Do the math. The BJP will be the victim of its own 2014 success, writes Shashi Tharoor.
The recent state assembly election defeats for the BJP in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the clear, if close, loss in Madhya Pradesh, and the ruling party’s no-show in Telangana and Mizoram, have energised the opposition, and in particular the Congress Party.
From a period when even critics of the BJP were resignedly arguing the ‘TINA’ factor – conceding that there ‘There Is No Alternative’, or at least not a credible one, to the BJP – there is now a widespread belief that the opposition is poised to win the 2019 elections, with the Congress as its fulcrum. The danger of complacency is now far greater than the risk of defeatism.
Is this merely wishful thinking? Many experts caution that the Congress today is in danger of making the same mistake Atal Bihari Vajpayee did in 2003 – of reading too much into his party’s victories in the same elections that year. His triumph led him to call early elections in 2004, which he then proceeded to lose. Might the victors – 15 years later – be making the same miscalculation?
I believe not. For one thing, there are underlying factors that convince me that for all his remarkable oratorical and political skills, Narendra Modi will not be the Prime Minister of India at the end of May 2019.
First and foremost, it is clear to me that the BJP will be the victim of its own success in 2014. It simply did too well then, notching up successes in various states that it cannot possibly replicate. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, it won 71 seats (not counting the two that went to its ally, Apna Dal). That was at the height of the Modi wave, when people were prepared to believe that the hard-driving CEO of Gujarat Inc would come and transform their fortunes, and unemployed youths from Kanpur to Varanasi believed in the promise of jobs flowing their way. None of those promises has been kept. Disillusionment is rife: no young person who voted for Modi expecting a job is going to vote for the BJP again if he/she still hasn’t found one. Achhe din haven’t come. The Modi wave is over.
And unlike in 2014, the opposition is not going to divide its votes this time.
Mayawati’s BSP won 19.6 per cent of the vote then and did not retain a single seat: her support was too evenly spread throughout the state. She knows she needs to add to that core support base to acquire the clout that comes from seats in Parliament. This is why her alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, which triumphed in the last three UP by-elections, looks so durable. Add the 10 per cent support the Congress brings to such an alliance – if the other parties see the wisdom of linking up with the Grand Old Party – and the mathematics look irresistible. With such a gathbandhan in the fray, the BJP will be lucky to win 10 seats in UP.
The picture gets worse for the BJP if you travel across the Hindi heartland. In 2014, the party swept all 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan, all five in Uttarakhand, all seven in Delhi, and all four seats in Himachal Pradesh; it also won 27 out of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, seven out of 10 seats in Haryana, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh and 12 out of 14 in Jharkhand. Even the most diehard BJP supporter would admit these results are impossible to replicate even in normally favourable conditions. But the reality is that these are places where the BJP is actively in trouble, as evident from the recent assembly elections. It is obvious to most neutral observers that the BJP will lose a majority of its seats in all these states, bar perhaps Madhya Pradesh, where it may lose about half. The BJP would be lucky to scrape through with 45 seats of the 105 in these eight states. Most poll experts privately give them less.
That doesn’t end the bad news for the BJP. In Bihar it won 22 of the 40 seats in 2014; it cannot hope for more than a dozen this time – that too thanks to its alliance with the JD(U). In Gujarat, it swept all 26 seats; last year’s assembly elections showed that it is likely to lose half of those this time. In Karnataka, it won 17 out of 28 seats last time; it will be lucky to retain even seven in 2019. All these are rough estimates – so-called ‘scientific’ polling does not have a great track record in the complex diversities of the Indian electoral landscape – but if anything, they err on the side of being generous to the BJP. (In Bihar, for instance, where I suggested a dozen seats for the BJP, some are actually predicting a clean sweep for the Congress-RJD alliance, given the widespread dislike for Nitish Kumar’s opportunistic politics.)
So in these 12 crucial states, accounting in 2014 for 233 of the BJP’s 282 seats, Narendra Modi’s ruling party seems likely to lose about 150 seats, as explained above. Where can it compensate for these losses?
Party leaders speak brashly of winning seats in West Bengal, Odisha, the northeast and the south. Neither Mamata Banerjee, who won 34 of West Bengal’s 42 seats last time to the BJP’s two, nor Naveen Patnaik, whose BJD won 20 seats in Odisha to the BJP’s solitary one, look particularly vulnerable. The seven states of the northeast account for a grand total of 24 seats; even given the BJP’s new-found popularity in the region, the strength of regional parties suggests they can win at best 14 or 15 seats. In the south, they will lose the seats they won in Andhra Pradesh by piggy-backing on their erstwhile ally, Chandrababu Naidu, who has now abandoned them in a huff, and they are not looking credibly at many gains elsewhere.
Do the math, as the schoolteachers say: once you tot up the pluses and minuses, the BJP isn’t winning more than 145 seats around the country. Every imaginable ally they can muster – the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal, the JD(U), and if you stretch your imagination, perhaps the YSR Congress, perhaps a Rajinikanth-AIADMK alliance in Tamil Nadu – will not be able to contribute enough seats collectively to make a difference. The writing on the wall is unambiguous: Welcome, 2019; goodbye, Narendra Modi.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.