If the conventional saying is that a week is a long time in politics, then a fortnight could well pack a double punch of change, as we experienced in India during the Ides of March. On the third of this astrologically quirky month, the Bharatiya Janata Party knocked the stuffing out of the Leftists in Tripura and the Congress in the rest of the North East. Our quicksilver commentators jumped on the ‘hail victor’ bandwagon, but I was restrained, even sceptical. Here is what I had written on that day:
At the end of the day, democratic politics is about numbers and majorities. Just one statistic should be enough to temper the euphoria:
- Today, BJP swept across North East’s approximately 50 lakh voters.
- Over the last few weeks, it was swept away by approximately 100 lakh (one crore) voters in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other by-elections.
Go figure – what’s bigger? One crore or 50 lakh? And wait, another crore or so voters are set to give their verdict soon, on March 11, when Phulpur (U.P.) and Araria (Bihar), along with other constituencies, hold by-elections.
‘Achhe Din’ is now a stale jumla (slogan) for them. Its ‘sell-by’ date truly got over today. The challenge for Prime Minister Modi is to convince his erstwhile voters with a new narrative.
Nobody should uncork the champagne until then!
Astonishing Arithmetic From Gorakhpur And Phulpur
Gosh, even I am astounded at how accurately prophetic my words turned out to be just 11 days later, on March 14, when votes were counted in the by-elections in U.P. and Bihar. Quite apart from uncorking any champagne, the BJP got trounced everywhere, including in Fortress Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath’s impregnable citadel since 1991. Note that I did not dare name this constituency among those with an ‘uncertain verdict’ since it was foolish to even think about any other outcome.
BJP’s rout was so vexingly one-sided that commentators took refuge in simplistic analyses. Almost overnight, most political pundits put on their ‘Ramanujan caps’ to trot out reams of mathematical worksheets:
- Even as the voter turnout fell dramatically in Gorakhpur, Samajwadi Party + Bahujan Samaj Party votes went up by 54,000 from their tally in 2014, while BJP’s fell by over 1 lakh.
BJP’s vote share fell by six percentage points, and that had little to do with the opposition tie up – it represented a swing away from the ruling party among its own voters.
- While the voter turnout fell even more precipitously in Phulpur, SP+BSP votes fell by a mere 16,000 from their tally in 2014, while BJP’s fell by a whopping 2.20 lakh.
- If SP+BSP+Congress had tied up in 2014, then BJP+ would have lost 36 seats in U.P. (down from 73 to 37), effectively reducing its Lok Sabha numbers to around 248, robbing Prime Minister Modi of the historic achievement of becoming a 272+ single-party majority government after 30 years (since Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide win in 1984).
- Finally, to capture BJP’s deceleration after 2014, if a combined SP+BSP+Congress vote pooling was done on the 2017 assembly polls data, that would have reduced BJP’s seats from U.P. to 23, further denuding its parliamentary strength to 234, almost equal to what the Narasimha Rao government got in 1991.
I am sure your head must be spinning around this welter of theoretical number crunching. But whatever the merit of this ‘what if, post facto arithmetic’, one thing is clear – the BJP will dread an SP+BSP tie up in 2019, which could singularly take away as many as 50 seats from its current kitty, throwing the upcoming poll ‘wide open’ (another favorite cliché of the pundits).
Modi’s Acronyms for 2019: GOOGLY And CLEAN-BOWLEDDD
But wait. Remember that in 2014, a chunk of the BJP vote was cast personally for the wildly popular Candidate Narendra Modi.
While the Congress votes stayed static at around 11 crore between 2009 and 2014, BJP’s votes jumped from about 8 crore to 17 crore.
Although nothing can be said with 100 percent accuracy, one can safely assume that most of these additional 9 crore BJP voters were ‘fans of Modi’. They were electrified by his promise of aspirational change, of ‘Achhe Din’ (good days).
Since Modi was not directly on the ballot paper in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, can we use that data to infer that ‘fans of Modi’ have turned away from him? Or would they be willing to give him another chance? Or has the ‘Achhe Din’ promise become the ‘India Shining’ millstone around Modi’s neck?
Remember that Modi is a tireless campaigner. His rhetorical skills are unmatched. He is perfectly capable of extending the tenure of his ‘Achhe Din’ promise by trying to convince voters that 2014-19 was ‘just the first innings’ where he was cleaning up the past mess. “My real work will begin now, in the second innings”, he could claim, with his trademark bombast.
Given his penchant for acronyms, I am tempted to second-guess what Prime Minister Modi could coin as his re-election slogan for 2019. Here goes:
Yeh paanch saal toh maine GOOGLY phekey thi; agley paanch saal main CLEAN-BOWLEDDD kar doonga!
(In my first five years, I’ve just thrown a GOOGLY; but in the next five, I will get them CLEAN-BOWLEDDD!)
And here’s what the acronyms GOOGLY and CLEAN-BOWLEDDD will stand for:
GOOGLY: unehgaari (criminal) pposition and ld uard ko apet lia (neutralised)
(Modi will claim that “I have neutralised a criminal opposition and jaded old guard in my first tenure”)
CLEAN-BOWLEDDD: n ew India uilt n orld eadership and nergetic igitisation, emocracy, and emographics!
(Modi will further claim that “you have to give me a second tenure as your prime minister because I will now build a clean new India that will become a world leader riding energetically on our three core strengths of digitisation, democracy, and demography.”)
Can Opposition Parties Play Modi’s Googly Without Getting Clean Bowled?
It’s going to be tough and challenging. The initial flush of success in combining opposition votes in U.P. is just the tiny shuffle a batsman does before lunging down the pitch to smother a googly on the front foot.
The SP+BSP+Congress tie up in U.P., and the Congress+NCP alliance in Maharashtra, are just tiny shuffles. If the opposition batsmen were to stop at this, stranded at the crease, they are bound to get clean bowled. They must lunge forward with full force and smother the spin, perhaps even dance down the pitch and lift the googly for a six.
How? By smothering their respective egos and trying to pull off the seemingly impossible:
- Craft a TMC-Congress alliance in West Bengal, ceding dominance to Mamata Banerjee.
- Declare Jagan Reddy as a combined Congress’ unquestioned satrap in Andhra Pradesh.
- It may sound outlandish, but reach out to Himanta Biswa Sarma with the promise of leading Assam.
- And why can’t Nitish Kumar be wooed back into an RJD+Congress embrace? Won’t that be the K-O punch?
Isn’t politics the art of the possible?
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.