This Article is From May 13, 2014

BJP's Danger Mark is 180-200 Seats

(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi)

A month and five days after it began, voting for India's general election is finally over and the exit poll numbers are rolling in. Based on previous experience, however, these surveys have not always been very accurate. (Also read: India Sets New Record for Voter Turnout at Over 66%)

If the BJP wins upwards of 230 seats, there will be no need for analysts to whip out their calculators and figure out the political permutations and combinations that will help Narendra Modi cross the 272 mark. (Opinion: BJP & Allies At 275)

But if the electorate gives the BJP less than that, the arithmetic of alliances will become important once again.

Specifically, any score less than 220 means it has to find partners beyond the current constituents of the National Democratic Alliance.

When Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar quit the NDA, many analysts assumed the BJP would find it difficult to attract allies as long as Modi was its PM candidate.

The experience of the past few months has belied that assumption. Modi was not a constraint for Ramvilas Paswan, who brought his small but strategically significant Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) in Bihar into the NDA. The Telugu Desam Party or the small Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra parties that are backing the BJP also did not have any problem with Modi as the BJP's helmsman. (Also read: In Andhra Pradesh, Results of an Important Election Today)

The only potential partner who cannot team up with a Modi-led BJP is Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress. But this has as much to do with Mamata's own calculations as with Modi's deliberate and personal  attacks on the Trinamool leader.

With reports of the BJP's vote share in West Bengal climbing to as high as 18-19 per cent on the back of religious polarization to which the Trinamool has contributed as much if not more than the BJP, Modi obviously decided to go all-out in the state, even if it meant burning his bridges with Mamata. The party hopes it can win 3-4 seats on its own and the TMC leader is, after all, someone who is always going to be a problematic ally.

Of course, Modi has been more guarded in his campaigns in Orissa and Tamil Nadu, knowing that he might need the support of both Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, either from inside or outside the government, to cross the 272 mark in the Lok Sabha.

In Telangana and Seemandhra, Modi has been careful not to burn his bridges with the Telanga Rashtra Samiti and Jagan Reddy's YSR Congress. Both parties have already provided ample indication of their willingness to back him as PM.

But if Modi is no longer an obstacle in the way of the BJP's alliance-building, the very success of the NDA campaign in Orissa, Andhra and Tamil Nadu means the party's PM candidate will have to be able to paper over some of the complications this will produce in his relationship with Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Reddy and Jayalalithaa.

In Orissa, indications are that the BJP, which has never won a single Lok Sabha seat on its own in the state, is likely to win anywhere from 3 to 6 seats as the Congress implodes. But the emergence of the BJP as the most dynamic opposition force in the state will also make Naveen Patnaik wary of directly or indirectly backing Modi at the Centre.

In Seemandhra, where Assembly elections are also being held, a winning show by the TDP-BJP combine will make it difficult for Jagan Reddy to lend his MPs to Modi in Delhi. Conversely, a poor showing by the alliance would mean Jagan winning both the assembly and the bulk of the region's 25 seats, and then going in to declare his support for Modi since he would like the cooperation of New Delhi as Chief Minister of a new state.

Of course, in Telangana, as long as the Congress is the second-largest party, the TRS will have no issues with backing a Modi government even if the BJP does well in the region.

In Tamil Nadu, a strong showing by the BJP-led front -- say, one where it wins anywhere from 5-8 seats -- will make Jayalalithaa wary of Modi's long-term impact on the state's politics. She may well demand  that the BJP jettison the DMDK, MDMK and PMK as a condition for extending her support. Of course, if the NDA does poorly, Jayalalithaa would almost certainly want to partner with Modi at the Centre, though not without extracting her pound of flesh. Here, recent history tells us that since 1996, the largest Dravidian party has always ended up backing the Central government.

Before he antagonised Mamata, even 170-180 BJP seats would have been enough for Modi to build an alliance and form the government. It would be unwieldy and unstable but it could be assembled. Today, however, Mamata will almost certainly demand that Modi step aside in favour of someone else from the BJP, a condition the party would never accept. To become PM on the back of 180 seats and a hostile Mamata, Modi would need  Jagan, Jayalalithaa and TRS to win 60 seats between them.

If 180-200 seats range represents a danger zone for the BJP, anything beyond that would provide a comfortable platform for Modi. His NDA partners and TDP would likely take the tally up to at least 235. From there, reaching 272 will not be a difficult task.

The other reason  that 180-200 for the BJP is a danger mark for Modi is because the only way the saffron party can poll so low is if the Congress wins around 100-120 seats. This seems a difficult ask, going by the opinion polls and ground sentiment, but then Indian elections do sometimes produce surprise outcomes.

The recent talk by Congress leaders about supporting a Third Front is built around the magical figure of 120 seats for the party.

What this means is that all the non-BJP, non-Congress parties together must win around 250 seats, leaving enough headroom to exclude one party each from the incompatible dyads of Left-Trinamool, SP-BSP, and AIADMK-DMK. If the BJP polls 180- 200, fashioning a motley alliance under the leadership of say someone like Sharad Pawar -- who is corporate-friendly and can deploy a formidable war chest -- may be an option the Congress could consider.

One factor that will also play a role is the logistics of partnership-building is Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though there is no procedure specified by the Constitution, President Pranab Mukherjee will go by the burden of past precedent. He could ask anybody who says he or she can form the government to provide letters of support from at least 272 MPs. And he will almost certainly first ask the single-largest party to do this.

If the numbers are evenly matched, the backers of any putative Third Front would have to move quickly to pre-empt the BJP. What may prove decisive is the size of the war chests each side is able to employ - a fitting end to what has been the most money-driven election in Indian history.

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