Mint, 18 April 2013
Let me clarify right in the beginning: I am no political expert. I have never done any political reporting, know no politician of any consequence; in fact, I’ve hardly ever met any senior politicians. I am just someone who reads the newspapers and once in a while discusses politics with friends. So, now that I’ve established my limited knowledge credentials, let me go where angelic columnists fear to tread, and speculate on the shape of Indian politics and government in the next few years.
The situation as it stands today. There are two national parties: the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and there are allies, most of which are regional parties (the Left, whatever it may claim, is in truth a force only in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura—which, I’m sorry, doesn’t really count); and Mayawati may have national ambitions, but the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) remains mostly corralled in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress has three allies who it can rely on to some extent: Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, the National Conference in Kashmir, and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. The BJP has two: the Akalis in Punjab and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. It certainly can’t think of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), as a reliable ally, though it’s a JD(U)-BJP alliance that rules Bihar.
The chiefs of several of the regional parties believe that after the 2014 Lok Sabha election, they have a shot at becoming Prime Minister. Mulayam Singh Yadav certainly does, as do Nitish Kumar and Mayawati, and who knows, even Mamata Banerjee. Jayalalithaa is the most unpredictable of the lot, since she keeps her cards glued to her chest under her cloak, but if she can pull off more than 30 seats out of the 39 in Tamil Nadu…
Of course, wholly unexpected things can happen in Lok Sabha elections. No pundit expected that the Congress would win 206 seats in 2009, but it did.
But, setting aside the “black swan” bit, and going by the way the electorate has been behaving in the last four years in various state elections, it is quite unlikely that the Congress will cross 150 in 2014 (For instance, given the Jagan Reddy factor, it’s hardly going to get the 33 it got in 2009 in Andhra Pradesh; or, for that matter, 21 in Uttar Pradesh). This is why it is so unwilling to project Rahul Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate. Because Rahul must never be seen as a leader who lost (an ardent campaigner whose party did not win is an entirely different matter). So—and we have seen the indications over the last week—Manmohan Singh will be projected—vaguely—as Prime Minister if the Congress comes back to power. If the Congress—or rather, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)—does retain power, Singh humbly makes way for Rahul and retires. Otherwise…he retires.
The BJP managed 116 in 2009, and currently it is testing the waters about projecting Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Doubtless, the math whizzes in the BJP backroom are tracking public response to everything that Modi does and running complex statistical predictive models. Can Modi bring the urban middle class—especially women and youth—to the voting booth—and to the BJP? Let’s assume the extreme: that Modi is that great inspirational force that appears in Indian politics only once in a while. But even then, can he drag the BJP beyond the 150-seat line? My guess is no.
The Congress will give the 2014 elections its very best shot, but will already have its Plan B ready. Which is easy, because the Congress has done it several times before. Support whatever Third Front appears post-election—a combination of regional parties—from outside, and wait for the opportune moment to withdraw backing. So, look at 2016, not only 2014.
Trouble is, the BJP may also be thinking the same. It, too, has done it once before, with the V.P. Singh government. However, this time around, to do that, post-election, the party will have to quickly pack Modi’s baggage and send him on the first flight back to Gujarat.
The man with a problem is Nitish Kumar. He believes that if he has to retain Bihar, he has to cut ties with a Modi-festooned BJP rath (chariot), because he will lose the Muslim vote in his state, and Lalu Prasad will be back out there in full cry. On the other hand, if he goes alone, he loses the higher caste vote, which will surely this time go to the BJP. Some terrific caste calculations will be called for here, and one hopes Nitish has people to work all those Excel spreadsheets.
The other party that has painted itself into a corner is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Having walked out of the UPA in a huff, it can hardly now go back. And if something dramatic does not happen in the meantime, it’s batting on a poor wicket, as 2014 comes closer.
The situation reminds me of 1996, when Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced off in the Lok Sabha elections. As opinion poll after opinion poll showed a hung Parliament, the editor of the news magazine I used to work for then would anxiously ask every day: “So who’s going to be the next PM?” Finally, the political editor of the magazine couldn’t take it anymore. “I have no clue,” he said. “But I can tell you that it won’t be either Rao or Vajpayee.” In the event, it turned out to be Deve Gowda, whose name had not appeared in any discussion anywhere till the day the election results were out. So, who will be Prime Minister after 2014? No idea, but it’ll very likely be neither Rahul Gandhi nor Modi. That decisive battle could well be fought in 2016.