Who’s Afraid Of A Coalition Government?
It’s a great relief to think that by the time this is posted, the last phase of polling in India’s 17th general election will be over with everyone awaiting the results on May 23.
The inevitable question – what next? – is not easy to answer. Once the last vote is cast at 1800 hours on May 19, flood-gates of Exit polls will break open. Although none of the methods used is infallible, past records place Exit polls close to correct. Till then, anyone who claims to know is either lying or is a charlatan.
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And till then, one can ignore the claims, either way, of acolytes – bhakts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress’ chamchas. These social media pejoratives indicate the negative mood, intolerant of a differing opinion. Not just politicos, but also their self-appointed supporters and opponents, are getting personal, hitting critics below the belt.
Has the vote cast, too, been negative? It appears so. In 2014, people voted for Narendra Modi’s promise of a better future and junked a scam-tainted government. It was a mixed verdict in that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a clear mandate but on the lowest-ever 31 percent of votes cast.
People then latched on to Modi’s his promises of jobs and dignity. He did start off well. But five years hence, he has scored more minuses then pluses with a faltering economy, highest unemployment in 45 years, rural distress and severe strains on the social fabric. Pushing a majoritarian political agenda, his government’s ban on beef targeted the Muslim butchers and Dalit tanners.
His demonetization gambit emasculated political opponents economically. Nobody talks about it because all politicos’ sources of money are open to suspicion. (Hamaam mein sab nange hain.) But the people suffered much worse and have continued to suffer.
Forget falling demand of cars and consumer goods. Forget even crises in key sectors like IT, telecom and aviation. But you can’t ignore food inflation that touches every citizen. Showing signs of heading for a slowdown, the economy could be Modi’s Waterloo — and a nightmare for the next government.
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Politically, this is phir ek baar Modi Sarkar – Modi seeking a fresh mandate. See the posters; BJP figures only as election symbol, and little more. This is unlike India, even unlike BJP that attacks the Congress ‘dynasty’.
If negative points could be the decider, then those earned by the Congress need listed. One, Priyanka’s induction reinforces its no-alternative-to-dynasty factor. Two, it plays ‘soft’ Hindutva to the BJP’s hardcore one.
Three, like some of his foot-in-the-mouth-afflicted leaders, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi ought not to have misquoted the Supreme Court in “chowkidar chor hai” chant against Modi. Once he did, decency and common sense required that he apologise instantly, unconditionally. His lawyers filed two ‘explanations’ instead, annoying the court. Rahul apologized, belatedly, but will remain under the court’s adverse gaze till it exonerates him in July after the summer vacation.
The ‘chowkidar’ bit emanated from the Modi Government’s Rafale aircraft deal. Rahul insists that it is an election issue and cites a study indicating 68 percent voters’ interest. This is farthest from truth. But it has provoked Modi to talk of defence deals his father Rajiv Gandhi concluded.
If Rahul failed to sell this scam without strong evidence to support to the urban voters, the majority voter in the countryside doesn’t know what Rafale is all about – and couldn’t care less. There is no public perception about Rafale and perceptions do matter in elections.
While Rahul has made serious tactical errors, Modi’s are, in a manner of speaking, strategic ones. His ideological attack on Jawaharlal Nehru can be understood. But those made on Rajiv defies Indian tradition of not abusing a dead person. Rajiv was a decent man who meant well, whatever his flaws and mistakes, and he died a violent death.
Modi continued with accusation of security lapse supposedly entailed by Rajiv taking his Italian in-laws on a holiday on board the Navy’s aircraft carrier. Top naval officers of that era have denied it. Journalists who chased that story, including this writer, found this to be false.
His repeatedly dragging the armed forces into controversies, whether to build a hyper-patriotic narrative or to score brownie points over his opponents, even those who are long dead, threatens to disrupt equipoise in civil-military relations that India has nurtured. Unlike its neighbours, India is closer to Western democracies.
Viewing India’s election from a distance, relying on the embedded media could be misleading. For one, there is no presidential-style campaign between Modi and Rahul. Secondly, the BJP is certainly the dominant political force today, but is not omnipresent – not yet.
Of the 543 Lok Sabha seats contested, a little over a half (275) have had a direct BJP-Congress confrontation. In 170, the BJP is confronting various regional parties, where the Congress is weak or non-existent. In 101 seats there is no BJP – not even its NDA allies. In 150 seats, neither of the national parties matters. These are swing states where regional parties will be the kings and also king-makers at the national level, should the results throw up a ‘hung’ house.
Not the only culprit though, the Congress has failed to forge an anti-BJP phalanx, both out of incompetence and due to anxiety to protect its shrinking base.
Current parleys among regional leaders, some with prime ministerial ambitions, show that the mutual distrust between Congress and its allies, made and those lost, could make post-polls alliance-making difficult.
Truth be told, all contestants are desperate to win to retain their relevance.
This has been an election like no other. There is no discernible wave. A 39-day polls timetable, allowing the contenders to change the issues and goal-posts has made it more difficult to make a coherent assessment.
The safest bet is a coalition. The India Inc. and the foreign media prefer national parties and are traditionally suspicious of regional parties. They would need to accept, and work with them, should a loose federal coalition come to power.
Modi, while attacking alliances, in principle, calling them unstable, now claims to know “the art of running coalitions”. His critics say this is unlike him, but the post-polls power game may have its overriding compulsions for everyone. The calculators are clearly out, but the calculations will have to wait.
Not wanting to lie or be considered a charlatan, one can still visualize an overall post-polls scenario without predicting who, and/or which combination will form the next government.
And that is: the Congress will bounce back from its 2014 debacle and regain its position as a national political force. The BJP, irrespective of its seat tally, will certainly expand into regions where it has not mattered so far. And the regional parties will gain in numbers and clout. But to utilize the two in larger national interest, they will be increasingly pressured to shed their narrow outlook and approach to national, even international, issues.
If this reads like preference for an inclusive and pluralist Indian society the way Gandhi and Tagore visualized, well, it is.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org