The tenure of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is nearly up and by May we will know the results of the upcoming general parliamentary elections. The incumbent BJP stills looks like the main contender but its image – and that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is somewhat weakened. Political commentators agree that the party will get less votes this time. But the question of whether it will receive enough to secure the majority again seems uncertain to many, although the chances of a rival coalition winning the polls seem to be even smaller.
The Empire Against the Alliance of Kingdoms
Things are beginning to look a bit like Indian history before colonial times. The narratives of Great History focused at powerful, stretched empires as if they represented entire India. The truth, however, is that there were nearly always dozens or hundreds of local states, some of them quite strong and resilient to the large empires. It has been the same with Indian politics in the last few decades: regional parties in larger states are like middle-sized kingdoms that the national parties cannot ignore, both as allies and as foes.
In a way, as of now, the BJP is the only national party: not formally, but when it comes to the number of seats it has and its geographical spread. Crucially, it also has much greater financial resources, as pointed out by Milan Vaishnav. Moreover, being in the central government, it still can provide or promise more financial incentives. Its main rival, the Indian National Congress (the Congress) is reduced to a regional party going by the number of seats it possesses. The BJP is the empire now and the other parties are kingdoms.
The simple and brutal laws of India’s first-past-the-post system mean that to defeat the BJP, a broad and successful coalition would have to be stitched. Both the BJP and the Congress already have coalitions behind their back: the BJP’s is called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while that of the Congress is the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Both number more than 20 parties, but most of these are non-entities. There are only a few allies that could provide both the BJP and the Congress with a meaningful number of additional seats. While the UPA seems sure to be unable to win the majority by itself and will need the support of a few strong, regional, and currently nonaligned parties, the better-placed NDA may need this assistance as well.
In 2014, the BJP won the majority on its own, taking over 282 seats – 10 more than necessary for a majority which it gradually lost anyway, and had to rely on its allies’ support. Just to make a point (and not predict the result), let’s imagine a very conservative estimate that assumes the incumbent will not face a huge loss. Let’s simply assume that the BJP’s result is reduced by 50 seats (down to 232) compared to what it won in 2014. Last time its partners won 54 seats, out of which 16 were later lost when the Telugu Desam Party left the alliance (see below). Thus, even after losing only 50 seats Modi’s party would have to hope for its allies to actually win more than last time – or it would have to bring new players onboard. A few larger, regional, and currently fence-sitting parties could therefore salvage BJP’s result and provide Modi with a second tenure – or seal his fate by refusing to side with him.
The Great Ten
No way of guessing the poll results is perfect, but as Indian states have a varied numerical representation in the Parliament, my very crude method will be based on looking at the ten most important states (out of 29). It takes 272 seats to gain a majority in Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. Five states may be counted as make-or-break ones: primarily the largest, Uttar Pradesh with 80 seats, and the next four down the line: Maharashtra (48), West Bengal (42), Bihar (40), and Tamil Nadu (39). Together these five states occupy 249 seats in the house of 543. Next come Madhya Pradesh (29), Karnataka (28), Gujarat (26), Andhra Pradesh (25), and Rajasthan (25). These Great Ten states are jointly represented by 382 legislators in the Lok Sabha. Since the remaining seats are increasingly scattered across middle and small states and other territories as we go down the statistical ladder, no coalition can hope to win a majority without obtaining good results in some of these ten states.
In 2014, Modi’s party won 213 seats in the Great Ten states. But of these, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu offered it a total of five seats. It is from the remaining seven – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Rajasthan – that the BJP marshalled an army of 208 legislators.
Of these seven, regional parties are next to unimportant in Madhya Pradesh (MP), Gujarat, and Rajasthan. Gujarat has been under BJP rule for nearly 21 years now and while the party’s vote share is slowly going down, it seems to be somehow impregnated against incumbency. Let us then assume that Gujarat will mostly go with Modi, as it used to for the past generation.
