State-level contests could disrupt the party’s grand narrative.
By the end of January, two things had become clear about the coming parliamentary elections. One, that the Congress party, after 10 years of rule at the Centre, was on its way out. The only question now is how humiliating that exit will be. Two, the BJP was surging ahead in the electoral race. So much so that the dream of a Narendra Modi-led BJP government, almost free of coalition crutches, would seem very real to its supporters. But politics has begun to show indications that the story of elections 2014 is not fully written yet. For the BJP, the best scenario is a near-majority with Modi at the helm. But as we move closer to the elections, it seems the BJP might have to be content with more modest results.
How “closed” is the electoral contest likely to be? Let us first rule out what these elections cannot produce. Even a partisan assessment is unlikely to give the Congress an edge in the coming parliamentary elections. Opinion polls are projecting a dismal show by the party. In the last 25 years, the party’s highest vote share, recorded in 1989, was near 40 per cent. But its average vote share since it started entering into pre-election alliances has been under 28 per cent. Even the most generous projection for the party would be that it will clock in this average and achieve its average conversion rate (technically known as the seat-vote multiplier) of 1.05 for the same period.
That would give the Congress 158 seats at the most — and this assuming that it actually manages its average vote share, which no serious analyst is likely to vouch for. It is not just that electoral history and arithmetic are pitched against a Congress comeback. It has allowed politics to go against it. A recently conducted Lokniti-CSDS survey (for CNN-IBN) indicated that voters were worried about price rise and dissatisfied with the performance of the UPA.
They do not want the UPA to be re-elected and rate the prime minister negatively. Not more than 27 per cent of respondents said they intended to vote for the Congress. So, crossing 150 seems tough for the Congress; dipping to its lowest ever tally of 114, as seen in 1999, appears quite likely. Should that happen, elections 2014 would not produce a close contest either. It would be much more one-sided than the Congress would like.
This gives the elections a sense of being a “closed” contest. And yet, one needs to balance the Modi-mania with some very real possibilities. Early trends can often be deceptive because they do not capture the stratagems and silent currents among voters. Three scripts might interrupt the BJP’s grand narrative of a Modi-led millennium. First, the weeks leading up to the elections will witness a contest between two ideas about elections and campaigning. As the BJP asks for a mandate, it will focus on “all India” factors and the “national mood”.
In contrast, state parties are likely to puncture the all-India language and disaggregate it into regional, state-level or local dialects of politics. The success of these players in pitching the battle at the state level rather than at the national level hinges mostly on the southern and eastern states. The crucial states will be Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Together, they have 193 seats in the Lok Sabha.
For their own survival, most state-level parties are interested in keeping the contest confined largely to their respective states. This factor works equally against the Congress and the BJP. But because the BJP has pitched its stakes so high, regionalisation of the contest would hurt it more.
Second, much of the BJP’s success is expected to come from the north and the west. The party is already strong there. Yet two factors may challenge the BJP in this region. Most crucial is the battle for Uttar Pradesh. While recent opinion polls suggest that the BJP is poised to perform much better than it did in the last two elections, it would be too early to write off the SP and BSP.
If UP throws up even the semblance of a triangular fight, then the election suddenly becomes wide open. That will fracture the BJP’s famous north-plus-west base. Besides, the possibility of the Aam Aadmi Party doing well in Haryana and Punjab could further dent the north-plus-west story. The AAP is already sitting pretty on its newly acquired base in Delhi. Contrary to media pronouncements on the AAP’s failure, it has not lost the limelight or popularity there.
Third, post-election politics now suddenly promises to be complex, with renewed talk of a Third Front. Protagonists of the Third Front point out that the non-Congress and non-BJP vote share has consistently remained in the range of 45-50 per cent. So there is a space waiting to be politically appropriated and the best way of doing that is to form multiple coalitions keeping out the Congress and BJP. This arithmetic has not produced a corresponding politics, so far. But the formation of a Third Front could send negative signals to the BJP’s post-election calculations.
By entering into an alliance with Left parties, the AIADMK has laid to rest speculation that it would support the BJP (at least for now). With this decision, the prospect that many state parties might extend support to the BJP after the Lok Sabha polls has been weakened. Given the way Nitish Kumar, and earlier Naveen Patnaik, parted ways with the BJP, it is unlikely they will be allies. Mamata Banerjee has not been very enthusiastic about a tie-up with the BJP either.
This leaves loose cannons like the YSR Congress which might choose to talk business with the BJP, though only after elections. And the BJP can accommodate only one of the Andhra parties — the TDP or the YSR Congress. The Third Front thus reduces the BJP’s room for manoeuvre in post-election calculations. Moreover, for most Third Front parties, it makes sense to keep the electoral contest fragmented and defined in terms of state-level competition.
Thus, while Third Front politics is about post-election scenarios, it is also about setting the terms of the contest to shape the outcome itself. What the Third Front seeks to do, then, is ensure that while the Congress loses more seats on its own, the electoral contest is framed in such a manner that the BJP fails to achieve the dramatic victory that has been projected for it in 2014.
The way in which these three scripts — state-level contests, breaching the BJP’s north-plus-west bastion and the BJP’s reduced room for post-election manoeuvre — unfold will determine how “closed” the ensuing contest is.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune