The not-quite ‘semi-final’ and what it portends

Everything now points to the BJP emerging as the single largest party, by some distance, in the sixteenth Lok Sabha. But the Modi-led alliance will not go into the mid-2014 ‘finals’ as the favourite, in any event not the overwhelming favourite.

December 09, 2013 01:13 am | Updated 01:13 am IST

The results of the four State Assembly elections conducted in November-December 2013 in northern India confirm one thing: the political marketplace has downgraded Congress stock to junk status. The clear message from tens of millions of voters to the party ruling at the Centre is ‘get prepared to be in the Opposition for quite a stretch’. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s sweep of the two largest States, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, is significant but its cup of joy is not quite full. While a sterling performance by a fresh-faced debutant, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has denied it outright victory in Delhi, the knife-edge contest in Chhattisgarh has raised some awkward questions. These questions revolve round how the people of the State, which witnessed the shocking liquidation by extremists of the Congress’s top State leadership in May 2013, feel about governance, security, and the Raman Singh government’s accountability for a grave security failure.

AAP’s performance The humbling of the Congress and the BJP’s surge in this round have been along expected lines, more or less, but the AAP’s performance has been way beyond general expectations. In fact, as far as political perceptions and portents go, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Arvind Kejriwal’s team of dedicated campaigners and contestants in Delhi have stolen the limelight from the architects of the BJP’s sweep of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This time the opinion, exit, and post polls can claim to have been on the right side of the popular mood and the electoral trends. However, the vote share estimates and seat forecasts (which have varied significantly and, in the case of Delhi, wildly) have been off in varying degrees, with virtually all the polls grossly underestimating the AAP.

Hindutva spokespersons have depicted the latest Assembly contests as a ‘semi-final’ in which the winner’s form portends an overpowering victory in the ‘finals’ that will be played in April-May 2014. The problem with the analogy is that the guaranteed winner of the other semi-final, which will be played in virtual space, is a constellation of regional and some other non-BJP, non-Congress players, and the finals will be played by three contestants under differential rules — with the two semi-final winners each able to play on only part of the pitch and only the guaranteed loser in a position to play on the whole pitch, more or less.

So how is the contest shaping up for the big prize?

Before we can answer this challenging question, we need to figure out some kind of basic explanatory insight into what has happened in the nine States where Assembly elections have been held in 2013 and what the outcomes add up to, quantitatively and qualitatively. The short answer to the first sub-question, based on what we can learn from the information provided by the opinion, exit, and post polls and also from journalistic reportage, is this. The price rise, the relentless pressures on livelihood and living standards, and corruption have figured high among voter concerns, and on these sensitive issues the big loser is the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance government, which has been thoroughly discredited and has clearly overstayed its welcome.

As for what the 2013 Assembly election outcomes add up to, it is interesting that five of these States, four in the north and Karnataka in the south, aggregate a hundred Lok Sabha seats, while the other four, all in the north-east, make up a combined total of six seats. So this is not quite political India: in fact, the State Assembly contests won and lost in 2013 translate to less than a fifth of the composition of the Lok Sabha. Secondly, if a trend favouring the BJP can be detected in the northern States that have gone to the polls this year, it is countered by what has happened in the south, signifying the reality that the party that speaks and functions in the name of ‘Hindu nationalism’, or majoritarianism, is not quite a national party in the sense it does not have a serious electoral presence in a large part of India. It is surely significant that these no-go regions cumulatively elect about 250 members to the Lok Sabha, which means the victor of this ‘semi-final’ will go to the ‘finals’ knowing it can play on just one-half of the pitch. And one does not need political punditry to realise that electoral victory and defeat is made by several factors, local, regional, and national, and any analysis that reduces the diversity and complexity of India’s electoral game to one or two factors will be wrong-headed and deluded.

This leads us to the question whether any ‘wave’ — a decisive and overpowering swing in the voter mood — can be detected across the country in favour of any one party or leader. The question is not irrelevant because historically there have been such electoral waves in India, notably in 1971, 1977, and 1984, under very different sets of circumstances. Modi partisans would of course say ‘yes’. But the evidence-based answer seems to be that while his prime ministerial candidacy has gained traction and momentum and has significantly strengthened the electoral stock of his party, there is no ‘Modi wave’ that the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance partners can ride straight to power at the Centre.

Need for allies Everything points to the BJP emerging as the single largest party, by some distance, in the sixteenth Lok Sabha. The Congress, some pollsters speculate, could be reduced to half its present strength of 206. The regional, Left, and other non-Congress, non-BJP parties and independents are likely to make up a sizeable proportion of the next Lok Sabha, well above the UPA’s total strength. So what is the threshold from which a Modi-led BJP could bid aggressively to form a government? Given the overall political picture, it needs to be well over 200 Lok Sabha seats for the NDA — which after all is a shadow of the alliance it was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a much more acceptable political leader than Mr. Modi, spearheaded it to power in 1998 and 1999.

The essential political truth is that notwithstanding his present avatar as ‘Vikas Purush’, the Man of Development, Mr. Modi does not attract allies; he repels erstwhile allies and also potential allies. It is well established that he is a highly polarising and divisive figure, with a special notoriety rooted in his and his government’s role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

Interestingly, India’s newspapers and news television channels have, by and large, maintained the necessary professional distance in reporting the Modi campaign. But what they have also done is to keep the focus on the deeply troubling path he has taken to the national stage — and on what this portends for secular and democratic governance.

That this essential political truth has had an impact even at the top leadership levels of the BJP was evidenced by Lal Krishna Advani’s revolt against the installation of Mr. Modi, first as the BJP’s election campaign chief, and then as its prime ministerial candidate. Instant media analysis might have concluded that the BJP’s pre-eminent ideologue and strategist was deeply offended because he was overlooked for the top job but that reading is both shallow and simple-minded. The more likely explanation is that Mr. Advani, with his long institutional memory, is disturbed by what lies in store for both the party and the Parivar — given Mr. Modi’s political notoriety, which, among other things, repels potential BJP allies.

All this suggests that the BJP, although assured of its single largest party status, will not go into the mid-2014 ‘finals’ as the favourite, in any event not the overwhelming favourite. Interesting political moves are on, for example, the Congress’s reported attempt to strike a deal with the Bahujan Samaj Party, the alliance manoeuvres in Bihar, not to mention the Telangana drama that lies ahead, that could make a difference on the ground. It is quite conceivable, even likely, that a post-poll combination of triumphant regional parties will, with external support from the Congress and the Left, be able to form the next government.

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