Anticipating a fractured mandate, Indian Opposition parties, including the Congress, strong regional and caste-based parties and the much weakened Communists, are trying to cobble together a working post-poll coalition to keep the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power.
The most visible Opposition politician leading the ‘stitch together’ effort is Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Naidu, a former BJP ally, is now in Delhi, where he has already met Communist leader Sitaram Yechury and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
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“Our discussions were fruitful. We are agreed on the central objective — to keep BJP out of power,” Naidu told South Asian Monitor.
“The BJP rubbishes coalitions but coalitions will be the reality of India because they reflect the consensus that is the central edifice of our Republic,” the tech-savvy Chief Minister credited for turning his State into an Information Technology hub said.
Gandhi’s Congress party, likely to be the single largest in rainbow Opposition spectrum, has already said it will not insist on leading the coalition.
“We will not insist on the position of Prime Minister for our party. We are okay with a Prime Minister from one of the regional parties. Our real task is to keep the BJP out of power,” said senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Azad told SAM that Congress would lead the coalition if it has to, but will not insist on the Prime Minister’s chair for its leader Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress, which has ruled India for much of its post-colonial history, ruled the country through its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) between 2004-14 before it was ousted by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It now says it is open to a much wider coalition to keep the BJP out.
“The real issue in this election is to preserve the idea of India as a secular, federal democracy and to fix the economy, both of which have sustained severe damage under BJP government and the politics of divisiveness unleashed by its leaders like Modi,” Ghulam Nabi Azad told South Asian Monitor.
“We want to fix the country and undo the damage to its body politic done by the BJP, it is not important how we do it and in partnership with whom,” he added.
But the BJP is putting up a brave face, saying that it will sweep the polls with Prime Minister Modi leading the charge in a highly personalized campaign that ends on Sunday (May 19).
“When the results come out on May 23, you will see we have got a comfortable majority with more than 300 seats. We are already preparing for the next moves beginning with who to include or drop from the new cabinet under Prime Minister Modi,” said BJP President Amit Shah at a Friday press conference.
Modi, looking visibly tired by his side, did not take questions but insisted that he was sure of a ‘sure and convincing victory’.
But Shah apparently kept his options open, when he said: “Though we will win comfortably, we are open to including in our coalition other parties in the interest of better governance and to fulfill regional aspirations.’
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Other senior BJP leaders, during the polls lasting for nearly two months, had expressed doubts at the party winning a clear majority. BJP National Executive member Ram Madhav had told Bloomberg recently: “We would be happy to get a majority on our own.”
BJP had won 282 seats on its own in 2014 polls, ten more than the majority mark in the 545-member parliament of which 543 are by election.
Pollsters suggest that the BJP could lose half the seats it won in the largest state Uttar Pradesh (UP) where a strong regional coalition of two caste-based parties, Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), threatens to consolidate the anti-BJP vote. BJP had won 71 of the 80 seats in UP in 2014.
“If they lose 35 to 40 seats in UP alone, the BJP could end up losing anything between 80 to 100 seats in its stronghold states in North and Western India. It hopes to make up some of its losses in the East but even if it does, the BJP may end up falling short of the magic mark of 272,” said psychologist Sibaji Pratim Basu.
Some of India’s top pollsters, in a panel discussion on India Today TV on Friday, said predicting Indian elections with all its regional, caste and class diversities was a ‘nightmare’.
But most agreed that the BJP, despite its losses, would still emerge as the single largest party in this election.
If the BJP emerges as the single largest party and its pre-poll NDA alliance manages to get more seats than the Congress-led UPA, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind will invite them to take the first shot at forming government and prove their majority on the floor of the parliament.
“That is when the BJP will get an opportunity to swing many regional parties to its side with offers of cabinet positions, money and grants for State governments run by these parties,” said political analyst Garga Chatterjee.
He said it is to offset that advantage that Naidu has opened a dialogue with all Opposition parties, even those which are in the BJP-led NDA but are somewhat uncomfortable with its brazen Hindu nationalism that led Time magazine to characterize Modi as India’s “Divider-in-Chief” in its last cover story.
Modi questioned the credibility of the writer, but the Opposition lapped up the story to attack the Prime Minister and his party for widening India’s social chasms.
But all will depend on the results. Only if the BJP is far short of a majority will it look like in being in trouble.
“That will not be the case,” says BJP’s spokesperson G V L Narasimha Rao.”Our party has the resources to collect and analyze detailed feedback. We have already done that, and we know we are winning.”
Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera dismisses Rao’s contention and says “He is day dreaming”.
“In 2014, at the peak of the Modi wave, only 31 percent Indians voted for BJP. This time there is no Modi wave and BJP is battling to hold its ground in its stronghold states,” Khera said.
“Their vote share will drop everywhere, and the Opposition parties will do better,” he added.