Others’ Game

A version of this appeared in the DNA today. Regular readers may skip it given it’s summing up most of what’s already been said in these pages.

The 2014 general election is not going to be an INC-BJP contest in large parts of the country. In most of peninsular and Eastern India, the presence of national parties is often restricted to one of them and even that lone party is not the top contender. This is largely true even as one goes up the Gangetic plains. Therefore a Presidential style campaign that’s been adopted by the BJP, and to a lesser degree the INC – not because of philosophical reservations but because their candidate is weaker — mostly insults much of India.

There are 5 parties outside the BJP & INC that are likely to have more than 20 MPs each: AIADMK, BSP, SP, TMC and the Left. And these parties, with an expectation of 140 MPs among them according to polling data thus far, will be truly important for government formation in 2014; the arithmetic of simple majority needs at least 2 and preferably 3 of these 5 parties to be part of any future government. Further, these parties have more options and therefore have a greater ability to bargain with their suitors.

Let’s therefore look at the post-poll game from these 5 perspectives.

The problem’s easiest vantage point is the Left. The Left’s expectation, if one aggregates all the polls so far, is 32-36 MPs. The option of joining an NDA government or a Fourth Front government that has the TMC is non-existent for these 30 odd MPs. What that leaves them with, as a realistic option, is a Third Front government. What works in the Left’s favor are two things: the prospective allies in a Third front government will not have any problems explaining their decision to their electorate and those allies will also have a larger slice of the pie in such a government because the only way it’d work is when the INC supports such a possibility from the outside. This leaves ministerial positions for the taking unlike when the government is headed by a large national party. Further, the Left possibly also has the most ‘transferable’ vote among alliance partners in Indian politics. Making the third front proposition have no long term negative consequences for say the AIADMK or the SP or BSP.

The BSP’s strength is likely to be about 28-32 in the next Lok Sabha if the current estimates hold. The BSP is also one of the most secure political parties in India with a very stable core Dalit vote. In a Lok Sabha that’s fractured, as the 2014 verdict is likely to be, a BSP analyst will look at it as the best chance for Ms Mayawati to become Prime Minister in a Third/ Fourth Front government. Even if that does not happen, the party can garner important ministries in Delhi for the first time negating the Lucknow power base of its principal rival, the SP. The other possibility for the BSP, unlike the SP, is that it could join an NDA government at a cost that’s not as high. The state of Uttar Pradesh has about 18% Muslims and allying with the BJP will perhaps slightly impact the BSP’S Muslim vote gathering in the next election cycle. This calculation however is one that is difficult to lose sleep over for the BSP. The fact is, for UP’s Muslims the BSP is often a third choice – after the SP and the INC. It’ll take enormous faith in the long term for the BSP to decline an NDA invite in such a scenario. And given the party has little to lose and much to gain in the short term, it would have a position of enormous bargaining strength with any and all attempts to form a government.

The SP, on the other hand, has far fewer options. Firstly, the opinion poll aggregation estimates about 18-22 MPs for the party. That is significantly lesser, compared to the BSP. Further, the SP has a problem in that its Muslim vote-bank restricts its options in an election cycle where the INC is on the wane. The party obviously cannot join the NDA. The third and fourth front, if they are forming a government, have to choose between the SP & BSP. The latter comes with possibly more MPs, a compelling Dalit narrative and options elsewhere. Which means, if the BSP wants to really ruin it for the SP, it could by simply raising the stakes and then walking away. That leaves the SP hoping UPA comes to power and it is part of the government. That scenario, with the current polling data, has a lower probability than Ms Mayawati becoming Prime Minister.

The TMC is in a position somewhat similar to the SP in terms of limited options and lower strength compared to its regional rival. Except it’s preferred option has a slightly higher probability. The third front will have the Left and therefore not the TMC. That leaves the question open as to why there would be a Fourth Front at all; particularly if the Left has more MPs compared to TMC (with an expectation of 20-24) and everyone else in the team is going to be identical to the Third Front except the Left. Further such fronts have to be supported from the outside by the INC – another bit of complication for the TMC given the INC may prefer one that includes the Left for better optics. So that leaves the TMC with the only option of joining the NDA. Joining the NDA, however, queers the pitch a bit for the TMC;  West Bengal has 25% Muslims, the highest among large states. It will pose the question of how much of a future negative bias in distribution of votes in that 25% of the population can the party trade off against taste of power in the present . After all, the political theatre in West Bengal is largely bipolar and the TMC’s opponent, the left, happens to be cadre based. However, not joining the NDA post poll will mean providing the Left with a power base in Delhi. Therefore a reasonable demand in that case for the TMC to make, along with perhaps either the BSP or AIADMK backing, will be support for NDA with a different Prime Ministerial Candidate. Not that it’d be taken up positively by the man from Gujarat who sidelined many in his own party on that very issue. So the only real option for TMC is to hope the NDA forms a government and it be the last ally to join such a government, to seem ‘not desperate’.

The AIADMK’s position is quite similar to that of the BSP. Or perhaps even better given the party is already in power in a large state and the party’s chief enjoys considerable influence in both the third front and the NDA camps. Further, the Muslim population in Tamil Nadu is unusually low for a large state. The AIADMK, just as the BSP, will explore every opportunity with every other front before joining an NDA government simply because such options have a higher probability of Ms Jayalalitha being Prime Minister. One complicating factor for the AIADMK in such a formation is Ms Jayalalitha’s deep unpopularity among many decision makers in the INC. So perhaps that leaves Ms Mayawati with a slightly higher probability of becoming a Prime Minister should there be a Third Front government. However for both the BSP and the AIADMK, it makes far more sense to get a larger slice of the Third Front pie rather than get a tiny slice of an NDA pie. Unless, for the AIADMK’s best scenario rare event, Ms Banerjee’s unserviceable request gets traction and Ms Jayalalitha is the compromise Prime Minister in an NDA government. After all, whatever Mr Modi can claim about Gujarat’s development, Tamil Nadu has possibly surpassed that quite comfortably.