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Predicting election results is a perilous job at the best of times. To try and forecast how the sum total of an infinite mass of micro-factors will turn out, in a strident and polarised but very-many-sided election such as the present one is nothing less than foolhardiness. Yet a lot of political pundits are willing to stick their necks out to insist it will be a hung Parliament. Not just that no single party will get a majority on its own, also that no pre-poll formation—neither the BJP-led NDA nor the Congress-led UPA—is likely to be anywhere near a reasonable stab at government formation by itself.
To be sure, it’s only one in a triad of broad possibilities, with many potential variations within the three. But it is certainly one that needs to be accounted for seriously—the idea that strong non-NDA, non-UPA segments, not many of whom have a stable dialogue or terms of engagement with each other, may be holding the key to India’s next government. For, the allusion is not to a 2004 scenario when a confident BJP, riding high on India Shining, had an upset loss to a new Congress-led alliance. The frame of reference must extend back to 1996, when a United Front government was formed with outside support of the Congress. That government had fallen within two years, forcing another general election. The broad formal parameters of consensus among the constituents of a coalition, which can ensure stability, are therefore of vital importance.
A fractured verdict on May 23, depending on who individually gets the most numbers, will trigger a major realignment of political forces with regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Naveen Patnaik, Jaganmohan Reddy and K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) emerging as kingmakers. Not a part of any pre-poll alliance, their presence or support will be crucial to the formation of the next government at the Centre. Cooperation will be an enforced condition as together, they could have a substantial number of seats, but none of them will individually command enough. And each of them has the option of playing all sides.
While regional leaders—so far non-aligned—can potentially call the shots in case of a hung Parliament, nothing prevents the already aligned parties from switching their allegiance after the results. Someone like Nitish Kumar, for example, may not have a problem in switching sides from NDA to UPA or even a Third Front. The two national parties too, depending on their numbers, could also be out with their serenading songs in all the camps.
TDP leader and Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, the first mover of an attempt to forge a pan-Opposition unity, visited Calcutta to meet Mamata on May 10 to discuss possible scenarios. Naidu had earlier also met Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Delhi. Of late, KCR too has been jockeying for a central position in coalition-making, meeting Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan and DMK leader M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu and conferring with Karnataka CM H.D. Kumaraswamy. The Opposition leaders are likely to meet on May 21, or maybe after the results. In the event of the NDA falling short, it’s the break-up of numbers that will decide whether the Congress could be at the core of an Opposition coalition or kept outside.
For the BJP, the biggest challenge is from the smaller mahagathbandhan—the seemingly formidable alliance of Mayawati’s BSP, Akhilesh’s SP and Ajit Singh’s RLD in UP. The BJP had won 71 of UP’s 80 seats in 2014, while ally Apna Dal had got two. The alliance is seen to be in a position to cause a considerable loss of seats to the BJP. Even as Akhilesh has taken a backseat, Mayawati remains a crucial, and potentially ambidextrous, player.
The Congress is trying to reach out to the BSP, and the latter too has softened the stance it had adopted since the assembly election days. So a worried BJP has taken to reminding the electorate about the Congress’s track record of withdrawing support to coalition governments. A related buzz among Opposition leaders, therefore, is the likelihood of the Congress being part of a government (not outside like 1996) led by a non-Congress PM. Both Mayawati and Mamata have intensified attacks on Modi too of late, but that does not constrain their future options.
Political scientist Sudha Pai tells Outlook that though it has become an election “very difficult to predict”, she is convinced the regional parties are going to be vital, and the two big parties have to be accommodating of their ambitions. (‘Regional’ and ‘national’ are of course relative terms; a Dalit-based party such as BSP has a more pan-India presence than the Trinamool.) An expert on UP and Dalit politics, Pai feels the mahagathbandhan will trump the BJP in the state. “Mayawati is one of the most strategic and astute politicians who likes to keep her cards close to her chest, and also given to posturing. It’s very difficult to figure out which side she will gravitate to. She has her reasons, and she has her pressures,” explains Pai.
While Mayawati is not given to much eloquence, Mamata doesn’t believe in mincing her words, as testified by the vicious competitiveness in Bengal’s voting process. The TMC presently holds 34 of the total 42 LS seats in the state, and BJP, with two seats in 2014, is looking at breaching double figures.
