Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

The arithmetic of alliances is still the key


Graphic courtesy: Economic Times

NDTV, 12 May 2014

Siddharth Varadarajan

A month and five days after it began, voting for India’s general election is finally over and the exit poll numbers are rolling in. Based on previous experience, however, there is no reason to assume surveys are particularly accurate. In 2004 and 2009, all exit polls got the results completely wrong, overestimating the Bharatiya Janata Party and National Democratic Alliance’s seat share by around 15-30 per cent.

If the BJP wins upwards of 230 seats on May 16, there will be no need for analysts to whip out their calculators and figure out the political permutations and combinations that will help Narendra Modi cross the 272 mark.

But if the electorate gives the BJP less than that, the arithmetic of alliances will become important once again.

Specifically, any score less than 220 means it has to find partners beyond the current constituents of the NDA.

When Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar quit the NDA, many analysts assumed the BJP would find it difficult to attract allies as long as Modi was its PM candidate.

The experience of the past few months has belied that assumption. Modi was not a constraint for Ramvilas Paswan, who brought his small but strategically significant Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) in Bihar into the NDA. The Telugu Desam Party or the small Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra parties that are backing the BJP also did not have any problem with Modi as the BJP’s helmsman.

The only potential partner who cannot team up with a Modi-led BJP is Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. But this has as much to do with Mamata’s own calculations as with Modi’s deliberate and personal  attacks on the Trinamool leader.

With reports of the BJP’s vote share in West Bengal climbing to as high as 18-19 per cent on the back of religious polarization to which the Trinamool has contributed as much if not more than the BJP, Modi obviously decided to go all-out in the state, even if it meant burning his bridges with Mamata. The party hopes it can win 3-4 seats on its own and the TMC leader is, after all, someone who is always going to be a problematic ally.

Of course, Modi has been more guarded in his campaign rhetoric in Orissa and Tamil Nadu, knowing that he might need the support of both Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, either from inside or outside the government, to cross the 272 mark in the Lok Sabha.

In Telangana and Seemandhra, Modi has been careful not to burn his bridges with the Telanga Rashtra Samiti and Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress. Both parties have already provided ample indication of their willingness to back him as PM.

But if Modi is no longer an obstacle in the way of the BJP’s alliance-building, the very success of the NDA campaign in Orissa, Andhra and Tamil Nadu means the party’s PM candidate will have to be able to paper over some of the complications this will produce in his relationship with Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Reddy and Jayalalithaa.

In Orissa, indications are that the BJP, which has never won a single Lok Sabha seat on its own in the state, is likely to win anywhere from 3 to 6 seats as the Congress implodes. But the emergence of the BJP as the most dynamic opposition force in the state will also make Naveen Patnaik wary of directly or indirectly backing Modi at the Centre.

In Seemandhra, where Assembly elections are also being held, a winning show by the TDP-BJP combine will make it difficult for Jagan Reddy to lend his MPs to Modi in Delhi. Conversely, a poor showing by the alliance would mean Jagan winning both the assembly and the bulk of the region’s 25 seats, and then going in to declare his support for Modi since he would like the cooperation of New Delhi as Chief Minister of a new state.

Of course, in Telangana, as long as the Congress is the second-largest party, the TRS will have no issues with backing a Modi government even if the BJP does well in the region.

In Tamil Nadu, a strong showing by the BJP-led front — say, one where it wins anywhere from 5-8 seats — will make Jayalalithaa wary of Modi’s long-term impact on the state’s politics. She may well demand  that the BJP jettison the DMDK, MDMK and PMK as a condition for extending her support. Of course, if the NDA does poorly, Jayalalithaa would almost certainly want to partner with Modi at the Centre, though not without extracting her pound of flesh. Here, recent history tells us that since 1996, the largest Dravidian party has always ended up backing the Central government.

