Modi's fate: Between magic, math & Maya

It is an accepted truism that when journalists predict an election, they are usually wrong. And when all journalists call it the same way, exactly the opposite result is guaranteed.

Opinion polls too are dodgy, but better than us journalists. So, what happens when all of them agree on the same broad outcome?

This has been a week of several opinion polls. One thing they fully agree on is that if elections were held today, we are guaranteed a hung parliament, with the BJP as the largest party, the Congress as the next but with just half its size, and a genuine coalition government once again.

There are still three months to the elections and nothing in politics remains static. We can, however, track some significant trends and safely draw the following broad conclusions from these polls. Which one is good or bad I leave to you to judge, based on your own voting preferences.

1)The most striking indicator is that while the BJP will fall far short of its 2014 majority, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity is by and large intact. The India Today poll shows the BJP vote share falling just 1 per cent from 31 in 2014.

This is remarkable. I believe that while there is significant disillusionment among his original voters, it is compensated for by the unquestioning devotion of first-time Lok Sabha voters, close to 130 million (born generally 1996 onwards).

Illustration by Binay Sinha
The difference between them and the rest is they haven’t been out in the job market yet. As I have noted during my travels through state elections, they are still dazzled by Mr Modi’s power and charisma, believe the propaganda on his schemes, from Swachh Bharat, Skill India, war on corruption to India’s “rising” global profile.

They haven’t been exposed to a counter-story yet, or to the hopelessness of unemployment. It’s the great hedge holding Mr Modi/BJP back at the edge of the cliff.

2)The political mood isn’t so much about the current reality as the momentum. If you plot the numbers of each poll from what was Mr Modi’s peak in post-demonetisation January 2017, when India Today gave the BJP 305 and the NDA 360 seats, the momentum is downhill. It isn’t hurtling down, but isn’t too gradual either, a “loss” of one-third, in two years. If it continues that way, the BJP number could logically fall by another 25-40. Can Mr Modi stall, or even reverse this momentum?

Visualise Indian public opinion, with all its diversity and complexity, like a juggernaut: Massive, primitively engineered, creaking. It takes masses of people to make it move slowly. But once it is cranked, it is tough to reverse. Remember, momentum is mass multiplied by velocity. Reversing it is near-impossible, and Mr Modi knows it.

That is why the flurry of radical, near-impossible populist actions, from reservations for upper castes, quotas for all in private institutions, to a last-minute avalanche of CBI raids on the “corrupt and the powerful”, and whatever next week brings, with the Budget, etc. Mr Modi and Amit Shah know any loss below 180 is curtains. If they can change the direction of this juggernaut in the next 100 days, it will be a most remarkable feat. So fully expect more desperate and radical announcements in the coming days. Remember again, their bulwark will still be the 130 million first-time Lok Sabha voters, with their still uncluttered minds.

3)If you take out Uttar Pradesh and the SP-BSP gathbandhan there, it is remarkable how the BJP’s numbers in the rest of India are about the same as before. Various polls show the BJP losing 45-55 seats in UP. That’s precisely what it’s losing over its overall 282 tally. It seems to be holding its sway, if not a clean sweep, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat despite the recent assembly elections setbacks. Some losses in the north will be compensated for in the east and Northeast. UP, therefore, is the one factor keeping it away from a majority. Can it find a trick to counter that? Something of such sentimental appeal that it consolidates the Hindu vote, cutting through caste.

4)The Congress is reviving. In terms of percentage over the base, its gains are much bigger than the BJP’s losses. The difference is its base is low. So even a 200 per cent increase would keep it to under 140. Current opinion polls put it just over 100. Even if you extrapolate these most generously presuming that Mr Modi is not able to reverse the momentum, you do not see a spectacular surge.

Its best hope lies in denying Mr Modi more of the seats in the three heartland states it has just won. The key number for it is 150. Either take its own tally there, or keep Mr Modi below it. A third way would be to widen the UPA tent and persuade more regional or caste-based parties to come under it. All three look improbable at this point. But a second pole is back in Indian politics.

5) In the previous week’s National Interest we had talked about the third, and our notional fourth and fifth fronts. If about 150 seats go to leaders not aligned to either the Congress or BJP, many will hope to become prime minister in a grand compromise. It is highly improbable.

None of the parties other than the BJP and Congress can reach 50, in fact even 40. The only way such a grand-bargain fantasy would come true is if the Congress and the BJP together are somehow kept below 272. That has never happened and is most unlikely this May. But anyone with 15 seats or more will have the power to strike other big bargains, from getting certificates of good conduct from the CBI and ED on the Bellary Brothers’ pattern, special packages for their states, and key portfolios.

Final alliances depend as much on who you cannot go with as on who you can. We know that the Left and SP can never go with the NDA, just as the Akalis and Shiv Sena won’t with the UPA. Now look at those who’ve been flexible in the past. Mamata Banerjee has been with both coalitions, but her current dominance in West Bengal rules out her return to the NDA. There are others in the 15-plus category who will have options open: DMK/AIADMK, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, Telangana’s KCR, Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCP and, for heavens’ sake, the sharpest of all, Nitish Kumar. About 100 seats will be shared among these non-ideological parties who will likely go with the winner.

6) This is where we return to Mayawati. If Mr Modi is denied a second term, it will be primarily because of the unique power she commands in our politics: A transferable vote. She has happily bonded with the BJP in the past. She is fully non-ideological in Left-Right terms. If anti-Manuwaad is her only ideology, the NDA and UPA are equally evil and she can drink that poison from either chalice. Mr Modi and Mr Shah know the key-card to their second term sits in her fancy hand bag. She is the one plank they want to pull away from their rivals, through charm, threat or both, before the elections or after. Unlikely, but you can never rule that out, even if it means the hatchet being buried later in Yogi Adityanath’s back.

To sum up: Mr Modi’s personal popularity and vote bank are mostly intact but the momentum is negative, the UP alliance is all that threatens his second term, the Congress is rising but not enough, any party with 15 or more MPs will be a kingmaker but not the king, 100 seats will go to parties that can go with any winner. And keep a close watch on Mayawati.
By Special Arrangement with ThePrint

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