Neither national party can hope to reach the 272 mark on its own in the next general election.
One can only hope that India is spared another 1996-1998 experiment where the prime minister's party has fewer than one-tenth of the seats in the Lok Sabha, says T V R Shenoy.
Arithmetic ruled from 2009 up. Chemistry must prevail well into 2014. Or so political parties believe. But are they correct?
Politics was a numbers game in a deeply divided polity, with almost every policy decision being decided by votes that went down to the wire in the Lok Sabha. But with the next general election looming ahead every party -- the Congress and the BJP above all -- will focus on creating, or joining, a coalition with a realistic chance of forming a ministry.
This means that for the next half a decade or more there is no chance of a single-party government running on a coherent agenda.
Why am I so pessimistic about either the Congress or the BJP coming into power?
Consider the numbers:
V P Singh became prime minister in 1989 after his Janata Dal won 143 seats.
P V Narasimha Rao became prime minister in 1991 after the Congress won 232 seats.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister in a 13-day government after the BJP won 161 seats in the 1996 general election. He was succeeded by H D Deve Gowda, whose Janata Dal had won just 46 seats.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister once again in 1998 after the BJP won 182 seats.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee returned to power in the 1999 general election after the BJP, again, won 182 seats.
Dr Manmohan Singh became prime minister in 2004 after the Congress won 145 seats.
Dr Manmohan Singh got a second term in office in 2009 after the Congress won 206 seats.
Run through that list and you will see that no party has come anywhere close to 272, the barest possible majority in a Lok Sabha that has a strength of 543.
The best result was that by the Congress in 1991, but that owed everything to the killing of Rajiv Gandhi halfway through the election.
The worst outcome was the horrible aberration of 1996, when a party that had fewer than one-tenth of the seats in the House put up a prime minister.
Very briefly, the last time that India gave a majority to a single party was in 1984. (And that was thanks to the gigantic sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi's assassination.) By 2014 it will be 30 years since the era of coalitions started.
Let us assume, for argument's sake, that the wretchedness of 1996 is not repeated, and that two (more or less) stable fronts are formed, with either the Congress or the BJP at the centre of each.
The major problem for both those parties that they are going to start by virtually writing off 145 seats.
Let us call this the 'Bay of Bengal Problem'. There are four states and a single Union territory that touch that body of water. These are West Bengal (42 Lok Sabha seats), Odisha (21 seats), Andhra Pradesh (42 seats), Tamil Nadu (39 seats), and Puducherry (one seat).
Together, these five elect 145 Lok Sabha MPs. How many of those seats can the Congress and the BJP, realistically, hope to win?
In the 2009 general election the BJP failed to win a single seat out of these 145 constituencies. There is some (very wishful) talk of alliances with the AIADMK, the Biju Janata Dal, and the Telugu Desam. But which of those three regional parties will enter a pre-poll coalition?
The chief minister of Tamil Nadu is the one most closely identified with the BJP, but J Jayalalithaa has publicly exhorted her party to win 40 seats (all those in Tamil Nadu and the one in Puducherry), to gain greater leverage.
The Congress's story is more mixed. In 2009 the party won 33 seats from Andhra Pradesh, 8 seats in Tamil Nadu, 6 seats in Orissa, and 6 more in West Bengal. And, in alliance with the DMK, it won Puducherry's single seat. That adds up to 54 seats from the Bay of Bengal territories.
That was not the whole story. In 2009 the second largest party in the United Progressive Alliance was the Trinamool Congress (19 seats), and the DMK was the third largest (18 seats). Thus the United Progressive Alliance effectively won 91 of the 145 Bay of Bengal seats.
But the situation has deteriorated markedly in the three-and-a-half years since then. The Congress and the Trinamool Congress have parted ways in West Bengal. In Andhra Pradesh the Congress has been torn apart by the Telangana agitation and the simultaneous revolt by Jaganmohan Reddy.
The Congress and DMK have sunk each other in Tamil Nadu, as demonstrated in the 2011 assembly election and the 2012 local body polls.
Finally, there is nothing to demonstrate that the Congress has recovered ground in Odisha, where Naveen Patnaik is now in his third straight term as chief minister.
Under these circumstances -- galloping inflation, an unending stream of corruption charges, and national security failures making the news -- can the Congress hold even half of the 54 seats that it won in 2009?
If not, from which region is it going to make up the losses?
And from the other side of the fence, how is the BJP -- or the National Democratic Alliance -- hoping to come close to 272 if it starts the general election by writing off 145 seats?
There was, to neutral eyes, a feverish quality to the celebrations at Jaipur after the Congress's 'Chintan Shivir' (Ideation Camp). The coronation of Rahul Gandhi, the sole tangible fruit of all that brainstorming, is scarcely news.
Devotees of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty may welcome it, but to the rest of the world it looks like the party has prostrated before a middle-aged man with no demonstrated political achievements and no known administrative experience.
The wrangling over the BJP presidency is a bit more interesting if only because the party has no ruling dynasty. But the party is also weaker than even the Congress in the Bay of Bengal crescent.
The decline of the two national parties is palpable. Neither can hope to reach the mark of 272 on its own.
Forget the halfway mark, one can only hope that India is spared another 1996-1998 experiment where the prime minister's party has fewer than one-tenth of the seats in the Lok Sabha.