Coalition talk is in the air. Regional parties are reaching out to their counterparts in different states and reports indicate that some of them have even sent out feelers to the Congress in advance of the election results.
Kamal Nath has said that the Congress could join with other parties and form a coalition and now even Ram Madhav of the BJP has indicated that his party will need alliance partners (though he gives his own party 271 seats, which really obviates the need for too many allies.)
It is now almost received wisdom that the BJP will not get a majority on its own and will have to take the help of smaller parties – within and outside the NDA – to form the government. It may have already worked out private arrangements with a few regional parties who may see value in going along with the biggest player rather than in joining hands in a shaky regional grouping.
Much will depend on how many seats the BJP gets alone. Below a certain threshold – say 200 – the BJP will be compelled to make concessions; above 220 will give it much more bargaining power.
Narendra Modi and his party chief Amit Shah will no doubt be aware that big victories are usually followed by losses – Indira Gandhi in 1971 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 came in with large majorities, but soon faced turbulence and were voted out in the next elections.
Even so, Narendra Modi, who got the first full majority in 2014, has frittered away his goodwill at a time when the opposition is fractured and the Congress is weak. The last two years have seen things go downhill rapidly and while Modi’s personal popularity remains unshaken, it will be difficult to achieve the same kind of handsome results as in 2014.
Instead of the challenger with a new vision and a spring in his walk, he is looking like a jaded incumbent, tired and without a single fresh idea except heaping mockery at his favourite target, the Nehru-Gandhi family.
This may appeal to the faithful, but is impressing no one else – is Rajiv Gandhi really a poll issue today? Modi’s obsession is cutting no ice with voters, and certainly now with young Indians who may be impressed with him but who have no idea what he is talking about.
But it is not certain that the BJP – even if it gets the most seats – will necessarily form the government. Modi might be called to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha within 15 days, but he would do well to recall that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government fell by one solitary vote in 1999 because one crucial ally – Jayalalithaa – backed out. In the present case, who is to say that other parties may even join a Modi-led NDA?
Three possible scenarios may emerge after the results. There are caveats of course, such as the BJP coming in with a majority or a near majority, but if at all a coalition of several parties is the possible outcome, these are three situations that may arise:
1. The BJP gets 180 or so
This is not implausible, given that it won 90-100% of seats in several Hindi belt states (and Gujarat) in 2014. This time round, the BJP is facing tough contests from joint fronts in Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar, and a resurgent Congress in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. The BJP hopes to make up those losses in West Bengal, Odisha and the Northeast, but these will not be enough to compensate for the depletion in the key Hindi states.
With those numbers, the party will need not just its own NDA allies – the Shiv Sena, JD(U), Shiromani Akali Dal and AIADMK, but others too. Some of the ‘shadow allies’ could be Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi and YSR. And if the numbers still prove inadequate, then others may join in. All kinds of names are being suggested, including Mayawati, H.D. Kumaraswamy and even Sharad Pawar, but none would want to take a risk of alienating their core supporters.
Besides, the track record of the Modi-Shah combine, which has a reputation of sidelining (and even browbeating) its allies is a deterrent. A Shiv Sena has the capacity to remain inside the coalition and continue its sabre rattling, others may not want to get into a situation where they feel threatened. Indeed, they may not even want to join an NDA government with Modi as the prime minister, in which case the BJP will be faced with a dilemma – to form the government with someone else as the leader or to let go the opportunity.
The Modi-Shah combine will have to wrestle with that possibility – will Modi let go and allow someone else to take the prime minister’s position?
2. A coalition with the Congress
If the Congress wins a respectable number of seats, it could become a key component of any non-BJP coalition. But to reach that pole position, it will require at least 140 seats, which looks like a tall order. At that level, it can even call the shots in any coalition. At 120 or thereabouts, it can only offer support.
Some Congressmen are optimistic that the party is on the road to recovery and could play a critical role in forming a UPA 3, though that is a remote possibility. Stranger things have happened but at the moment, a jump from 44 to 140 would be a very difficult feat to achieve.
Who would join any such arrangement? Its existing allies, including the RJD, DMK and the NCP would of course be a part, but TRS and even YSR may join in. The Trinamool Congress is keeping everyone guessing, but if its chieftain Mamata Bannerjee sees this as the only way to keep the BJP and especially Narendra Modi out, she may acquiesce. As for the mahagathbandhan, Mayawati will require some convincing.
3. A non-BJP, non-Congress government
This will happen only if both the national parties get less than 280 seats combined. In that event, regional parties could see tremendous value in coming together a la the United Front of 1996. That time H.D. Deve Gowda was the surprise choice as the prime minister, primarily because the heavy weight regional leaders cancelled out each other. No one leader would agree to another with some heft – the only option was an ‘outsider’, a non-threatening figure who had experience but no clout.
The current crop of regional leaders may also do the same – a Sharad Pawar or a Mamata Banerjee would be considered too powerful and a more amenable face might get selected.
Who could it be? That’s anybody’s guess for now.
Will such a government last? If the past is of any indication, such coalitions have a short shelf life. V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral all found it difficult to even complete a year.
The next election, inevitably, was won by either a Congress-led or BJP-led coalition. It is obvious that the presence of a national party is crucial to form a stable government. Many regional parties realise that and would want one of the bigger parties to win sufficient number of seats and become the nucleus.
Some, like the Shiv Sena, would prefer the BJP (the Congress would never include it in any coalition), others like RJD would never go with the BJP. Many more would be open to either.
This is what makes the situation so fluid. These are putative outcomes and something entirely different may emerge.
But if at all no one party gets a majority, government formation will depend on to the number of seats the two bigger parties win, to the advantages regional parties see for themselves in either of the two arrangements and, eventually – this is crucial – to the personalities involved.