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No-Confidence Vote Will Show if Modi's Camp Still Holds the Aces

The possibility of early Lok Sabha elections might change the way NDA partners and BJP MPs vote on Friday.

Voting on the no-confidence motion on Friday should hold few surprises. The National Democratic Alliance has 314 seats, while the Lok Sabha’s current strength is 535. The BJP, with its 273 MPs in the house, should be comfortable on its own to cross the halfway mark. And yet, the day could be tantalising.

This is on account of two sets of factors. One pertaining to the cohesion within the NDA and the other relating to not just the possibility of early Lok Sabha polls, but clubbing it with nine assembly elections, not merely the four that are due this winter (November-December).

In the event that the Bharatiya Janata Party pulls down the Bihar government like it did in Jammu and Kashmir, the important Hindi-belt state could also be added to the list of states where early polls could be a possibility. The state had yielded handsome results for the BJP the last time around.

The Wire had reported in February that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s compulsions could cause him to move in the direction of an early election, a theme subsequently taken up by many. One speculation was that if the performance is below par in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh this winter, the BJP would be going into the 2019 general elections with a setback. This would hardly be clever.

This especial factor has now been compounded with government failures being magnified in many more fields, in addition to farm distress, unemployment and the disastrous effects of demonetisation and wayward implementation of the Goods and Services Tax. The government has also faltered on internal security (Kashmir), foreign affairs and the shoddy state of defence preparedness in relation to the military consolidation of the Chinese behemoth in Tibet. No matter where one looks, a pin is down.

In this backdrop, the ruling camp is said to favour holding Lok Sabha polls clubbed with a fairly large number of state polls. This ties in with BJP’s idea of holding assembly and parliament polls simultaneously.

Betting on Modi wave

Given Modi’s felicity with indecorous speech and unbecoming aggression when it comes to opponents, the saffron brigade would anticipate that the prime minister’s presence will galvanise the party’s assembly prospects if polls are held alongside the Lok Sabha polls.

Thus, along with assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram, expected in November-December this year, polls could be held in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha (all due in the first half of 2019), in addition to J&K, where an ally has been toppled, and Bihar, where an ally could be toppled. That would make a handsome tally of nine states. Will the BJP chance its arm in Maharashtra as well, still banking on Modi being a larger-than-life presence? That seems a bigger ask.

In Friday’s no-confidence vote, the behaviour of the NDA allies that remain in the alliance, and of the BJP MPs themselves, could be guided by their own calculations for the next round of jousting. The possibility that the current monsoon session of parliament turns out to be the last session of the present Lok Sabha will change the stance of many.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu. Credit: PTI

The key question is, to what extent will these parties and individuals benefit if they stand foursquare behind Modi? They will also ponder if their actions on Friday will allow them to bargain with the BJP in the post-poll scenario if Modi does not remain its leader. Each of these is a tricky calculation, anything but neat. The results will depend on local factors and factors not in the public domain, such as personal equations of members across party lines.

Growing dissidents

After the departure of the Telugu Desam Party from the fold, will NDA parties stay with the BJP? Indeed, will the BJP members stand ground without losing composure, considering that the number of party dissidents has grown? At one point there were just two: film star-politician Shatrughan Sinha and cricketer-politician Kirti Azad, both from Bihar. Now there are several, prominent among them BJP’s Dalit MPs, including from UP, a state from which Modi has been elected and one that has become a major command centre of communal politics under the chief ministership of Adityanath.

In addition, many BJP MPs have begun fearing the axe and may not be averse to curry favour with opposition parties in order to get their nomination to contest the election. What better opportunity than a no-confidence motion vote to underwrite their future?

Opponents of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, including in the BJP itself, do not underestimate the strength of these powerful and wily leaders or their capacity to break opposition parties. With the lure of incentives, the duo could bring to their side on Friday the so-called neutral elements like AIADMK, Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal and the Telengana Rashtra Samiti.

If voting goes meekly and along expected lines, it would mean that the Modi camp still holds the aces. But the battle of nerves has begun.

Anand K. Sahay is a journalist who lives and works in New Delhi.