of BJP ending in the sub-272 region, he will be dependent on smaller parties. This will be more difficult to cobble together if there is a competitive bid from a challenger within his party or from other parties.
Moreover, anything less than a tally of 200 will also make it morally difficult for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to continue backing Modi because this would be a thirty percent drift away from Modi in seat strength, and is sure to be interpreted as a mandate against him. It would also give rise to other options more clearly than what may be visible if the BJP ends with seats in the 200-220 range. More importantly, a large number of BJP’s losses are expected to be from the Hindi heartland and western region. In any case, a sizeable loss in core support regions will result in the proverbial knives coming out.
Importantly, in 2014 the BJP had won as many as 196 seats from the Hindi speaking states (for purposes of calculation we include Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir in this region subsuming North as a separate region). Another 53 seats of the BJP came from the West and these two regions collectively made up 249 of the BJP’s tally of 282. There is a general expectation that the BJP would make impressive gains in the East.
However, West Bengal and Odisha have a total of 63 seats and the BJP’s gains in this region may not match the party’s possible losses in the Hindi speaking areas and the West.
The extent of losses and gains are in the realm of speculation and are best kept out of this scenario-building exercise.
For the moment the BJP slogan of Abki Baar, 400 Ke Paar may well be twisted slightly for the purpose of analysis – 200 Ke Paar, Modi Aur Ek Baar. What happens if the BJP tally goes below 200 is, of course, a different scenario.
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.