Before he antagonised Mamata, even 170-180 BJP seats would have been enough for Modi to build an alliance and form the government. It would be unwieldy and unstable but it could be assembled. Today, however, Mamata will almost certainly demand that Modi step aside in favour of someone else from the BJP, a condition the party would never accept. To become PM on the back of 180 seats and a hostile Mamata, Modi would need  Jagan, Jayalalithaa and TRS to win 60 seats between them.

If 180-200 seats range represents a danger zone for the BJP, anything beyond that would provide a comfortable platform for Modi. His NDA partners and TDP would likely take the tally up to at least 235. From there, reaching 272 will not be a difficult task.

The other reason  that 180-200 for the BJP is a danger mark for Modi is because the only way the saffron party can poll so low is if the Congress wins around 100-120 seats. This seems a difficult ask, going by the opinion polls and ground sentiment, but then Indian elections do sometimes produce surprise outcomes.

The recent talk by Congress leaders about supporting a Third Front is built around the magical figure of 120 seats for the party.

What this means is that all the non-BJP, non-Congress parties together must win around 250 seats, leaving enough headroom to exclude one party each from the incompatible dyads of Left-Trinamool, SP-BSP, and AIADMK-DMK. If the BJP polls 180- 200, fashioning a motley alliance under the leadership of say someone like Sharad Pawar — who is corporate-friendly and can deploy a formidable war chest — may be an option the Congress could consider.

One factor that will also play a role is the logistics of partnership-building is Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though there is no procedure specified by the Constitution, President Pranab Mukherjee will go by the burden of past precedent. He could ask anybody who says he or she can form the government to provide letters of support from at least 272 MPs. And he will almost certainly first ask the single-largest party to do this.

If the numbers are evenly matched, the backers of any putative Third Front would have to move quickly to pre-empt the BJP. What may prove decisive is the size of the war chests each side is able to employ – a fitting end to what has been the most money-driven election in Indian history.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. NDTV is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

4 comments on “The arithmetic of alliances is still the key

  1. rayalseemadiaries
    May 13, 2014

    The arithmetic is fascinating. Exciting times for India…the churning is very good where all of us are questioning the status quo, seeking change but at the same time do not want to settle for a fascist, authoritarian leadership. By merely being part of the process AAP has contributed hugely to raising the level of the Indian democratic discourse.

  2. rayalseemadiaries
    May 13, 2014

    Interesting analysis. I think it is very exciting times for India as a democracy. No large grand old party can take the populace for granted. AAP has certainly thrown a spanner in the works for the so called “sure shot winners” by forcing people to question the status quo by showing that it is possible to change it. Can’t wait for May 16th!

  3. Fahad
    May 13, 2014

    Insightful… however, I feel sad to see the Indian democracy going for a toss. too much of representation and too little democracy

  4. advait
    May 13, 2014

    good article, wish for bjp 180+, congress 100,aap 10-20 atleast, future must be AAP,congress doesnt deserve to exist if it continues with the family. i was never a supporter of modi, but a little sympathetic to bjp, but how can they support him given the murders which happened on his watch?, they could have won without him, kept the jdu alliance,be moderate and given good future for bihar.I am now with lok satta party and aap, it can cut into the middle class vote of BJP, by speaking of governance alone. And it will be seen more legitimate in its criticism than congress ever could. But it must clearly state its economic model with proven governance. it must commit to a mixed economy, pro growth(private)+helping the weak and old, pro education,pro health.AAP must realize that the best advertisement is good governance. I was very angry and distrustful to support them after their drama, they could have passed at least some useful bills like citizens charter for time bound delivery and swaraj bill before their martrydom plans, people saw through their lie and hence were distrustful.
    Wish you good health Mr siddharth, you must try to create a youtube channel analyzing atleast weekly, we can access you through social media and perhaps it could become ad driven. It will give a run for the crony media and crony academics on tv shows.
    Thank you very much by being earnest.

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This entry was posted on May 12, 2014 by in Indian Politics.



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