But in the last year’s state-level elections in MP and Rajasthan the Congress and the BJP finished neck-to-neck. It was similar in Karnataka, where the Congress was barely able to build a ruling coalition against the BJP with the support of a local ally, the Janata Dal (Secular). It is hard to project how much the previous year’s elections in Karnataka, MP, and Rajasthan foretell the BJP’s upcoming result. The constituencies are outlined differently in the national elections and the people often do not vote in the same way as they do in the state polls, so the BJP’s result does not need to be halved now. But if these results offer some indications for the national election, the BJP’s seat share in three states could significantly go down. Karnataka, MP, and Rajasthan provided Modi’s party with 69 legislators last time. Losing a part of them without additional gains elsewhere would already mean that BJP would fall below the majority bar in its electoral pole jump.
Another great woe will be Uttar Pradesh (UP). Last time it gave the BJP as many as 71 seats, but it does not seem it can repeat this feat now (see below). Even if we imagine that the losses would only be suffered in UP, MP, Karnataka, and Rajasthan this would mean that the party would have to retain its result everywhere else, and still would need to conquer new grounds or attract new allies. Which kings, therefore, could bring down or save Modi’s empire?
The State of the Union and the Union of the States
Uttar Pradesh: For the BJP, the sky is clouded in India’s most populous state. The two biggest parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), have reached a seat-sharing agreement, which means they will not contest against each other and divide their electorate against the BJP. Political commentators in India, such as the astute observer Shivam Vij, agree that this is of huge importance, as the parties have mostly different caste groups and minorities as their electorates. These could provide for a winning combination. Both the BSP and the SP are not part of either the UPA or the NDA alliance, but they are much more inclined to support the UPA. This, however, may happen after the polls, as now they are set to compete with the Congress as well. Yet each of the parties has its challenges to overcome: while the BJP is suffering from a terrible anti-incumbency after an incompetent period of rule by its chief minister in the state, Yogi Adityanath, the SP is weakened by internal infighting, and the BSP scored a round zero in the last national elections. What is sure is that the armies of these two regional kings may substantially cut the BJP’s vote share in UP this time.
Maharashtra: The BJP is the incumbent, although I do not know how much this has reduced its chances. But another problem is with the regional ally, the Shiv Sena. Ideologically, Shiv Sena and the BJP seem to be the only natural allies in the NDA. But the parties have had a troubled relationship over the last few years. The Shiv Sena needs the BJP as its Big Brother on the national level and the BJP needs its seats as that of the coalition partner. With 18 legislators as of now, the Shiv Sena is the biggest pillar of the BJP’s alliance. In Maharashtra, however, the BJP and the Shiv Sena are often fighting for similar electorates and BJP’s growth in the last years has partially been at the expense of the weakened and divided Shiv Sena. The empire and the vassal are now in a toxic relationship: formally still partners, but quarreling all the time. Their pre-poll agreement has not been hammered out yet. The BJP must now accommodate Shiv Sena with a seat-sharing agreement in a way that not only satisfies both parties but provides as many safe seats as possible to both. The BJP may need not only to win on its own battle grounds, but make sure that Shiv Sena can provide a handsome auxiliary force in the Parliament.
West Bengal: Ruled by a ruthless queen, Mamata Banerjee, and her party, the All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC), the state has never been a BJP ground and is unlikely to sway toward the party also this time. Mamata Banerjee is facing an anti-incumbency factor, but is sure to win more of the vote share than any of her rivals – especially Modi’s party (although the BJP has been slowly building up its presence in the state). The AITC is not part of any of the two national coalitions at the moment, but Mamata Banerjee is vehemently criticizing Modi’s rule now so she is more likely to support his rivals.
Tamil Nadu: Even more than in West Bengal, the BJP is hardly a presence in this state. It cannot count on winning a meaningful number of seats – it can only hope for the support of a regional party that will emerge as dominant in terms of seats. The ruling AIADMK, now nonaligned, could be such a power. As AIADMK’s main regional rival, the DMK, is with the UPA, the AIADMK remains in NDA’s potential orbit. But the AIADMK is incumbent and has recently been weakened by the death of its leader and a subsequent internal struggle, so much will depend on how the party will overcome these difficulties.
