With the low-key election year Budget over and done with on February 28, the political positioning and shoving began with a vengeance. The last few days have seen a flurry of activity from the leading prime ministerial hopefuls. Narendra Modi did his usual grandstanding routine at the BJP national council in the capital last weekend, and gave a speech that was too shrill and mocking in tone to be appreciated by anyone other than his most hard-core followers. More interesting than his speech, I thought, were the sullen faces beside him on the dais and also the undisguised attempt by LK Advani in his speech afterwards to compare Sushma Swaraj with Vajpayee. And as if that were not enough to remind us of Modi’s polarising nature, hours later came news of the snub by Wharton Business School revoking his invitation to speak at their event under pressure from students and faculty. Unless the Gujarat CM starts to show some dexterity and modulation in his political discourse it may prove to be that his prospects have peaked too early in the electoral cycle, a shooting star instead of a rising star. The media spotlight on him is bound to dim with time and then he’ll have to fight it out in the trenches with the rest of the BJP leaders for the party leadership. Modi will require a much thicker skin as well, because it is becoming apparent that the effortless coronation he expected is not coming to pass.
Meanwhile, Mulayam Singh Yadav was having an even worse time of it, confronted by a perfect storm in the Kunda stronghold of his favourite Thakur leader, the infamous Raja Bhaiya. What precisely happened there is unclear but when the violence ended a Muslim police officer and a village pradhan as well as his brother, both Yadavs, were dead. The Muslim-Yadav electoral combination has formed the bedrock of Mulayam’s ascent to power and it was Raja Bhaiya, after Amar Singh’s departure, that gave an upper-caste face, however controversial, to the Samajwadi Party, which gained them the extra vote share that took them over the majority mark in the last assembly election. Three dead bodies, one powerful don, and three political constituencies to assuage. The end result was that Raja Bhaiya would have to resign and the CBI brought in, but jailing him was out of the question for now. Political calculations and an impending general election would not allow it. If and when the CBI arrest Raja Bhaiya the Samajwadi Party can say it was out of their hands and I’m sure the former jail mantri will be placed in the cosiest of accommodations.
And then we come to Master Rahul Gandhi, the ultimate non-aspirant, who spoke off the cuff, and hidden from cameras, in Central Hall on Tuesday and left everyone scratching their heads. Calling himself a parachute, by which I suppose he meant he was a parachute artist who gained power by taking advantage of dynasty, qualified as my favourite line in his otherwise pointless and self-defeating testimony. If Modi seems grasping for power, Rahul baba is the political yogi of our times who thinks power is poison and he will have nothing to do with it—as long as, I imagine, he gets to stay comfortably ensconced in his SPG bubble. Rahul may be right in signalling to the voter that he is not yearning for the PM’s chair and only interested in selflessly fighting for their welfare, but this spiel may get old rather quickly, especially if repeated too often. I suspect Rahul knows the next election is an upward climb for his party and would be perfectly fine donning the role of Opposition Leader in the next Lok Sabha, gaining experience and stature against a third front government with a short life expectancy. A fatigued Congress Party certainly looks like it could do with a rest from government after a decade in power.
In last week’s pre-Budget blog post I had asked the question about who would be Rahul’s Manmohan if the crown prince did not wish to take office. At the time I confess I never assumed that Rahul’s Manmohan could also be, well, Manmohan himself. If Chidambaram was put forward by Outlook magazine in its most recent issue as a prime ministerial prospect, it might have been just the spark needed to awaken our dear incumbent PM from his customary inertness in the Lok Sabha chamber on Wednesday to give his most effective parliamentary performance thus far, humbling the entire BJP front bench with a mixture of poetry, suitably self-serving statistics, and a fire in his belly that made everyone sit up and take notice. He even got in a nice jab at Narendra Modi. Could it be the old fox wants another go around, age and health permitting of course. I see no reason why the Gandhi family would protest. Dr Singh’s exuberance even went as far as predicting a third election victory for his government a year in advance of the elections. Too bad it took him nine years and two Lok Sabhas to find his footing. Or maybe Rajnath Singh, outshining the consistently lacklustre Sushma Swaraj, was right to mention in his reply to the PM’s speech that a flame that is about to extinguish always burns brightest in its dying moments.
