This Article is From Apr 07, 2014

Opinion: Jayalalithaa is a hard bargainer

(Swapan Dasgupta is a Delhi-based political commentator with avowedly right-wing inclinations)

At the risk of some over-simplification, there appears to be three very distinct political battles being fought in the general election.

The first is obviously the Congress-BJP (and allies) confrontation in much of northern and western India. Karnataka and Assam are also included in this fight between the two main national parties. If the opinion polls are accurate, the BJP has a huge advantage over the Congress in this battleground.

The second arena of contest is being waged in the Ganga belt between regional parties and the BJP. By common consensus, the fiercest electoral battles are being fought in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where the BJP is trying to muscle in to the preserve of regional, caste-based parties. Here too the polls suggest an advantage for the BJP but not to the extent as in where the Congress is reeling under the weight of anti-incumbency.

Obviously the BJP must do extremely well, perhaps have an average strike rate of nearly 70 per cent if it is to form a government with Narendra Modi at the helm. However, the extent to which the next government will allow its Prime Minister sufficient elbow room to conduct significant policy initiatives will depend considerably on how the battles in the third arena are concluded.

I am, of course, referring to the states in eastern and southern India where regional parties are fighting each other or battling an enfeebled Congress. In Tamil Nadu, (united) Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, the BJP is weak and struggling to emerge as the proverbial third alternative - with only modest success.

How regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress (AITC), Biju Janata Dal (BJD), AIADMK, DMK, Telugu Desam (TDP) and YSR Congress (YSRC) perform is of more than academic interest. The numbers they bring to the table, coupled with the results in the Ganga belt, will determine the ability of the next government to be decisive.

Will the regional parties ally with the NDA to confer stability to the next government?

So far, the indications are very mixed. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has launched a tirade against the BJP because she senses that the outer periphery of a possible Modi wave will facilitate the victory of the Left in many constituencies. In Odisha on the other hand, the BJP has gone on an anti-Naveen Patnaik offensive because it detects the possibility of replacing the Congress as the principal anti-BJD force. Patnaik on the other hand has been relishing the BJP advance because it strengthens the likelihood of a BJD sweep.

The most curious encounter, however, is in Tamil Nadu. Here, both Jayalalithaa and the BJP have refrained from attacking each other with any measure of aggression. There is a gentle Modi breeze blowing in Tamil Nadu and Jayalalithaa is seeking to appropriate some of it in constituencies where the BJP is not contesting - and these make up most of the seats.

Do the battle formations give a clue as to how the regional parties are going to behave vis a vis the NDA?

The answers are very mixed. The TMC is unlikely to enter into any formal understanding with the NDA unless there is evidence of a Left resurgence. Mamata's relationship with the NDA is likely to be covert.

All indications are that the BJD will coast to power for the fourth time in Odisha. This suggests that Naveen Patnaik will have the greatest elbow room to negotiate a deal which leaves him dominant at the state level and with a stake at the Centre. To my mind, BJD will not be hostile to a Modi government. What is uncertain is whether he will succumb to pressure from his MPs and actually join the government but without attaching his party to the NDA.

This leaves Jayalalithaa who has no personal issues with Modi but who drives a hard bargain. She would revel if the NDA needs her support to cross the magic 272 mark. In the event Modi is better placed after an alliance in Andhra Pradesh with the TDP, Jayalalithaa will be put at a relative disadvantage.

Who says the results of the election are foregone?

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