Calcutta-based political analyst Rajat Roy believes Mamata too is aiming for the top post of PM. “She has been working towards it for the past two years, trying to bring together regional leaders,” he tells Outlook, citing the Opposition rally she organised in Calcutta in January. While most Opposition leaders attended the rally, Mamata failed to formalise a pre-poll agreement. Her supporters have still not given up hope of seeing her in the PM’s chair. Huge banners and posters, claiming Mamata will be the next PM, can be seen all over the state.
“There are more realistic ones too that proclaim she will only dictate who the next PM will be. Depends on the numbers she gets. Even if her tally remains the same, that is 34, it will be difficult for her to bargain hard,” reasons Roy. He predicts the BJP will go up from two to about 4-6, “maybe even eight”, and certainly increase its voteshare from 17 per cent to 25 to 30 per cent. In case of a hung Parliament, Roy believes Mamata is not likely to go with the BJP. “There are 27 per cent Muslim votes in West Bengal. She cannot take that risk. Also, there’s much bitterness between her and the BJP now,” he adds.
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has no ideological firewall. While fence-sitting and fighting off the BJP in his state, he has given enough indications that he could play on the other side. The last time he spoke on the subject, Naveen made it clear that his stand would be based on enlightened self-interest. “My party will support whichever side offers the best deal for Odisha,” he had said in an interview. Taken with the warm tones spoken on either side post-Cyclone Fani between the two ‘frenemies’, this is being read as willingness to cease hostilities after it becomes clear who has won the dogfight for turf in Odisha’s 21 seats (of which the BJD holds 20 now).
There was no trace of the bitterness that marked their pre-poll rhetoric as Modi and Naveen made an aerial survey together—Modi was all praise for the way Naveen evacuated lakhs of people ahead of the cyclone. The bonhomie could indicate a post-poll plan, but Naveen would want to keep his options open. If a non-BJP formation gets to be within striking distance in Delhi, Naveen could well support it while carrying on with the same ‘equidistant’ formula he used to justify his support to Modi at key moments over the last five years. But again, the precise numbers will determine the nature of the relationship. If the BJP walks away with a reasonable number of LS seats, it could make eminent political sense for Naveen to back the other side. But inscrutable man that he is, Naveen could surprise everyone, yet again.
As could the two key players from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, both struggling with political paradoxes. There are informal overtures between the YSRCP and TRS—who, by common perception, seem set to sweep the two states—and Congress, but it’s all tentative right now. The TRS chief has been keen to forge a non-BJP, non-Congress Federal Front and has never tried to hide his national ambitions. One of the reasons he may skip the May 21 meeting. KCR believes the core of the Federal Front would be formed by the 37 MPs (16 of TRS, 20 of YSRCP, one of AIMIM) from the two Telugu states that account for 42 MPs. He foresees the TMC, BSP-SP, RJD, JD(S), DMK and CPI(M) as potential partners in a post-poll front.
In 2004 and 2009, the Congress had got its largest chunk of seats from undivided Andhra Pradesh. But, poor handling of the Telangana statehood struggle, KCR walking away with the credit for the creation of the new state and desertion of veterans from the Seemandhra and Rayalaseema regions to the YSRCP and Naidu’s TDP has turned the Congress into a non-entity in this erstwhile bastion. While Jagan and KCR like to maintain a formal equidistance, they have both shown an inclination towards the BJP. KCR, though, doesn’t mind outside support from the Congress, locally his main opposition, for the Federal Front.
Jagan, like Naveen, has gone on record claiming he would support whichever party accords “special category status” to Andhra—his entire campaign was built around that. A widely predicted YSRP sweep (20/25) would push the original federal man, Naidu to the margins. Also, since Naidu has already aligned with the Congress, it makes it difficult for Jagan to tilt towards the party—even if he was lured by special category status. There’s also the history of their bitter falling out. The Congress, on the other hand, believes if its national tally touches 150, leaders like KCR and Jagan may agree to hop on.
