Doing the Modi math

The numbers don't add up, without a pooling of anti-Congress votes

Now that Nitish Kumar has left the NDA, the scenarios for the next general elections are acquiring greater clarity. The key question is: Can a Narendra Modi-led BJP win power without broad-based political alliances?

During 1998-2004, Nitish Kumar (JD-U), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Naveen Patnaik (BJD) and Chandrababu Naidu (TDP) used to be part of the NDA. Kumar left recently, the other three some years back. Can Banerjee, Patnaik or Naidu somehow return to the NDA? As I argue later, something like that may well be necessary.

Banerjee is trying to create an enduring social bloc in West Bengal against the CPM. Without Muslims, constituting nearly a quarter of the total state electorate, a long-lasting base against the left is virtually inconceivable. An alliance with Modi, it follows, is improbable. Patnaik's objections to Modi have already been strongly articulated. The TDP's situation is somewhat unclear, but its decision may not matter all that much if its share of seats does not significantly rise. The TDP won 29 seats in 1999, but it shrank to 5-6 seats in 2004 and 2009. Beyond the Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and the AGP — all small, even miniscule — the AIADMK is perhaps the only substantial regional party likely to support the BJP.

At the time of the 1998 and 1999 elections, the NDA was a coalition of 13 to 17 parties (rising to over 20 after the elections). The pooling of anti-Congress votes was so effective that it allowed the NDA to come to power. That capacious network has all but collapsed. Advani's critique of Modi is, in part, about the pooling effect. A Vajpayee-like coalition building, he believes, is necessary to defeat the UPA, and Modi's unacceptability beyond a few parties makes such pooling impossible.

Against Advani's view, a new trope has started emerging in BJP politics. Many believe that even if a broad-based political alliance cannot be constructed before the elections, a post-election alliance is perfectly within the realm of possibility, assuming a Modi-led BJP repeats its 1998 or 1999 performance, winning 180-plus seats instead of its current 117. Modi, they think, can make that happen. The regional parties, then, will ally with the BJP, for the BJP will have the best chance of coming to power.

Can Modi's leadership make it possible for the BJP to win 180-plus seats, or something close to that, in 2014? What are the odds?

When the BJP won 182 seats in 1998 and 1999, it captured 25.6 and 23.7 per cent of the national vote respectively. In 2009, it won a mere 18.8 per cent (and 116 seats). Though, under certain exceptional circumstances, one can show that a party can win 180 seats in India's Parliament with only 18-20 per cent of the national vote, a more reasonable assumption is that 24-25 per cent of the national vote will, in all probability, be required for 180-plus seats. In short, Modi needs to raise the BJP's vote by 5-6 percentage points.

In 2014, the size of the electorate is expected to be a little over 800 million. Assuming a 60-62 per cent turnout, we will have roughly 500 million voters. A 5-6 per cent increase in the BJP's vote essentially means that Modi will have to deliver an additional 25-30 million votes .

A shift of roughly similar percentages, if not absolute magnitudes, has taken place in India's electoral history four times: twice in favour of the Congress — from 1977 to 1980, and from 1980 to 1984; and twice for the BJP — from 1989 to 1991, and from 1996 to 1998. In principle, therefore, the possibilities of a huge Modi uplift cannot be ruled out.

However, some complications are worthy of note. In three out of these four instances, the circumstances were exceptional, meaning not easily replicable. The vast 1977 dip in Congress vote was due to the Emergency; and in 1984, the Congress was an immense beneficiary of Indira Gandhi's assassination. The 1989 to 1991 jump in the BJP's vote was mostly due to the Ayodhya movement. A return of the Ayodhya fervour is unlikely today.

The most relevant comparison is with the great increase in the BJP's vote from 1996 to 1998. What was that on account of? The Ayodhya movement was past its peak, and the vote share of the BJP had barely risen between the two previous elections, 1991 and 1996.

There is no escape from the conclusion that the vast increase in the BJP's 1998 vote was in large part due to alliances. A lot of the anti-Congress vote that would have gone to other parties landed in the BJP's basket because those parties had entered an alliance with the BJP. This is the basis for Advani's view of the political possibilities today. Modi, to him, is not a maker of broad alliances a la Vajpayee; he breaks them.

But no ambitious leader has ever believed that history is fully constraining. Trailblazers make history. They are not its prisoners. It is clear that Modi feels he belongs to the history-defying category of leaders.

But 25-30 million additional votes? Can a defiance of history produce that?

Modi's base beyond Gujarat is the urban middle class. His record on Hindu-Muslim relations might have repelled allies, but for many urban Indians, that is not the main issue. They are drawn to his Gujarat economic model, which has delivered a nearly 10 per cent annual growth rate for a decade, an achievement of Chinese proportions. The fact that Gujarat's health and education indicators are mediocre does not dampen their enthusiasm. And to a large extent, they are right. A 10 per cent growth rate maintained for so long is almost certain to lift social indicators before long, and also attack poverty systematically, as it did in China.

The problems, however, are three fold. First, beyond Gujarat, the rural folk, who still determine India's election results, have not heard of the Gujarat model. And it is virtually impossible to turn rural constituencies around in a matter of months. It is a longer political project. Second, it is also not clear that, beyond Gujarat, the urban poor share the urban middle class passion for Modi. And the numbers of the urban poor are substantial. Third, in southern and eastern India, even in cities, the BJP's presence is minimal. In Bangalore, where I am currently based, Modi's popularity appears to be confined primarily to the IT sector, the institutions of higher education and the malls. In Chennai, Trivandrum, Cochin, Hyderabad — to name a few other southern cities — the story is worse. On the whole, southern and eastern India account for roughly 40 per cent of India's parliamentary seats. With the partial exception of Karnataka, the BJP's presence in these two parts of India is slender, and Modi's charisma unfelt.

Of the 500 million likely voters in 2014, only 150 million will be urban, and of these, only 90 million are in the west and north. The BJP has already won a lot of these votes in the previous elections. Can Modi really mobilise an additional 20-25 million votes from this northern and western pool, assuming he can get 5 million more elsewhere?

The order is monumentally tall. Advani may well have the last laugh next year unless a broad anti-Congress alliance can be constructed. With urban India rising, Modi's power to pull votes could be greater in the 2019 or 2024 elections, but might fall well short in 2014.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

express@expressindia.com

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