India’s next government rests on very delicate, dubious alliances

Tell the flagmakers. It’s going to be a long election.
Tell the flagmakers. It’s going to be a long election.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Coalition has long been the buzzword in Indian politics as no political party since 1996 has won enough seats to form a government on its own. The country has seen so many curious pairs on the political bed that no one even raises eyebrows anymore. Still this time around, no one seems to be in a hurry to align with either of the two major parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It’s no brainer that most political parties would not touch the ruling Congress party even with a barge pole, lest they have to share the blame for rampant corruption and misgovernance. On the other hand, joining hands with the BJP’s Narendra Modi, a Hindu-chauvinist leader still largely blamed for the 2002 Gujarat riots is scantly what the doctor would prescribe. To be fair to the parties as well as the political commentators, this not a situation we normally face. Modi is increasingly appearing to be the factor that has suddenly made the BJP unpalatable to many regional satraps. But the Congress however unwittingly underplayed its contribution toward social justice over the last decade and let the opposition deliver punches over its failure to govern. Whatever the reasons, both the major national players are finding it hard to convince regional parties join their fold.

As things stand now, nothing short of a divine miracle can help the Congress win more than 100 seats in the upcoming election. The BJP is set to fare much better, but it will find it difficult to cross the 220 seats mark with its core allies. That is a good 50 seats short to form the government in a house with 545 members. This will likely prove to be a much harder barrier than it appears—a glance at the Indian map will be enough to reveal why. The BJP can heavily bank upon the western and central states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. Along with Punjab that is ruled by a core BJP ally Siromanu Akali Dal (SAD), the BJP can hope to win close to 85-90 seats in this saffron belt. But the rest of the country does not look as favorably to them as these states are expected to. And, one may note that the states outside this saffron belt will be sending more than 80% members to the lower house.

Most of the states outside the saffron belt are dominated by regional parties. Curiously enough, at least five of those regional top brasses—in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh (UP)—see themselves at the helm of the government this May. Jayalalitha, the present chief minister of Tamil Nadu has pitched in, so have Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar, heads of West Bengal and Bihar respectively. Navin Patnaik, the chief minister of Odhisha and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the UP boss are also known to known to harbor this very political ambition. They will be returning to the house with about 100 seats among them and, barring Navin Patnaik from Odissa, and Jayalalitha Jayaram from Tamil Nadu, these seats are not going to Modi’s aid.

Apart from UP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, all leaders have been BJP’s allies in the past, but Narendra Modi has changed the political game: with a sizable minority population in the backyard, these regional bigwigs would hardly risk their political fortune in the upcoming state elections. It’s another question how politicians sharing the political ambition of becoming prime minister could manage to form a government, or how would they handle the mercurial Mamata Banerjee or the ever-unpredictable Mulayam Singh Yadav.

This leaves a few questions unanswered. How would the left perform and where would they put their weight to? The left parties would be surprised to win anything more than 20 seats all over the country. That will undoubtedly make them politically irrelevant and, as a consequence, give its arch rival Mamata Banerjee more power at the bargaining table. Another question to ponder over is about Mayawati, the undisputed fair weather political ally, if ever there is one. Given the anti-incumbency sentiment against Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party in UP, and given the BJP’s conspicuous ploy of dividing the electorate over a sharp communal fault line may earn Mayawati a sizable number of seats and a more than proportionate bargaining power where it counts. In the end, it is UP’s 85 seats that will to a great extent decide the course of Indian politics over the next five years. All major powers, except the Congress, are betting heavily on UP—this state and its maverick Mayawati will certainly be in news over the next two months.

Finally, Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal deserves an honorable mention. Though he has been the man in the news—over some good, some not so good, and some utterly ugly political maneuvering—it will surprise me and many others if he manages to make a mark in the upcoming poll. He is another prime minister-hopeful and, despite the paucity of seats won by his Aam Aadmi Party, may find some takers in case the regional bosses fail to arrive on an acceptable power-sharing formula. May 2014 might be the month of the unpredictable. Someone as obscure as H.D. Deve Gawda (last prime minister in 1997 and India’s 11th overall) may pop up from absolutely nowhere and be crowned as the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy.

All we can be certain of right now is the uncertainty. Stay tuned.