Such was the drama of the week in Lutyens’ Delhi, where personalities and their ambitions dominated issues and events. But the reality is that the next elections may have nothing whatsoever to do with the qualities of the individuals aspiring to be PM, and may just be decided by accretion of seats in state electorates voting within their own narrow polities on local issues, only marginally keeping in mind the national context. The strength of parties, national and regional, in their areas of influence could determine the result. So it is imperative that we first and foremost lay out the electoral map of the country. In other words we must ascertain the state of play, Lok Sabha-wise. Naturally, my knowledge and understanding of states in northern India will be better than states further away from Delhi, so if any of you readers would like to add your views on a state with which you are closely acquainted I would definitely look forward to reading your comments. Let’s begin setting the electoral table, region by region, state by state. What follows is my best analysis and prognostication about the current position of the major parties in each state. So here goes.
Beginning in the north, Jammu and Kashmir is a state where governments normally align with the ruling alliance in Delhi, explaining it to their voters as a compulsion since a good rapport with the centre is necessary because of the sensitive security situation prevailing in the state. This time around the Abdullahs look like they are on shaky ground in the valley, especially after the Afzal Guru hanging, whether the PDP or more extreme elements will gain from it is unclear. The results of the 2 seats in Jammu are a good barometer of how the BJP and Congress are going to perform nationally and need to be closely watched. In Himachal Pradesh we recently had an assembly election where the Congress triumphed, and the edge has go to them. On the other hand, in Uttarakhand the first hints of anti-incumbency have already begun to surface after a tight assembly election result and the new Chief Minister putting up his son as the Congress candidate in the by-election to fill his vacated parliament seat and losing to the BJP. The Bahuguna government has not started its term on a good note at all.
In Punjab the Akalis have been through a torrid time with law and order-related bad new after bad news, but they seemed to have turned a corner with a recent by-election win last week in Moga after the sitting Congress MLA defected. The reverberations of the loss could be felt in the last couple of days when Capt. Amarinder Singh was replaced as President of the Punjab Congress. Mutinous murmuring from the Maharaja’s supporters could mean the defection of another Congress MLA or two and would further demoralise the party workers. The Badal family performs like a finely-tuned machine when it comes to fighting elections but, conversely, is anarchic in the realm of administration with the state treasury just about running on empty. In Haryana it looks like the hold of the Hooda government on the state seems finally to be weakening with anti-incumbency, real estate scams, dissidence, and sympathy for the jailed Chautala father and son combining to put the Congress Party’s 9-seat haul from the last election in jeopardy. The Aaam Aadmi Party too could play a role with two of its leaders Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav from Haryana and expending a lot of energy in the state to build on the result of the Hisar by-election result in 2011 when the Congress candidate lost his security deposit in large part due to Kejriwal’s exertions. Not to be forgotten, and possibly entering the fray too, is former army chief General VK Singh who could stand from his home district of Bhiwani, unless he decides on Jhunjhunu across the border in Rajasthan. Speaking of which, a far worse fate awaits the Congress government in Rajasthan where the alternating pendulum of voter support is set to swing back towards the BJP, with Vasundhara Raje looking to oust for a second time the hapless Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, in assembly elections later this year. The Raje-RSS rivalry within the state BJP unit could be a spoiler were it to boil up again.
The polity of Uttar Pradesh is so vast and complex that it may as well be categorised as a nation with its many and varied regions as provinces in their own right. If the rumours are true and Narendra Modi fights from a parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, the state will be front and centre in the 2014 campaign in a way not seen in many a general election. Rahul vs. Modi vs. Mulayam vs. Mayawati. I’m sure the political pundits are salivating at the prospect. The voters of UP have an opportunity to choose a PM if they decide to overwhelmingly back one of these leaders over and above the others. Mulayam is the veteran and it could possibly be his last bid for the top job, which could resonate with the voters from an emotional standpoint. As for Rahul, he will be a far more effective factor in the general election than the assembly poll because he will actually be contesting himself, and possibly with his sister as a candidate as well, and that always rallies the troops. But the Congress has 22 sitting MPs from the state and anti-incumbency in those constituencies will be a factor. As always Modi is the wildcard, capable of changing the entire race with his mere presence. As the poster boy for Hindutva and also an OBC, he needs to replicate what Uma Bharti managed in Madhya Pradesh. The difference, however, between the two Hindi-belt states is, of course, the significant size of UP’s Muslim electorate. The question is, whether the Muslim voters will consolidate in response to Modi, and if so, in whose favour. Will they back the man they affectionately call 'Maulana Mulayam' or will they overcome their residual distrust of the Congress and throng to Rahul’s flag. Many, many questions and all fascinating. An early election in 2013 would favour Mulayam because a breakdown of law and order in the state, especially communal flare-ups, could be incrementally eating into the gains his son Akhilesh made in the 2012 assembly election. On the positive side Mulayam’s vehement opposition to the constitutional amendment for reservations in promotions during the winter session of parliament earned him considerable goodwill with OBC and upper-caste voters. But a year still remains till polls are scheduled, an eternity in politics, and there could be many more ugly surprises in store for the rulers of Uttar Pradesh.