Bihar: This state served up many surprises in the last years, so its verdict seems hard to predict. The BJP, not a very strong and recognizable power in Bihar until recently, won the biggest number of seats in Bihar in 2014. In the later state elections of 2015, however, it was defeated by a coalition of regional parties and the Congress. A plot twist came in 2017, when one of the local kings – Nitish Kumar, the leader of the JD(U) party – stabbed his allies in the back by withdrawing his support to the government, and then establishing a new ruling coalition with the BJP. It seems Kumar will go with Modi now, as their parties have entered a seat-sharing agreement. Since the ally betrayed by Kumar, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), is with the UPA, the battle lines seem to be clearly drawn in Bihar. But as the government was changed halfway through it is difficult to guess the importance of the anti-incumbency factor.
Andhra Pradesh: The secession of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh in 2014 meant that the regional ruling party – Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – focused heavily on projects that would make up for the lost territory, such as the building of a new capital. But the Venkaiah Naidu-led TDP crashed out of the NDA in 2018, after it failed to secure a special status for its state from BJP’s central government. Modi’s empire thus lost one of its two numerically most important allies (the other being Shiv Sena). Maybe the central BJP government could now try to win Naidu’s cooperation back by promising some special economic package for Andhra Pradesh. But it seems the BJP made up its mind to go all-out against the TDP instead, as can be inferred from the recent letter of the BJP president, Amit Shah, to the people of Andhra Pradesh, which is fact a virulent attack on the TDP.
But a dynamic to watch now is the Congress-TDP relationship. The BJP is hardly important in Andhra Pradesh, which means that so far the main contenders in the state were the Congress and the TDP. It has been suggested that a seat-sharing agreement is possible between them but there is no telling if it will indeed be signed. If they sense that the BJP is growing in the state they may fear that in a three-cornered contest their rivalry will benefit Modi’s party too much. Their hypothetical seat-sharing agreement could later pave the way to a post-electoral alliance. But this seems less likely, as the BJP seems hardly to be a threat to the TDP in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu may feel that his party is strong enough to contest alone and wait for the overall result to decide whom to side with.
Thus, all other factors, policies, promises, electoral issues, and trends aside, the six contests that involve regional parties and have a potential to tip the scales of the entire war are: the performance of three non-aligned parties in three huge states – (1) AITC in West Bengal, (2) AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and (3) TDP in Andhra Pradesh, and their choices after the elections; and the clashes of two coalitions in (4) Maharashtra: BJP+Shiv Sena vs. Congress+Nationalist Congress Party and (5) Bihar: BJP+JD(U) vs. Congress+RJD, as well as the (6) the performance of the SP-BSP alliance against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
The Fattest Cats Sit on the Fence
As seen in the above section, most of the few really important nonaligned regional parties are more likely to join the anti-BJP camp. But these parties – BSP, SP, TDP, AITC, AIADMK – are hedging their bets now. At least two of them –the SP in Uttar Pradesh and AITC in West Bengal – are unlikely to support the BJP, as it may hurt their electorate base, which includes the Muslim minority. But the AIADMK cooperated with the BJP in the past and may consider doing this again after the polls. Politics has seen bigger plot twists so the mending of ties between the TDP and the BJP cannot be ruled out, too. The AITC seems to be at the forefront of attacks on the BJP but it still has not joined the UPA, so its campaign may be focused on garnering votes under the anti-Modi flag rather than building a real alliance. The local kings will thus wait to see which empire is more likely to emerge as triumphant and will extract a huge price for their support.
From their perspective, these regional players are therefore right to sit on the fence: it makes little sense to sell one’s votes to any side now. Thus, there is little chance that a broader-than-UPA coalition comes into being before the elections. But a combination of UPA and independently acting regional parties could dilute the BJP’s vote share to drag it down below the surface of the majority. Modi may have to face two battles then: first the electoral one, and later the coalition-building one. Still, his BJP is the lone empire that has more chances to triumph than the diverse army of rival kings.