India elections: BJP may need the allies Narendra Modi drove away

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 12:30pm, 18 May, 2019

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  • Regional parties could prove to be kingmakers if neither of the big two secure a majority

  • But an ‘abusive and degenerate’ campaign by the prime minister has alienated those who may hold the keys to power

A supporter of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party holds a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election campaign rally at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Reuters

The political heat reached boiling point in India’s eastern state of West Bengal this week as Prime Minister Narendra Modi locked horns with powerful regional leader Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

On Tuesday the fierce rivalry between their supporters spilled onto the streets, resulting in violence in Kolkata. The unrest forced the country’s election authorities to ban all rallies planned for Friday, the last day of campaigning.

But 1,500km northwest of the city, a much more significant development was unfolding in New Delhi. Sonia Gandhi, a former president of the Indian National Congress, the main rival of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was sending out letters to smaller, regional parties in an attempt to stitch together a meeting for May 23 – the day India’s votes will be counted.

Around the same time, another senior Congress leader said for the first time during the campaign that the party would not insist on occupying the post of prime minister if regional parties agreed to enter a governing coalition.

Sonia Gandhi, a former president of the Indian National Congress, has been in touch with regional parties to set up a meeting. Photo: Handout

These shifts attracted far less media attention but are a sign of things to come. Despite Modi’s popularity, May 23 may throw up a scenario in which regional parties hold the keys to power for the Congress and BJP.

There are already enough indications that the idea isn’t just wishful thinking on the part of the country’s political opposition.

Last week, with uncharacteristic candidness, a senior strategist from the BJP, Ram Madhav, conceded that the party might fall short of a majority in the Lok Sabha parliament and could require the support of smaller organisations.

BJP leaders had previously insisted the party was set to win legislative control handsomely. But soon after Madhav’s statement, allies beganadmitting, one after the other, that the party may not be able to govern alone.

 

KINGMAKERS

In India’s 543-seat parliament, a simple majority constitutes 272. The last legislative session saw the BJP clinch 282 – the first time in three decades that a single party had won control on its own.

During those 30 years, regional parties saw their vote share rise to more than 40 per cent, a figure that has since remained constant. These groups bagged a combined 46.6 per cent of the vote in 2014 and 212 seats, despite Modi’s appeal.

Supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party take part in a silent protest in New Delhi following clashes between BJP supporters and the opposition in Kolkata. Photo: AFP

According to data from the Election Commission, India has more than 2,300 political parties, of which seven are nationwide. Some 50 are classified as major regional parties, while the rest are smaller.

Many believe the 2019 polls will see these parties surge both in terms of vote share and seats.

“The 2014 elections were an aberration. Data clearly shows the regional parties’ stock has been rising in the last few decades – they have played the role of kingmakers for a few years now,” says Neelanjan Sircar, an assistant professor at Ashoka University whose research interests include the study of Indian election data.

Sensing their moment has arrived, a number of smaller organisations have been trying to form alliances among themselves to bolster their electoral chances. In southern India, K. Chandrashekar Rao, chief minister of the state of Telangana and leader of regional party Telangana Rashtra Samiti, has been meeting senior figures from various non-BJP and non-Congress parties to try and cobble together a smaller post-poll alliance, which some dub a “southern front”.

MODI: AWKWARD PARTNER

With these potential link-ups looming, the ability of Modi and his BJP to garner more allies is under a cloud. In the last five years, the prime minister’s handling of his alliance partners has been shoddy – at least 16 parties have left the coalition and others have expressed unease.

Modi’s campaign this year has also included personal attacks on a slew of regional party leaders, from frequent scraps with Bengal’s Banerjee, whose party bagged 34 seats in 2014, to duels with Mayawati, a senior Dalit caste leader from Uttar Pradesh whose party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), has put together an anti-BJP alliance that occupies 80 seats in parliament for the eastern state – the most important in the electoral landscape.

Critics charge that Modi’s campaign has been aggressive and exploitative of communal divisions. Photo: Bloomberg

Critics also charge that Modi’s campaign has been aggressive and exploitative of communal divisions, driving many regional allies away. BJP leaders have previously warned Muslims of dire consequences if they don’t vote for the party, and have routinely invoked Hindu religious rhetoric to garner votes. Raising more eyebrows has been the BJP’s decision to nominate Pragya Singh Thakur as a poll candidate. Thakur has been accused of involvement in a 2008 terrorist attack which killed six people in Malegaon, a town in western India dominated by its Muslim community.

Modi defended the nomination, calling it a symbolic rebuff to claims by the Congress that Hindus are a terrorist civilisation. Thakur has also courted controversy on other counts. She recently said the assassin who ended the life of spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi was a patriot.

“The entire campaign by the BJP, especially by Modi, has been rather abusive and degenerate. The talk of development has clearly taken a back seat in Modi’s speeches,” says Professor Sudha Pai, an author and retired academic in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Many regional parties have electoral strategies that depend on social, inter-caste and interfaith alliances, so do not want to be associated with such a BJP campaign.

SEEKING A POUND OF FLESH

As India heads into the final stage of its seven-phase elections, the BJP continues to look strong enough to emerge as the single largest party. However, not many are willing to bet on whether the tally will be good enough to form a government.

Crucial to the BJP’s fate are 59 seats to be put to a vote on Saturday in the central and eastern states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar. The BJP did well in these areas in 2014, as well as in West Bengal and Punjab.

But if their fortunes go south in these polls, the possibility of political manoeuvring opens up

A senior strategist from the BJP, Ram Madhav (right), conceded that the party might fall short of a majority in parliament. Photo: EPA

“If the regional parties and the Congress do well, then we will see a lot more parties gravitating towards the Congress, and they can all, together, form a government. The fact that the Congress has declared it is not insisting on the prime minister’s chair makes it easier for these parties,” Pai says.

Another scenario could be one in which the BJP and its allies do better than the Congress and its partners, but both groups fall well short of a majority.

This is where things could get tricky, many argue.

Sircar at Ashoka University said: “If such a situation emerges, regional parties are going to extract their pound of flesh from either the BJP or the Congress. This could be in terms of ministries or funds for their state governments, among other things. Depending on where they get a better offer, the parties might veer towards that alliance.”

Pai believes even if Congress were to win a slight edge in terms of numbers, most regional parties would prefer backing it to the BJP.

“Modi has rubbed almost all these parties the wrong way, from unleashing raids on them to attacking them in the campaign. Modi, most of them believe, is not easy to do business with,” Pai said.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

The BJP has repeatedly stressed in its campaign that a multi-party administration of the kind mooted by the opposition parties would result in a “weak, corrupt government”.

A new, non-Modi administration would definitely also mean a change in foreign policy, analysts say. “Foreign policy in successive Indian governments has largely been consistent. What changed with Modi was that he introduced a degree of personal vitality,” says Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a Delhi-based think tank focused on public policy and international relations.

But copying Modi’s tone might be difficult for future governments, Bhaskar says. February saw an unprecedented decision to conduct air strikes on suspected terrorist bases in Pakistan in response to a suicide attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel.

“The air strikes mark a new metric – it signifies that India has now breached a certain level of caution and reticence in relation to the use of transborder military power,” Bhaskar says.

The aggressive posturing, he adds, might be hard to sustain for the new government unless there is a terror attack of a similar magnitude.

More than foreign policy, the bigger challenge may be the economy. The fiscal deficit is growing, having touched 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Key industries such as automobile production are seeing a dip in business of as much as 16 per cent, signalling a widespread slowdown. Unemployment is at a 45-year high.

Coupled with an ongoing drought in large parts of the country and severe agrarian distress, the new administration will face daunting problems. 

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