This is a guest post by MANISH DUBEY: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lacks effective presence in several States, including large ones such as Andhra Pradesh (AP), Kerala, Tamil Nadu (TN) and West Bengal (WB) and others in the North-east (NE) barring Assam to an extent, and is unlikely to mount a credible challenge in the 168 Lok Sabha (LS) seats these account for. Its 2014 tally from these States will remain in the lower single digits, as it was in 2004 and 2009. Odisha and Punjab, with 34 LS seats between them, are unlikely to add substantially to the party’s tally either. In Odisha, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Indian National Congress (INC) are better entrenched. In Punjab, seat sharing arrangements with the locally dominant partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)- Badal, will limit potential (individual) pickings for the party. Pickings are also likely to be limited from Jharkhand (14 LS seats) where besides the INC, a number of regional parties, each with strong local bases and candidates, would be in the fray. Till recently, even Karnataka (28 LS seats) would not have provided much hope but things may look up a trifle with Yeddyurappa reportedly negotiating a return or at least some kind of electoral understanding.
The small States and UTs, i.e., those with 10 LS seats or lesser, account for 40 LS seats and the BJP has a mixed LS election record on these, a record much dependent its performance in Delhi’s 7 LS seats. Of the 284 LS seats (over half the 543 LS seats) accounted for by all the above mentioned States and UTs, a realistic tally for the BJP would be about 40, similar to that of the LS elections of 2004 (40 LS seats, including 18 from Karnataka) and 2009 (again 40 LS seats, including 19 from Karnataka) with potential gains in some places offset by a reduced tally in Karnataka (Yeddyurappa’s return or even an electoral understanding with him will reverse the misfortune of the recent Assembly elections only partly for the BJP). No Narendra Modi Magic is likely to boost the BJP’s tally here given mainly the state of the party itself.
The key States for the BJP’s 2014 campaign are thus clearly identified: Bihar (40 LS seats), Chhattisgarh (11 LS seats), Gujarat (26 LS seats), Madhya Pradesh (MP) (29 LS seats), Maharashtra (48 seats), Rajasthan (25 LS seats) and Uttar Pradesh (UP) (80 LS seats). Of these, the BJP will feel confident about Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan, all States where it will be in direct contest with the INC. The INC has progressively weakened in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and MP (lackluster local leadership is a serious issue) and with the Vasundhara led BJP energetically galvanising discontent against the Gehlot led Rajasthan government, the BJP would look forward to repeating its impressive LS performances in Chhattisgarh (it won 10 of the 11 LS seats in both 2004 and 2009), matching its best ever showing over the last four LS elections in Gujarat (20 LS seats) and Rajasthan (21 LS seats) and repeating its performance of 2004 in Madhya Pradesh (25 LS seats). This best case scenario would give the BJP 76 LS seats from these four States alone. Meanwhile, such is the State of the INC in these four States that even if it were to somehow wrest half the LS seats in Chhattisgarh, match its best performance over the last four LS elections in Gujarat and Rajasthan and repeat its decent 2009 performance in MP, the BJP would still harvest about half the LS seats in these States. In any case, the BJP would have reason to be disappointed if it did not win about 55-60 LS seats from Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan. Again, no Modi Magic is needed in these States (besides Gujarat which has witnessed plenty of it) given the disarray in the INC. In fact, the Modi brand of electioneering could prove tactically counter-productive for the BJP in these States as it would provide only (sound) ammunition and (legitimate) mobilisation opportunities for the INC.