Shivraj Chauhan, the BJP Chief Minister who is the antithesis of Modi, appears to be quietly popular in Madhya Pradesh, as best we can tell, and holding his own against a Congress party that is as faction-ridden as it has ever been. The situation could alter slightly if Digvijay Singh returns to the electoral mix after keeping his vow of staying away from elected office for ten years. His return to the field could give a much-need emotional fillip to the Madhya Pradesh Congress. Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh appears rock solid as always but can he repeat his stellar performance in 2009 of winning 10 out of 11 seats. What role will the Maoists play this time around. Naveen Patnaik in Orissa suffered dissident problems last year but has recovered confidently from that trying experience. Coal scams and increasingly violent protests against the Posco land acquisition could still be important election issues, though. The BJP and Congress have no state leader to match the stature of Patnaik and the state assembly election will take place simultaneously with parliamentary elections, which normally provides a boost to the Lok Sabha tally of the party with a strong chief minister like the BJD.
If the BJP and Janata Dal (United) maintain their alliance in Bihar there is little doubting their chances to increase their already large share of the state’s 40 seats. Even if they do sweep, there is no guarantee Nitish Kumar will stay with the NDA thereafter, bolting if the BJP insists on a Prime Minister Modi or tempted by the prospect of joining a third front government. The Congress is waiting with open arms to seal a pre-election alliance with the JDU, but is in no position to make up for the loss of the BJP’s crucial upper-caste voting block that would ensue. Whether the resulting increase in vote share among Muslims, after the BJP’s departure, will deliver Nitish Kumar the number of seats he so desires is the dilemma. Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan wait in the wings marginalized and hoping against hope for Nitish to make a misstep and provide them an opening. The Bihar CM, a trained civil engineer, is not known to take gambles, calculated risks perhaps.
Jharkhand is an electoral nightmare as usual, and currently under President’s rule. BJP is confident but they will need to do well to defend their tally of 8 seats from 2009. With the jailed Madhu Koda and his record of uninhibited corruption as Chief Minister still in the news, the Congress is less sanguine. Shibu Soren’s JMM and Babulal Marandi’s JVM are always a force to be reckoned with thanks to their tribal support base. The alliances will make the difference. In West Bengal, despite her chaotic approach to governance, Mamata rules supreme after having won the hard-fought ground war in Bengal’s rural areas. The recent underwhelming by-election results have got to be a worry, but nobody doubts that come 2014 she will at the very least improve on her performance from the last general election. On the campaign trail she is a force of nature and no other Bengali leader can compare. Whether the Congress will survive her electoral assault in its last remaining bastions of North Bengal will also be interesting to see. The Gogoi government in Assam looks vulnerable after last year’s sectarian clashes showed the Chief Minister and his administration in an extremely poor light. He is now making overtures towards the AIUDF, a Muslim-dominated party with whom he had earlier vowed never to ally, which could either turn out to be a shrewd gambit or a move that backfires with his own base. Whether the AGP and the BJP can take advantage of Tarun Gogoi’s vulnerabilities is not certain, especially after their poor showing in the just concluded violence-marred panchayat polls.
To the west, Gujarat should go with Modi in support of his aspirations, gaining seats for the BJP in a more convincing fashion than the surprising stalemate with the Congress in 2009. Maharashtra is anybody’s guess with Raj Thackeray giving strong signals of making peace and allying with his estranged cousin Uddhav Thackeray, thereby uniting the Shiv Sena in spirit if not in body. This will make a decisive difference to seats in Mumbai and neighbouring regions and cost the Congress-NCP crucial seats. Whether anti-incumbency affects the Cong-NCP in the rest of the state is hard to say as the alliance has been so resilient in past elections even when they seemed to be facing a wave of anti-incumbency. However, with much of Maharashtra stricken by drought and the state government bearing the blame after the uncovering of an irrigation scam that stunned the nation because of its scale and cold-blooded venality, this may be the final straw. Or could the much publicised shenanigans of Nitin Gadkari hold the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance back from effectively using corruption as a poll plank. And what impact will Anna Hazare have in his home state if he decides to campaign in the election. A great many variables to wrestle with in Maharashtra. Manohar Parrikar is a safe pair of hands for the BJP in Goa and its 2 seats.
