Why Narendra Modi may not become India’s next prime minister

There are only so many seats.
There are only so many seats.
Image: Reuters/B Mathur
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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include the Telugu Desam Party.

All the ballots are cast, and India has to just sit and wait for the results on May 16. But the speculation began long before voting ended. If the Indian media rather than the ballots were to be the arbiters of the election results, then Modi would have already won. But it’s actually worth considering an election theory in the opposite direction: that Modi might not become prime minister, a tentative position with considerable ground to stand on.

The mistake that seems to be repeatedly made is equating an ousting of the current Congress regime with the installation of Modi as prime minister, a leap that erases an entire spread of likely scenarios that exist in between. A few media outlets have raised the possibility here and here. We won’t know until Friday, but it’s worth examining how Modi’s victory is hardly guaranteed:

Breaking records

The Lok Sabha has 545 members (543 elected, 2 appointed), of which a majority of 273 is needed to form a government. In 2009, the BJP won 116 seats with 18.8% of the popular vote, according to the Election Commission. The best the BJP has ever performed in history was in 1999 when it won 182 seats.

Voter turnout in this election is the highest it has been in decades and, according to recent results published in Indian Express, every state in India except West Bengal (which had not completed polling), Sikkim, and Nagaland has seen an increase in voter turnout. If we further assume that the anti-Congress/pro-Modi fervor is behind this surge and carries the BJP to a national popular vote share of 33%, which the blog 273seats.com postulates, then we can give BJP an aggressive 210 seats.

While not impossible, such a vote swing—greater than 10%—is not likely: It has only been seen in the period between the 1971 and 1984 elections, at the end of a political roller coaster starting after a war with Pakistan, an interim declaration of a state of Emergency, ending with the assassination of a prime minister.

Nothing like this has happened in recent years.

Even if the BJP were to aggressively surpass its 1999 record then that would leave Congress with possibly less than 100 seats, counting the votes that regional parties are likely to gain. This would be the Congress’s worst loss since independence.

Modi floated the idea of a less-than-100-seat Congress in an interview with the Times of India on May 7, saying it would result in “serious churning” regarding continued leadership of Congress by the Gandhi family, but while not impossible, it is just another trend that a Modi victory would have to bust.

But even if all of this went as Modi hopes, and BJP gains a historic 210-seat victory, this is what would probably happen with the allied parties of the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The Shiv Sena, a regional party based in Mumbai, is contesting 20 seats in this election. It could win 15, which would equal its best performance (in 1999, when the party fielded 63 candidates). Then there is the Shiromani Akali Dal party from Punjab that currently has four seats. Its best showing was in 1998 with a total of eight. A southern regional party, the Telugu Desam Party, has fielded 30 candidates and currently has 6 seats. A win of 12 is predicted, let’s be generous and say 20. Aside from a few other seats here and there from small parties, these are the major players. So this is why a result tinted with bright saffron (the color of Hindu nationalism) would still come up short:

NDA= 210 (BJP) + 15 (Shiv Sena) + 8 (Shiromani Akali Dal)+ 20 (Telugu Desam Party) 

= 253 seats.

Building a coalition

A post-election NDA government under prime minister Modi would require new allies. West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress Party was seen as a potential option, but its leader Mamata Banerjee has spoken in strong opposition of Modi. So has another former BJP ally, the Janata Dal (United) party from Bihar; it broke with the NDA last summer specifically due to the BJP’s selection of Modi as its candidate for prime minister. Tellingly, its sound bytes at rallies are not necessarily anti-BJP, but anti-Modi.

Yet politics is a fickle affair. Banerjee may just be attacking Modi to appeal to her base only to join him once she has her own votes secured. The same reticence can be found amongst the other party leaders. But regional parties are not the only ones who can stoke the passions of voters—painting vivid governance dreams with their words in order to gain votes—before making a cunning political move once elections are decided. The BJP is a player in this game too.

Sitting in the chair of the ultimate BJP tactician, the magnetism of Modi is a trump card and there can be no better strategy for playing this ace, a crowd-pleasing albeit divisive politician: Win the crowd, win the votes, then ditch the liability.

Damage control

When the question has been raised about how exactly a Modi-led government would be formed, the response has mostly been along the lines of “Ahh, yes… but look at how great Modi is!” Yet there is no clear path—the question has been avoided, kicked down the road. The visage of Modi’s ultimate triumph must be unobstructed in the eyes of voters. Only after elections end can there be a perfectly orchestrated “switch” to a more moderate BJP hopeful.

Rumors are already spreading. A group of BJP leaders, labeled the “160 Club,” was accused of championing a BJP win of no more than 160 seats, making a Modi prime ministership nearly impossible. If the NDA cannot push its alliance north of 273 seats, forming a non-Modi BJP-led government could be portrayed as the Congress standing in the way of India’s march toward development.

Or a Modi-led government could stay in power until an ally walks away. Maybe public support for Modi and the BJP would even increase if they are seen as victims of petty deadlocked rivals denying the people’s mandate for Modi. Maybe he will become a martyr. Till the next election at least.