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Turbulence alert: Will the Ghost of 1996-99 haunt India's politics again?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister for 13 days in 1996
In about 10 months from now, the time would have come to choose a new government. Barring some miracle, the BJP will not get a simple majority but will be the single largest party in the Lok Sabha; and depending on how many seats it loses, Narendra Modi may not be willing to continue as prime minister.

After all, in 1989, when the Congress came down from 415 seats to 197, Rajiv Gandhi had said that even though it was the single largest party, the mandate was against the Congress. He had therefore decided not to form the government betting that the internal contradictions of the Janata Dal, led by V P Singh, would bring it down very soon.

He bet correctly and the V P Singh government fell in a year. It was the most disastrous government India had had till then.

If the BJP loses around 130-140 seats, which at this juncture looks likely and not just possible, it will have to see if it wants to exercise the Rajiv option of sitting it out. This may well happen because of three reasons.

First, if it leads a large coalition like Atal Bihari Vajpayee did, its core agenda will be diluted. Second, Mr Modi may decide that he is not cut out for working in the constraints that a large coalition imposes on a weak leading party. He is not Vajpayee. Third, the anti-BJP front in 2019 will have the same problems as the anti-Congress fronts of 1977 and 1989 of internal ideological and political contradictions.

Then there is the choice of leader, even he or she is chosen after the general election. This has been discussed often enough so we can set it aside for the moment.

Party, leader and dissent

Given the arithmetic arising out of the presence of India’s political parties, one thing can be said with complete certainty: the Congress will be the single largest party in the Opposition bloc, simply because all the others are regional parties and the maximum seats any of them can win is around 50. There is an upper bound on their presence in the Lok Sabha because they are regional.

The Congress, meanwhile, even if it improves its tally by just five seats, will have 53. It will therefore lead the coalition, provided it can come up with someone other than Rahul Gandhi from within its ranks in a replay of the Sonia-Manmohan strategy of 2004.  

Of course, it is entirely possible that despite Congress being the single largest party, the others in the anti-BJP front will all also stake their claims and it will be impossible to form a government. Sharad Pawar is a clear possibility, as are Mayawati and Mamata Bannerjee.

Most likely outcome

In such an eventuality, if the BJP also declines to form the government, we may have no option but to hold another general election.

In a repeat of 1989 -- where the BJP, the CPM and the CPI all supported the Janata Dal -- we may well get the peculiarly Indian phenomenon of ‘outside’ support where sworn enemies come together for a limited purpose, namely, to oust the ruling party, BJP. In 1989 it was the Congress that was to be ousted.

But we know from history that would be a highly unstable solution. A similar experiment in 1977-79 had also failed.

The same thing had happened in 1996-98 also when we saw three prime ministers and two governments. The government that was elected in 1998 then had such a thin majority that it was defeated by just one vote in a no-confidence motion in 1999! After that we had three general elections in three years, four governments and three prime ministers.

We should not fool ourselves that this could not happen again. Indeed, I would say that this is the most likely outcome of the 2019 election.

We are in for some severe political turbulence which may last quite a while.

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