The three remaining States of Bihar, Maharashtra and UP- 168 LS seats between them- will be the trickier ones for the BJP. The 150 seat mark has recently been identified by BJP stalwart Arun Jaitely as the number necessary for any party to emerge as the nucleus around which other smaller parties would coalesce and future government formation would occur. It can be argued that while this mark may apply to the INC (more acceptable to a range of political parties on account of its secular credentials, however twisted the party’s interpretation of secularism), it will not to the BJP. Especially a BJP whose campaign has been led by Modi and more so if the campaign has carried Modi’s distinct imprint as it currently promises to. The BJP would need more, about 200, to emerge as the nucleus that Jaitely refers to. Even with 200 LS seats, the BJP must prepare to review its prime ministerial choice in consultation with potential allies though its leverage in enforcing its leadership choice would (obviously) be better with 200 than 150 LS seats. This does not seem to have escaped the BJP. Witness the gradualism with which the party elevated Modi to the position of the party’s chief election manager and its continued coyness over formally anointing him as the party’s official prime ministerial candidate. Further, Modi, shrewd politician as he has shown himself to be, would be acutely aware of the need for achieving the 200 mark to realising his own prime ministerial ambitions. Anything short, almost certainly, would jeopardise his chances even if his party would retain a hopes of power with around 150 LS seats.
With the not-so-remote possibility of about 100 LS seats and even 115 not looking entirely unachievable either from all other States and UTs, the task for the BJP (and Modi) in Bihar, Maharashtra and UP is cut out (85-100 seats) and the key to both the BJP’s and Modi’s personal fortunes clearly lies in these three States. Unlike Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan, the contests in Bihar, Maharashtra and UP will be multi-cornered with a host of parties with strong local presences and candidates and systematically cultivated vote banks. These include erstwhile ally JD (U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP. Such is the state of play in these States that non-INC, non-BJP parties gathered as many as 115 LS seats in 2004 and 97 LS seats in 2009. Plus, each of these major parties, for its own reasons, will find the 2014 LS elections particularly important and will leave no stone unturned in achieving a strong showing. In Bihar, the JD (U) has a point to prove following the break-up of the long standing alliance with the BJP and will look to firmly establish itself as the party of governance while the RJD will fight for its political relevance after years in wilderness. In Maharashtra, the MNS will work to emerge as the ‘real’ inheritor of Bal Thackeray’s legacy and the NCP will hope for a showing that allows it to retain its clout at the national level even if party founder Sharad Pawar has declared that he has no prime ministerial ambitions and will not contest the 2014 LS election. In UP, the BSP needs bargaining power at the national level and will seek to recover lost ground after its showing in the most recent assembly elections in the State and the SP has neither given up on the idea of a non-INC, non-BJP ‘Third’ Front and nor has party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav given up on his prime ministerial ambitions. Further, the INC unlike in Bihar and UP, remains a force in Maharashtra and current Maharashtra ally Shiv Sena (SS) will limit the BJP’s potential individual pickings with seat sharing arrangements.
In reflecting on its own LS election record in these States, the BJP seems to have discovered the following. In undivided Bihar with 54 LS seats, it picked between 18-23 LS seats in the three LS elections over 1996-99 but found its numbers reduced (in post-Jharkhand Bihar, 5 in 2004 and 12 in 2009) after it entered into an arrangement with the JD (U). In Maharashtra post-NCP formation, it has picked between 9-13 LS seats (from those it contested) in (the last) three LS elections. In undivided UP with 85 LS seats, it crossed 50 in 1996 and 1998 but has found its numbers reduced (in post-Uttarakhand UP, 10 LS seats each in 2004 and 2009) since. It should come as no surprise then that the party’s most notable actions following Modi’s assumption of its campaign charge have been with an eye on these States.
One, the alliance with the JD (U) in Bihar has been called off. This is based on the party’s belief that it would improve its tally from the State if it were to contest more seats. Modi harped on his party’s better strike rate (referring to the ratio of seats won to seats contested) compared to the JD (U) when he addressed party workers in Bihar soon after the formal break-up of the alliance. Two, in the short span of time that has followed assumption of charge as the BJP’s chief election campaign manager, Modi has visited Mumbai to confer with Shiv Sena (SS) leader Uddhav Thackeray and squabbling party leaders and has followed it up with a rally and an address to a college gathering in Pune. While it is likely that the party appreciates there may be no substantial gains to its own tally if it were to go alone in Maharashtra and wishes to preserve the alliance with one of its few remaining National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies, the possibility that Modi might be tempted to go the Bihar way in Maharashtra cannot be ruled out especially if his initial testing of the waters suggests the possibility of richer pickings for the BJP if the party casts a wider net for itself and contests more seats than what the arrangement with SS will allow. The SS’s dithering on accepting Modi as a prime ministerial candidate is another important factor. Three, the UP campaign has been entrusted to an import from Gujarat, Modi’s close associate Amit Shah. (Plus, there has also been talk of Modi himself contesting the Lucknow LS seat though there is no official word on this yet.)