In the south, Andhra Pradesh is a train wreck happening in slow-motion for the Congress and with a current tally of 33 seats, YSR’s electoral legacy, they have a lot to lose. An imprisoned Jagan Reddy, like Mamata, has vowed vengeance and he will get it. Congress did respectably in recent cooperative society elections but these polls are hardly a genuine indicator of the electoral mood in the way the impending local body elections will be. There is a school of thought, a very short-sighted one, in the Congress that thinks granting statehood to Telangana will save them at least from a whitewash in the region’s 17 Lok Sabha seats. Possibly, but it will let loose demands for statehood across the country in regions ranging from Gorkhaland to Vidarbha to Harit Pradesh to Bundelkhand and beyond that will be an electoral headache many times worse than Telangana is currently. Divine intervention may be the only solution for the Andhra problems of the Congress. The BJP is in an equally desperate condition in their southern bastion of Karnataka, with Yeddyurappa’s revolt likely to cause them grievous electoral damage and resulting in a loss of seats to the benefit of the Congress and Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (S).
It will be tough for the Congress to repeat its stellar general election performance in Kerala with its state government mired in one scandal after another, whether related to sex or corruption. As for Tamil Nadu, you will be hard pressed to find a single soul who believes the DMK is in any position to recover from it dire performance in the 2011 assembly elections, and therefore has little chance of maintaining their currently healthy seat total in the Lok Sabha. P Chidambaram’s re-election hopes are also in jeopardy here, with Chief Minister Jayalalitha targeting him for defeat.
New Delhi’s 7 seats should swing back in a substantial way to the BJP, with the urban vote clearly moving away from the Congress and the electoral strength of Mrs Dikshit on the wane. Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party appear to have taken up the opposition space in the last few months, pressuring the Dikshit government in a way the BJP has failed to do during her terms in office. If the Kejriwal experiment is to succeed anywhere it would probably be in Delhi which was the epicentre of the Anna Hazare movement against corruption. But realistically the damage being done to the Congress by the Aam Aadmi Party is likely to help the BJP win seats. We’ll find out if that supposition holds true in assembly election later this year. Of the North-Eastern states, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura recently voted with the NPF, Congress and Left governments being re-elected, a voting pattern that should be replicated in the general election. Maybe Purno Sangma’s party will do better in a national election, especially if he himself chooses to stand from his old seat of Tura in Meghalaya. The Outer Manipur seat could also give the Congress some problems because of the recent increase in strife between Nagas and Kukis that led to duelling blockades of the valley districts. The North-East has some dominant chief ministers in office at present like the NPF’s Rio in Nagaland, Congress’s Ibobi Singh in Manipur and Lalthanhawla in Mizoram, the Left’s Sarkar in Tripura, and SDF’s Chamling in Sikkim. Parliamentary elections in smaller states like these with one or two seats are like single-ballot referendums on the state government, the quality of the chief minister the crucial variable. Every seat will matter in the 16th Lok Sabha.
I did not make an exact count of seats as we went from state to state in our journey criss-crossing the political landscape of India, but if you piece together my state by state approximations into a whole you will find one glaring trend. The diminution of the two major national parties. In a recent column for rediff.com Mr TVR Shenoy, the veteran journalist whose career and political memory stretches back half-a-century, terms it the ‘Bay of Bengal Problem’ for the Congress and the BJP. He posits a realistic scenario where the two parties are wiped out from all the states along the Bay of Bengal coast stretching from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu that together constitute a sum total of 145 seats, of which the Congress alone won 54 and the UPA tallied 91 in 2009. The BJP doesn’t exist in these states anyway—ignoring the aberration of Jaswant Singh in Darjeeling—having committed hara-kiri in Orissa last time around and parted ways with the BJD, its last ally in the region. Going by current trends the Congress is faced with the real possibility of being left with a mere handful of seats in this arc of states which provided so plentifully and decisively for the UPA in the last two elections. Demolished in Andhra, their ally DMK equally battered in Tamil Nadu and no Mamata to fall back on for support with her bounty from West Bengal, it would spell the end of re-election hopes for the government. I should underline, however, that though the Congress would lose seats it will not be to the BJP’s gain. The chiefs of regional parties are set to be the main beneficiaries in the coming election from the look of things. Not to mention President Pranab Mukherjee, who will decide which individual to swear in as Prime Minister after what could very likely be a fractured verdict. The man who once waited for the call in vain will now make the call. I guess you live long enough and anything is possible.
Thus our electoral table is set. It was exhausting to write it, and no doubt to read as well, so I can’t even imagine what stamina it must take to plan a general election campaign that has to reach every last polling booth in the most distant and diverse constituencies. May the best campaign win!
Stay tuned for my next blog post: The Communal Conundrum