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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19, April 25, 2009

Elections: Trends and Projections

Sunday 26 April 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


In the midst of a general election, it is obviously unfair to predict who or which party is going to emerge victorious or be in a position to form the next government. This is doubly true in a situation facing us today in which no party can claim to win outright the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha. The absence of a ‘wave’ or a definite issue round which the election campaign has centred makes all forecasts mere guesswork. However, there are certain trends which are noticeable that may have important bearings in the formation of a new government.

As is generally accepted, the tussle for power will be confined to three contending formations—the Congress, the BJP and the National Front-Left combine. While all the forecasts have put the BJP and the Congress as the main contenders for the position of the front-runner, with scores below 200 seats out of 543 in the Lok Sabha, the general impression until the eve of the first polling on April 27, was that the Congress might have the advantage of roping in allies, but the BJP is bereft of allies except for the new MPs that the Shiv Sena and the Samata Party may return. In other words, the BJP even if it were the first party on the scoreboard may not be able to form the government, while the Congress even with a low score on its own account may form the government because of the advantage of having more potential allies.

From the latest indications, it appears that the BJP’s chances on this score are not as bleak as they looked at first. The polarisation along communal lines has not emerged during the electioneering. The election campaign itself has shown that the allergy to the BJP on the ground of its being communal has worn out in many cases and may become more so once it becomes the party with the highest score and thus comes out with a better prospect of forming a government.

Apart from the Shiv Sena and the Samata Party, which other parties are likely to respond to an invitation to a coalition with the BJP? The TDP faction under Lakshmi Parvati, the Akali party and the AGP are being mentioned in this connection. Bansi Lal’s Haryana Vikas Party is already in alliance with the BJP. It is expected that Chandra Shekhar may back such a coalition. And his support may pave the way for some Congress dissidents, including a section of the Tewari Congress, to respond positively. And if the score mounts, then one would not be surprised to find the BSP softening up and some elements of the UDF in Kerala taking a responsive position. Although much of this may still be in the realm of speculation, there is no reason to dismiss Atal Behari Vajpayee’s reported claim that some soundings have already been available.

The Congress circles dismiss opinion-poll forecasts about the BJP emerging as the first party with a score of 180 and above. Although no party this time is sure of its own score, the more optimistic in the Congress camp expect their party score to reach 200 plus. Objectively speaking, this itself marks a setback for the ruling party. Five years ago, at the time of the last general election in 1991, the Congress had won on its own as many as 232 seats. Out of these about 20 came as the sympathy dividend after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the middle of the election campaign itself. Since then, the Congress has had a split though nowhere as wide as it was in 1969-70. If one were to go by the record of the government, the number of Assembly elections last year amply made it clear that the economic reforms have not turned out to be vote-catching : rather the discontent with the rising prices and dismay at the bleak prospects in the job market have had a negative impact on the voter. Lastly, the Congress election campaign has been devoid of any central focus.

Taking all this into account, it would be a heroic achievement if the Congress could get 200 seats as the optimists in that party expect it to score. However, the allies it expects to collect for a coalition government will have to come mainly from the National Front, particularly the Janata Dal. This will enhance the importance of Ramakrishana Hegde and those of his line of thinking. It is extremely doubtful if the Akalis and the AGP would respond to the invitation of a coalition with the Congress at the Centre when these parties have to fight the Congress at the State level. In contrast, it would be easier for the BSP to strike a deal with the Congress at the Centre, since both may need each other for the State-level politics in UP.

A question which is very often raised in the Opposition circles, particularly by the Tewari Congress and the Left, is the possibility of Narasimha Rao joining hands with the BJP. They base their argument mainly on the deal struck over the election of the BJP as the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 1991 and more particularly on the extraordinary inaction of Narasimha Rao during the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. This argument does not hold when both the Congress under Narasimha Rao and the BJP have been fighting for the front-runner’s position in the poll race for the Lok Sabha. What policy shifts may take place after the new government takes over is another matter. Just at this point of time the two are engaged in a bitter tussle for the formation of the next government, and it is highly unlikely that Narasimha Rao will or can make a 180 degree somersault to embrace the BJP as his coalition partner. Identity or proximity in policy approach does not necessarily lead to alliances for power-sharing.

Narasimha Rao’s real trouble will come if the Congress score is staggeringly low. There is no clear view as to what could possibly be the cut-off point. Would it be 150? That would mean that if the Congress score does not go beyond 150, then its manoeuvring capacity in forming a coalition might be very weak, and within the ranks of the party, the sense of defeat might manifest itself in the shape of anger against the Congress President who is doing most of the all-India campaign for the party. In that case, there may arise the demand for electing a new leader of the party who could bring all the dissidents back into the fold of the party. Although it is not openly admitted, the Narasimha Rao camp appears to be conscious of such a danger. In terms of coalition formation for a new government, such a situation will be definitely disadvantageous for Narasimha Rao personally as also for his party.

Can the Third Force be a reality in terms of winning power at the Centre? By arithmetical calculation, perhaps a case can be established that with the support of the Left and in alliance with the Congress dissidents, the National Front might be in a position to stake a claim to power. However, the state of the Janata Dal, the main constituent of the Front, is so rickety that there could possibly be no common approach among themselves which could attract other friendly parties. Available indications hardly bring the National Front-cum-Left combine to a point where it can attract other allies for a coalition to make a bid for power. Apart from the Chandra Babu-TDP in Andhra Pradesh, the Third Force expects some of the Congress dissidents to respond. Even in Tamil Nadu, it is not likely to get Karunanidhi’s DMK since the latter was unceremoniously rebuffed by the National Front which last year had made a wistful bid to win over Jayalalitha.

For all the pollsters and astrologers, however, the time stops for the moment—that is, until the ballot boxes are opened from May 8 onward.

(Mainstream, May 9, 1996)

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