Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Battle for Delhi

With national elections less than 9 months away, the immediate future of India is a matter of intense speculation. Let's see if we can make predictions based on electoral mathematics (you can find the calculations here). We shall discuss each possibility in detail (which is by way of apology for the length of this article).

By way of background: the government at the centre is formed by the party or coalition having a majority in the Lok Sabha. Since the Lok Sabha has 542 members of parliament (MPs), the minimum figure required by any coalition to prove a majority will be 272 seats in the Lok Sabha. Every single government at the centre since 1989 has been, without exception, a coalition government. With that background in mind, I see four possible post poll scenarios that could emerge:

(a) A Congress led coalition
(b) A BJP led coalition 
(c) Third front
(d) A multi party coalition with outside support of Congress or BJP


Let's now analyse each of the above-mentioned scenarios.

a. A Congress led coalition: The Congress will almost certainly emerge the biggest or at worst the second biggest party in the Lok Sabha owing to its share of the rural vote, which ensured that it had at least 114 seats even when the party's fortunes were at their lowest ebb in 1999. Cold statistics suggest that the Congress could form the government at the centre with as little as 120 seats subject to support from the following quarters:


  1. The communist bloc (for reasons explained later in this article)
  2. AIADMK and/ or Trinamool Congress 
  3. Samajwadi Party 
  4. Bahujan Samaj Party
  5. Janata Dal United

The Man With The Aces?
In the event of any one of these assumptions failing to materialise, the Congress will need support from a handful of independent MPs and/ or regional players to form the government. Should that come to pass, the Congress led government will be hostage to the whims of truant allies, leaving little or no room for maneuvering. In short, UPA 3 with a substantially weakened Congress will make for a paralysed and unstable government that may not go the distance.

On the other hand, a UPA 3 with Congress having 150 seats or more will be a far more stable coalition. Unlikely as the scenario may appear now, let's not forget that there remains the best of a year before the elections. Given the vagaries of Indian politics, there's every possibility that the scene could change dramatically between now and next summer.

By my calculations, it will be extremely difficult for the Congress to form the government with anything less than 120 seats, which is why I have kept that figure as the cut off. Only once in the history of independent India has the party's seat count dipped below that level.

b. A BJP Led Coalition: Given the hype and hoopla surrounding Modi, it would appear to the uninitiated that he's the favourite to be the next Indian Prime Minister. The electoral maths suggest otherwise.

Before we come down to the figures, let me explain the assumptions behind the numbers. To start with, I expect that Narendra Modi will be BJPs prime ministerial candidate or at any rate, one of the front runners for the party. Given Mr. Modi's image, it is extremely unlikely that 'secular' parties like SP will ally themselves with the BJP- as it is, long standing allies like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik have ruled out an alliance with the party. The BJP is further handicapped by the lack of support from the communist block, with whom they have historically had a strong and at times even bloody enmity. 

Modi: A Himalayan Mountain to Climb

All considered, the BJP will require at least 180 seats in the Lok Sabha plus support from BSP, AIADMK, Trinamool Congress and a handful of other regional players to stand any chance of coming to power. So 120 seats for the Congress is the equivalent of 180 seats for the BJP, which never had more than 182 MPs even in its heyday in the late 90s. Its going to take a herculean feat for the present, disunited bunch to replicate that performance. You can now imagine how heavily the odds are stacked against Mr. Modi, unless something extraordinary happens between now and next summer.

The scenario might change if Mr. Modi moves out of the frontline, which is highly unlikely. In any case, its hard to think of a single leader in  the BJP capable of holding the party together, let alone bringing allies on board. Its an altogether different matter that the party will still be at the mercy of fickle allies like Mamata or Mayawati- a challenge that Mr. Modi is completely unprepared for.

As I see it, even in the unlikely event of a BJP led coalition coming to power, the resulting government is unlikely to last its full term. That they managed to pull it off between 1999- 2004 was largely due to the charisma of Vajpayee. There appears no leader even remotely approaching his stature today.

c. Third Front: The possibility of a third (even a fourth) front was discussed back in 2009 and talk of that is already doing the rounds. A third front like that will surely be a coalition between several regional parties, most of which will have no more than 10-20 seats in the Lok Sabha.

The numbers hold out very little hope for a possible third front. As you can see from the calculations, I was unable to take the tally of the third front beyond 215 even after including 18 possible parties, some of which are bitter rivals. You can safely assume that It will take at least 20 parties (plus possibly a few independent MPs) to reach the magic figure of 272, which will surely make for a highly unstable coalition. 

Desai: The Public Face of the Janata Debacle

Unless there emerges a strong figure to rally around, the third front is surely going to be an unwieldy hotch potch of reluctant and unlikely allies. We have already been down that road before, as old timers may recollect. So dismal was the performance of the Janata Government (1977-80), that the Congress came back to power barely three years after the emergency. 

In the highly unlikely event that a third front manages to muster the magic figure of 272, I do not see the resultant Government lasting more than 24 months (I'll stick my neck out on this one). Frankly, I see no possibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP third front ever managing that magic figure.

d. Multi party coalition: There exists yet another possibility: a multi party coalition with outside support from the Congress or the BJP, which has happened before. The manner in which it unfolded should be cautionary tale for anyone who chooses to tread on that path.

The 64 member SJP, led by Chandrashekhar assumed power back in 1990 owing to outside support from the Congress. Chandrashekhar was less than 4 months into his term when the ground was cut off below his feet. The Congress was at it again in 1996-97, providing outside support to H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral before pulling the plug on both of them less than halfway into their term.

The Revolving Door
It remains to be seen whether any party or group of parties can actually convince the Congress or the BJP to provide outside support. How long that support will last is a moot point, quite apart from the fact that the coalition will be hostage to the whims of the bigger party.  I suspect it might be used as a ploy to play for time before big brother decides that he's ready to go to the polls.

Personally, I am skeptical about the prospects of a multi party coalition with outside support. In the highly unlikely event that it actually happens, I do not see the government lasting its full term. As in the case of the third front, such a coalition will inevitably be doomed to premature dissolution.

In short, we are most likely to see a return of the 90s, when no less than 6 out of the 13 Prime Ministers we have had since independence had their chance at the hot seat (for the record: V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajapayee). Unless the Congress manages to secure at least 150 seats in the Lok Sabha, the 2014 elections will most likely be a semi final. 

My prediction for 2014 is of a hung parliament and an unstable coalition unlikely to last is full term.

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