Devangshu Datta: Do the electoral maths, Mr Modi

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 25, 2013 20:20 hrs

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) ideologues say Italy has a stake in Indian politics because of the Congress president’s origins. Italian luxury goods maker Bulgari certainly does have a stake because its desi brand recognition is linked to Narendra Modi. If the chief evangelist of Gujarat is projected as the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) 2014 prime ministerial candidate, it means oodles of free airtime for Bulgari.

Rahul Gandhi will play the lead for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). So, in media terms, the 2014 election campaign will be a straight fight between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort.

Since 1989, it has been obvious that only a coalition can win 272 Lok Sabha seats. The best Indian National Congress (INC) result since 1984 was in 1991, when it won 232 seats, riding the sympathy wave after Sriperumbudur. The best BJP performance was the post-Kargil win of 182 seats under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. In terms of vote share, which is less important, the INC logged 36.3 per cent of the vote in 1991 and the BJP’s best vote share was 25.6 per cent in 1998 (when it also won 182 seats).

The INC contests more seats, which explains some of the vote-share differential. For reference, the INC holds 206 seats (28.6 per cent vote share) and the BJP holds 116 seats (18.8 per cent) at the moment. It is worth noting that the combined tally of the BJP and the INC has never dropped below 283. Any third front must, therefore, have the external support of one of these parties.

In 1999, the BJP had a war victory, a universally acceptable leader in Mr Vajpayee, a stable top echelon, and George Fernandes’ persuasive abilities to help put together a government. Whatever Mr Modi’s fan base may say, and however loudly they say it, he has a tough task matching that.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the BJP equals its 1998 and 1999 tallies of 182 seats in 2014. Its allies must still cobble together another 90-odd seats. We’ve seen over the past five years how difficult it has been for the INC to manage an alliance needing 66 seats from the other partners.

In the coalition formation game, the INC holds an edge and will probably continue to do so. This is for two reasons. One, it has more money. And two, it has no ideological biases beyond the doctrine of Nehru-Gandhi primacy.

Hence, regional parties, which need minority votes, can ally with the INC and take whatever benefits accrue, without damaging the respective vote bases. The BJP is hobbled in that, for example, the Trinamool, the Left, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are all “impossible” allies. Thus, in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, the INC may ally itself with any regional party; the BJP has problems.

The communal angle may also be one reason why erstwhile NDA members, Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party), Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal) and Jayalalithaa (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) have all distanced themselves. It is, of course, possible that they would give outside support or rejoin the alliance.

In Maharashtra, it’s an open question how the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance will fare after Balasaheb Thackeray’s demise and in the face of competition from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which targets the same vote banks. Other key NDA members are Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal- United, or JDU) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). In 2009, the JDU won 20 seats across Bihar and Jharkhand (total 54 seats). The SAD holds four.

Odisha has 21 seats, which limits possible BJD contributions. Andhra Pradesh is a mess and it’s anyone’s guess how 2014 will tally. Tamil Nadu tends to be a sweep for one or the other party, and either party might swing for either alliance.

Do the permutations. One thing stands out. Yes, the NDA might form the next government, only if the BJP does a great job building alliances. Nothing in Mr Modi’s track record suggests he’s good at that. If he does indeed spearhead the BJP’s campaign, it will make a positive difference to Bulgari’s branding. But it would probably not improve the BJP’s chances of winning the 2014 elections.

More from Sify: