Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to his supporters as he arrives to address them during an election campaign meeting ahead of Gujarat state assembly elections, in Ahmedabad on December 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleared of election violation. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave

The murmurs of discontent against India’s current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been growing for a while. Yet the first motion of no confidence against the government, moved on Friday by a relatively small party, the YSR Congress, from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, took the country by surprise.

Initial reactions of derision toward what was assumed to be a featherweight challenge changed in the course of a few hours into a more serious appraisal. It became clear that the numbers are really a lot closer than the apparent strength of the Modi government had led many to believe.

The BJP, which won 282 seats out of 543 in the last elections to the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, held in 2014, is now down to 274. The majority mark is 272. Along with its allies, which together form the NDA, it still commands a comfortable majority – but the allies are restive, with one of them, the Telegu Desam Party (TDP), also from Andhra Pradesh, having quit the NDA last Thursday. It also filed its own no-confidence motion against the government of which it had until days earlier been a part.

On doing the math, it appears that the current government will survive this challenge, but its aura of invincibility will not. Apart from the TDP, which has quit the ruling alliance, another disgruntled ally, the Shiv Sena from Maharashtra, has announced its intention to go it alone in the next elections in 2019. It also refused to clarify whether it would support or oppose the no-confidence motion.

Other potentially shaky allies include the People’s Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir, the unpredictable Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, and the Lok Janshakti Party led by veteran opportunist Ram Vilas Paswan, who has the singular distinction of managing to be a part of every government since 1996 under five different prime ministers. Once the presence of rebels within the BJP is factored in, it becomes clear that the government is a lot less solid than it might seem.

This newly discovered fragility has set in motion efforts by the fragmented opposition to work out a strategy that will enable them to defeat the BJP in next year’s parliamentary elections

This newly discovered fragility has set in motion efforts by the fragmented opposition to work out a strategy that will enable them to defeat the BJP in next year’s parliamentary elections.

The 2014 polls were pitched as a direct contest, in the manner of a US presidential election, between Narendra Modi and the Congress’ bumbling young scion, Rahul Gandhi. Modi won comfortably. This time, the electoral battlefield is shaping up differently.

The moves against the BJP are being led by seasoned provincial leaders who have deep grassroots bases in their own areas. This month, the BJP suffered three embarrassing defeats in by-elections in the politically vital Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In Uttar Pradesh, an unlikely alliance between old regional rivals the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won the two parliamentary seats on offer, including one that the BJP had held for 25 years. In Bihar, it was the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Lalu Yadav – who is in jail for corruption – that won.

The electoral map of India reveals that strong regional forces have a more than fighting chance at securing a majority of seats a Parliament. The state of Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 seats, has the SP and the BSP. The state of Bihar has the Janata Dal (United) and the RJD. West Bengal has Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Orissa has Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. Tamil Nadu has the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Karnataka has the Janata Dal (Secular). Maharashtra has the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party. Andhra Pradesh has the Telegu Desam Party and the YSR Congress. Telangana has the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.

This list is by no means exhaustive; there are plenty more. In northeast India, for instance, there are strong local or regional parties in almost every state. Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir too have their own local parties. Together these states and regions account for around 350 seats. The bulk of the remaining 190-odd seats will be fought between the Congress and the BJP.

The fact that many of the regional outfits are rivals has enabled the growth of the BJP at their expense. However, the regional parties have also demonstrated their ability to band together in order to prevent national parties from encroaching on their home turf.

In the 1990s, this manifested itself in political unity against the Congress party, which was then the sole behemoth. Now the Congress has given way to the BJP as the principal pole of Indian politics, and there are already examples of bitter rivals successfully forming electoral alliances against it in the battlefield states of Uttar Pradesh, where the SP and BSP cut a deal, and Bihar, where old rivals Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar called a temporary truce before the last state-assembly elections.

How successful they will be is likely to determine the electoral outcome in the 2019 parliamentary polls. Should they succeed in hammering out some sort of a coordinated strategy, for which efforts are now under way, the prospects of the BJP returning to power on its own will recede. It may still emerge as the single largest party by a wide margin, but a BJP government with, say, 199 seats will be completely different from a BJP government with 282, or even one with 272 seats.

Considering that it won 71 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, all 26 seats in Gujarat, all 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh, all five in Uttarakhand, and all seven in Delhi, it is fair to expect that the BJP cannot improve on its performance in those states. It can only slide from the peaks in those areas.

The question therefore is how precipitous the slide is going to be, and whether it can make up the numbers from elsewhere. Two large states, Maharashtra and Bihar, gave the BJP 45 seats last time. The electoral alignments in both states next time around may make a repeat performance hard to achieve; even in these, a slide is likely if unhappy allies go their own ways.

The BJP may be hoping to make some inroads, perhaps indirectly, into Tamil Nadu, but its own prospects in all of south India barring Karnataka are not looking promising. The coming state-assembly elections in Karnataka, where the BJP is in contention for power against the incumbent Congress government, will offer some indication of voter sentiment in that state.

Should the BJP fail to win Karnataka, its cloak of seeming invincibility will lie in tatters. The two state elections to follow, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the Indian National Congress remains the main opposition against the BJP, are expected to be challenging.

A year is a long time in politics, and it is possible that the BJP will recover by the time elections roll around … but a second term for Modi, which was looking certain even a month ago, is far less sure now.

The writer, an author and journalist, is a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, India.

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