The importance of UP remains undeniable in Indian politics, more so from the 2014 perspective of BJP and Modi. Even in a highly optimistic scenario where the BJP picks up 24 of the 40 LS seats from Bihar (a strike rate of 60 percent; its best performance was 23 in 54 LS seats of undivided Bihar, a strike rate of about 43 percent) and 18 of the 48 LS seats from Maharashtra (which it did in the LS elections of 1996, the pre-NCP era; this was also its best performance over the five LS elections between 1996-2009), it would still need about 50-60 of UP’s 80 LS seats to reach the 200 mark. In choosing the Modi- Shah team to chase this, the BJP seems to have gone by the reading in a section of the party that it is the dilution of core issues such as the Ram Mandir that explains the party’s dwindling fortunes in UP. With strong advocacy from this section for an aggressive return to core issues to overwhelm other issues and ‘break’ others’ vote banks, it would not be surprising if the Hindutva agenda will be at the forefront of the party’s campaign in the State. The belief that softening of stances on core issues has only disillusioned the party’s core voter base without creating a substantially large new one (as was hoped with the softening) may also mean that the BJP will risk abandoning the Muslim vote almost completely without even a token appeal to the community; this in the expectation that the loss of its Muslim and staunchly secular voters (limited as they are) would be more than offset by the many, many more who would find such ‘non-appeasement’ appealing.
If that is the choice that the BJP exercises in UP (and it looks set to for among the first things Shah did after assuming charge of the UP campaign was to visit to the Ram Mandir site), it would be a gamble for the party for underlying that choice would be three linked assumptions, all questionable. First, that there remains a substantial (poll verdict influencing) section of the UP electorate with whom the BJP’s core issues still carry resonance. Two, that the caste and other coalitions fashioned by parties such as the BSP and SP are fragile enough to be swayed by appeals to a larger (in the eyes of the BJP) Hindutva cause. Three, that Modi’s personal charisma will somehow over-ride the appeal of all other leaders. At another level, the BJP has little choice but to bite the bullet in UP. It has failed to develop a robust development agenda for the State and has lagged even in crafting solid coalitions instead relying on mobilising groups at the fringes of coalitions forged by the BSP and SP. While the BJP’s hand in UP may have been forced partly by circumstances, its hand in Bihar has been forced largely by Modi. The break-up with the JD (U) in Bihar has much to do with Nitish’s opposition to Modi’s prime ministerial aspirations and the jury is still out on whether the BJP has over-estimated itself in breaking the alliance.
In the final analysis, it emerges that it is the strategy and performance in Bihar, Maharashtra and UP that will determine whether the BJP tastes power at the center in 2014 and whether Modi gets a realistic shot at the prime ministerial chair. In each of these States, the BJP will find itself in multi-cornered contests featuring parties with strong local presence and, with a view to maximising returns, has gambled in Bihar and UP already with the break-up of the alliance with the JD (U) and a team and initial noises that signal return to its core issues in UP. The decisions in Bihar and UP appear to have been made at least as much in deference to Modi’s personal ambitions as party interests. However, the assumptions underlying these decisions appear shaky and could well mar the BJP’s chances. The Maharashtra strategy seems to be work in progress and while the BJP may be currently inclined to proceed with the alliance with the SS at the risk of lower individual pickings, the possibility of the alliance with the SS being revisited on grounds broadly similar to Bihar (the hope of a more seats from a wider net and no clear endorsement of Modi as PM) may not be as remote as it sounds. If that occurs, Modi would have yet again foisted the party with a choice that it may not have exercised under another leadership.
Manish Dubey is an independent consultant on issues of public policy, governance and institutional development.