The one South party from which the Congress is assured of support is the DMK—it has already joined the UPA and its leader, Stalin, has endorsed Rahul Gandhi for PM. However, if the NDA returns with a working majority, the DMK’s MPs (expected to win 30 of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats) would have little relevance. Jayalalitha was in a similar predicament in 2014, despite the AIADMK’s 37 MPs. When she should have been beaming before the TV cameras, she had a forlorn look instead because she realised her party’s big win amounted to nothing in the face of Modi’s huge win. So unless the Congress is able to cobble together an alternative, the DMK will again be sitting out in New Delhi after having been part of ruling dispensations from 1999 to 2014.
A coalition government would, however, offer plenty of scope for the DMK to flex its muscles, which it did unabashedly during UPA-I and UPA-II. The legacy of those years would be fresh in most minds—the spectrum scam, the resignation of two of its ministers (A. Raja and Dayanidhi Maran) and Manmohan Singh refusing a ministry to T.R. Baalu in 2009. In 2004, Karunanidhi had even brandished a list of DMK ministers and their portfolios agreed to by the Congress and delayed cabinet formation till his demands were met. In 2019, though the party hopes to push through its Tamil Nadu-specific agenda, its choice of ministers would include Kanimozhi and Dayanidhi Maran from the DMK’s first family.
An NDA government would see the AIADMK becoming part of the Union government, having forged a pre-poll alliance. Even if the party performs poorly in the LS elections, it has 12 MPs in the Rajya Sabha who it could recommend to the Union ministry. Another smaller ally, the PMK, would also be hoping that one of its MPs, especially Anbumani Ramadoss, would be inducted (he was kept out in 2014 even though he, along with BJP’s Pon Radhakrishnan, were the only non-AIADMK MPs elected from the state). The BJP had cited a CBI case against Anbumani to deny him a berth, after which the PMK turned into a bitter critic of the Modi government before making one more U-turn to rejoin the NDA ahead of the 2019 elections.
Another powerful leader who’s a prime mover and shaker among regional leaders is NCP’s Sharad Pawar. With firm roots and perhaps firmer national influence, Pawar is quietly working to make Opposition unity a reality. The Opposition has tapped into his resources for creating a network of regional parties that would stand together to defeat the BJP-led alliance. However, the NCP had declared support for the BJP in the Maharashtra assembly elections, compelling the Shiv Sena to accept BJP’s offer for alliance without too many conditions. Much water has flown since and Pawar has reiterated his commitment to secularism and partnered with Congress in Maharashtra that sends a substantial 48 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Known to have once had prime ministerial ambitions, the former Union minister Pawar is now focused on his role as a guide and strategist. It’s the astute Pawar, with his deep understanding of agrarian issues and caste politics, who started working towards an Opposition alliance as he sensed the pulse in the rural areas. Be it farmers’ demonstrations, rallies to protect the Constitution, silent marches demanding reservations for Marathas, Pawar has endorsed or supported most of these movements that took on the present BJP government. He is definitely someone the BJP would not like across the enemy lines.
And though the spectre of instability has always haunted what’s loosely called the Third Front, it’s a stigma it is not alone to blame for—it was the BJP that withdrew support to V.P. Singh in 1989, and Congress did the honours to the UF in the mid-’90s. A lot of analysts tend to favour a two-party system, but not many recognise that the National Front and UF were also creative phases in Indian politics, inaugurating its coalition era— a script the two big national parties still follow. The Third Front of today is a more amorphous ‘entity’, if at all it is one, than when the UF came into being with a proper, formal charter for cooperation, evolving even beyond the previous Janata experiments. Whether India has one more federal phase awaiting it, though, is still being decided.
Uttar Pradesh BSP
- 2014 won 0 seats
- 2019 contesting 38 seats
Uttar Pradesh SP
- 2014 won 5 seats
- 2019 contesting 37 seats
West Bengal TMC
- 2014 won 34 seats
- 2019 contesting 42 seats
Andhra Pradesh YSRCP
- 2014 won 9 seats
- 2019 contesting 25 seats
- 2014 won 20 seats
- 2019 contesting 21 seats
- 2014 won 11 seats
- 2019 contesting 17 seats
By Bhavna Vij-Aurora with G.C. Shekhar, M.S. Shanker, Sandeep Sahu, Prachi Pinglay-Plumber and Puneet Nicholas Yadav