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A Pakistani view of the Indian elections

By Amir Mateen
March 25, 2014 19:14 IST
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Narendra ModiNamo, Namo as India's prime minister? Not yet, says Pakistan-based journalist Amir Mateen.

The safest assessment about India's upcoming Lok Sabha elections is: it's all about whether Narendra Modi becomes India's prime minister or not.

Credit goes to Namo, as he is popularly known, for being the only declared prime ministerial candidate in the field. Not many thought that Modi's elevation from Gujarat's Chief Minister to Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate for prime minister will be as smooth as it turned out to be. Other parties, including the Indian National Congress, have kept their candidates for prime ministership in the wings to be announced after taking into account the poll results.

Only time will tell whether it was a wise move by the BJP to announce Modi's candidature before the polls. Some moderate voters might stay away from the BJP because of Modi's extreme views, particularly his dubious role in Gujarat's 2002 anti-Muslim riots. But Modi happens to be the only BJP choice, based largely on his development model in Gujarat, who has the potential to deliver results. In any case, polls show an upward graph for the BJP ever since Modi became a candidate for PM. CNN-IBN in a poll conducted jointly with The Hindu in July 2013, predicted 149 to 157 seats in a House of 543 for the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress party. And the polls gave 172 to 180 seats to the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP, which includes Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

The same media group in a poll conducted in February 2014, reduced the UPA seats between 119 and 139 (INC 94-110) and increased prediction for the NDA seats between 212 to 232 (BJP 193-213). Another media group, Times Now-India Today also reduced its polls results for UPA in July 2013 to 134 seats (INC 119) to 101 seats (INC 89) in February 2014 while increased the tally of NDA to 156 seats (BJP 131) to 227 seats (BJP 202) in the same polls.

But then Indian pollsters and media pundits have a history of blundering predictions. The biggest upset happened in 2004 when most experts could not see Vajpayee's 'India Shining' campaign crumbling to a crushing defeat. Again, most experts failed to predict Manmohan Singh's re-election as the prime minister in 2009, the only one to achieve the feat after Jawaharlal Nehru, with the Congress adding a whopping 80 more seats to its previous tally.

Whatever their worth, most polls predict the BJP winning between 170 and 210 seats (NDA 190-230). The large window of 40 seats is because of the potential spoiler, Aam Aadmi Party led by Arvind Kejriwal.

Clearly, the Congress is on its way down because of Manmohan Singh's spineless leadership, corruption charges and dwindling economic growth. But it is yet to be seen how much of the urban voters, disenchanted from the Congress, will be swayed by Kejriwal. The AAP may have disappointed a few voters in Delhi by opting out of the state government, but it jolted India's caste-ridden, crony capitalist politics by presenting itself as potential alternative. It is quite close to what Tehreek-e-Insaf voters in Pakistan wanted Imran Khan to be. Pundits do not give it more than 20 to 40 seats but acknowledge its impact nationwide, particularly damaging the BJP. Kejriwal's call to contest against Modi from Varanasi (Banaras) may have raised his national stature besides making it as the hottest contest in India.

For the BJP, bagging 200 plus seats is easier said than done. The BJP stalwarts see a 'Modi wave' that will carry the only PM candidate into power. Not so easy, say his opponents. "Why should he run from two seats if he was so sure about his wave," said journalist B Muralidhar Reddy of The Hindu. Many insist that it's nothing as the wave after the Kargil war, which got Vajpayee 270 seats. The BJP managed only 86 seats in 1989 despite the Ramjanambhoomi movement and 161 seats despite the frenzy created by Rath Yatra and the demolition of the Babri Masjid before the 1996 polls.

The 200-plus figure becomes more difficult as the BJP is contesting only 350 seats out of 543. It will have to milk the north India cow belt much more vigorously, particularly in Uttar Pradesh (80 seats) and Bihar (40 seats). One reason for Modi's decision to contest from Varanasi is that he wants to garner support in East UP and Bihar. The BJP target of 70 seats out of 120 in UP and Bihar sounds ambitious as it got only 22 in 2009 (UP 10, Bihar 12). In the caste-ridden UP, Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party (23 national seats plus the ruling party in state government) remains entrenched with Muslim support and Mayawati sits on a virtually Dalit monopoly (20 seats). Things are equally troubled for the BJP in Bihar with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar parting ways with the BJP over Modi's candidature.

But even if the BJP-led NDA gets the highest number of 230 seats predicted by some polls, it will be daunting for Namo to make his government. The question remains that how will he get the remaining 42 seats required for the magical number of 272 to make it to lead the government. Unlike Vajpayee, Namo remains politically isolated. He is a virtual pariah for the Samajwadi Party, the Left parties and for the Janata Dal-United of Nitish Kumar, who sees himself as a prime ministerial candidate. Among them, we are talking about 80 to 100 seats. Another 100 seats are monopolised by the triumvirate of strong Indian women --Tamil Nadu's J Jayalalithaa, West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee and UP's Mayawati. They are known to be hard bargainers and are vying for a chance of a lifetime to become India's prime minister. If the Congress manages to get close to 130 seats and the BJP gets under 170, there is a big chance of any of the above ladies -- and half a dozen gentlemen --becoming the prime minister.

Namo might have a BJP rival as a consensual candidate in the tradition of Vajpayee, who might be acceptable to allies outside the NDA. Trust the RSS -- its chief recently stopped workers from chanting "Namo, Namo" as it does not promote personality cults. Lal Krishna Advani may be down but is definitely not out, particularly after Modi's brushing away of the old guard.

Nutshell: Even if Namo crosses all these difficult bridges and makes his government, it will still be, at best, a fragile government.

Remember how J Jayalalithaa brought the Vajpayee government in 1998 by just one vote. Namo, Namo but not yet.

Amir Mateen is a journalist covering the Indian election for the The News, Pakistan.


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