Talks of a coalition government at the Centre are in the air. Two pre-poll surveys – this election, opinion polls have been somewhat scarce as compared to previous years – have predicted an NDA victory, but one that stops short of the 50% mark.
The CSDS-Lokniti poll, conducted before the voting began, said that while the BJP’s vote share could go up by as much as 4%, it would get between 222 and 232 seats, and the NDA would be in the range of 263-283. This will help the combination form a government but with a much-weakened BJP compared to last time. The CVoter survey gives the NDA 233 seats.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath has predicted a hung parliament though he feels the Congress could cobble together a coalition since the anti-BJP alliance is bigger than the pro-BJP one. That may be the party man speaking, but it also reflects the thinking that one way or the other, a coalition may emerge.
Among political analysts too, the received wisdom now is that the BJP by itself will not be able to hit the 272 mark though it will emerge as the single-largest party, and therefore will be called to form a government by the president.
Narendra Modi is an indefatigable campaigner and has thrown everything at this election, from rabid Hindutva to hyper-nationalism (asking for votes in the name of slain soldiers) to even the bombings in Sri Lanka, which he incorporated into his campaign swiftly to talk about terrorism.
He is the first prime minister to so casually mention nuclear weapons. It shows he is not taking any chances, because it is somewhat of a make or break election for him.
Party president Amit Shah has declared that the BJP by itself will get 300 seats in 2019. Stranger things have happened and his confidence could be borne out of the number crunching he and his genius team may have done, but this looks highly unlikely.
A bit of analysis here will offer some insight into the headwinds that the BJP is facing. In 2014, Modi was the challenger, offering a new vision to a voter not just jaded but even disgusted by UPA-II, which had begun to look tired, ineffectual and corrupt. Modi, with the narrative of the ‘Gujarat Model’ behind him, talked of development, growth, jobs and going after the corrupt. Large sections believed him and voted for him – it was the new vote, over and beyond the core BJP voter.
Governments often fail to fulfil their promises, but the lack of delivery, in this case, has been spectacular. In every area, the Modi government has not just shown a lack of imagination and performance but also hobbled it with poor decisions like demonetisation and inefficient handling of GST. Under the Modi government, social harmony has been severely affected; many of his Neo-supporters are shocked at the aggressive promotion of the Hindutva agenda.
As the incumbent and one who has disappointed on many fronts, he is facing a tough challenge. Moreover, the peak performance in many states, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, where the party won 100% of the seats, and Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where it got over 90% and Maharashtra and Bihar, where it got over 20 seats each, cannot be repeated. Not only is the party facing strong opposition coalitions, such as in UP and Maharashtra, it has also had to strike partnerships with local chieftains such as Nitish Kumar and the Shiv Sena, thus limiting the number of seats it can fight.
The chances of making up those losses are few: In West Bengal, it could do better than the two it won the last time, but there is less chance of upping the performance in the Northeast, where the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has angered the locals.
Predicting numbers is hazardous, but a fall in numbers from the 282 BJP won the last time will inevitably mean bringing in allies, both existing and new. The big allies in the NDA-JD(U), Shiv Sena, AIADMK and Akali Dal could add a good number to the tally, and the ‘shadow allies’ – such as BJD, TRS and the Jagan Reddy-led YSR Congress – could further enhance the final figure to reach 272 and beyond, but one way or the other, it will be a coalition, a khichdi that Modi has long disdained.
A coalition will be a completely new experience for Modi. As the chief minister of Gujarat for 12 years, he led a party that had a strong majority in the assembly. In Delhi, his party sat in parliament with a comfortable majority, the other partners being reduced to ciphers. He built his entire persona and authority on being the sole, undisputed leader not just of his government but also his own party.
No rivals of any kind were allowed to emerge and dissenters soon found themselves made irrelevant. From the very beginning of the Modi government at the Centre, the word was put out that he not only brooked no opposition, but also no indiscipline. Who does not remember the sight of health minister Harsh Vardhan standing in front of a sitting Modi? Or stories about ministers being told to change their attire from jeans to kurtas?
Over the past five years, one by one, all politicians who could have assumed an independent profile – from Arun Jaitley to Sushma Swaraj to Rajnath Singh to Nitin Gadkari – have all sidelined. As for allies, Chandrababu Naidu soon found out that it doesn’t pay to make demands of Modi.
His millions of admirers love him for that. He fulfils their fantasies of a strong leader for India, one who does not believe in namby-pamby things like consensus. Modi is no Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who ran coalition governments and managed to take along even mercurial leaders like Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee.
And yet, there is a good chance that Modi will have to form a government with partners like the Shiv Sena, and if the numbers don’t measure up, even K. Chandrasekhar Rao and Jagan Reddy. And what if – it is a big if – more MPs are needed? Will Mayawati join the coalition too?
How will Modi manage a government like that? To have a cabinet with ministers from other parties, ones that have their own needs and agendas is a challenge at the best of times, but for Modi, it will require a massive effort to be collegial and congenial. His writ will not run all the time, and that could make a severe dent in his image. Will his ardent devotees, who admire him for his strongman personality, be able to take it when his partners start making demands?
This scenario may come to pass and voters have a way of surprising analysts, but it is not implausible either. Big victories are almost always followed by a loss – the precedents of 1971 (Indira Gandhi) and 1984 (Rajiv Gandhi) are good examples. Even in 1977, when the Janata Party defeated the Congress, it began floundering very soon and lost the next election.
The BJP, led by Modi, posted an impressive victory in 2014 – at that time, the party’s spokespersons boasted of a long reign and the wise pundits predicted the demise of the Congress. Today, the Congress is on the path of recovery and Modi, the undefeated and undefeatable leader is on the defensive, fighting to come back.
He could still lead his party to pole position and form the government, but it will not be the same. It’s time he started brushing up his skills of getting along with people.