If the national partner is small and you are big (at a state level), it is a zero-sum game—the smaller party will lose.
They say that a week is a long time in politics, so what might a month be? In January, opinion polls were sanguine, and unanimous, about a hung parliament. The range of seats, regardless of the polling organisation, was 80-120 seats for the Congress, and 180-220 seats for the BJP. If one took the central tendency, then the Congress with 100 seats was a better bet as the lead party in the next government.
A month or so later, while no new opinion polls have appeared, the mood has gradually shifted towards the BJP/NDA. Pulwama has happened, and the government response might affect the final outcome. We don’t know. What we do know, post the Budget presentation, is that the odds have shifted ever so marginally in BJP’s favour. The shifting odds have to do with a historical contradiction—the Congress party is a natural enemy of several important regional parties (The analysis presented is based on my book on the electoral economy of India, Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019, Westland-Amazon, forthcoming April 2019).
Analysis suggests that a large part of the shift in BJP’s fortunes are due to cracks within the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance). It appears that the fight is not between the Alliance and BJP, but between the Alliance members themselves; hence, the Alliance will have difficulty in staying together. For the Mahagathbandhan, it might very well be the case of “we have seen the enemy and it is us”. This article is not a forecast of what will happen—it is just a documentation of what history suggests might happen. Forecasting elections in the best of times is a minefield, where even angels fear to tread; three months before an election, a forecast without an opinion poll is suicidal for a mere mortal. I am not ready to commit forecast hara-kiri just yet.
There are four important facts surrounding this election, facts suggesting that the Grand Alliance may have a tougher fight than first envisioned by the opinion polls in January 2019.
Fact 1: There are only two national parties—the BJP and the Congress. The choice for any political party is to either go alone, or go with an alliance. The option of “home alone” is no longer present for most regional parties. The last holdout, Tamil Nadu, will, for the first time, have two alliances fighting each other—AIADMK-BJP vs. DMK-INC.
Fact 2: The BJP started as an official party only in 1984, and in their second foray in 1989, they obtained a national vote share of 11.5% and 86 seats in parliament, a number nearly twice as much as the 44 seats obtained by the Congress in 2014. The rise of BJP and the fall of the Congress is best exemplified by this simple statistic—the BJP in its second election gained twice as many seats as the Congress did in its sixteenth election and 130 years of existence.
Result: BJP a rising party; Congress a declining national party, and the decline is on a slippery slope. More than an alliance—a large swing in its favour—maybe needed to bolster its (and the Alliance’s) fortunes.
Fact 3: The Congress vote share has declined by 20 percentage points (ppts) and the BJP vote share has increased by nearly exactly the same amount since 1989—the year which first signalled the impending decline of the grand old party. Congress vote share in 1989 and 2014, 39.5% and 19.1%, respectively; BJP vote share in the same two years, 11.4 and 31%.
Fact 4: BJP has very few allies as partners, and in three states—Bihar, Maharashtra, and Punjab—the alliance is not a matter of convenience, but rather a matter of history. To be sure, Bihar’s popular chief minister, Nitish Kumar, broke from the BJP in 2013, (after being part of the NDA for over a decade) fought and won the 2015 state battle against Modi, and in a stunning about face, re-joined the Modi-led NDA alliance in June 2018. This makes the task for the anti-BJP alliance that much more difficult.
We present several examples of electoral math, and alliance failures, below. The key point to note is that the alliance arithmetic is heavily dependent on the existing vote shares being 5-10 ppts higher than the existing NDA/BJP share. A large swing in the favour of the Alliance will help—for the moment, the analysis is presented without any swing in favour of the NDA or UPA.
UP: In 2014, the BJP vote share was 42.3%. BSP and SP together obtained 41.8% and the Congress, 7.5%. A simple 3-party alliance would mean a no contest—49.3% for the Mahagathbandhan; an average margin of 7% in a two-party contest is a landslide, i.e., with the Congress, Alliance wins.
Why did Mayawati-Akhilesh ruin Congress’s dream by announcing that they would allot only 2 out of the 80 seats to the Congress? Without the Congress, the Alliance starts with a 0.5% disadvantage (41.8% vs. 42.3%). A likely explanation is that more of the Congress vote is considered floating, and likely to gravitate to the BJP. The BSP has the highest glue; the SP somewhat less glue (stickiness of voters).
The 2014 election shows the Congress vote share and rank was low. Number one and number two positions in UP constituencies were as follows: INC (2,6), SP (5, 31) and BSP (0,34). An objective calculation would allow the Congress to only contest 8 seats in UP (adding up one and two). The SP-BSP combine knew that just 8 seats would not be agreeable to the once-almighty Congress.
West Bengal: Mamata Banerjee, on her own, obtained 39% of the vote in 2014 and 44.9% in the 2016 Assembly election. She does not benefit from an alliance with either the CPM or INC—it is them who she has vanquished in both state and Central elections. The gap between her and INC+ votes is about 10 ppts. This is the Alliance (read, Congress) dilemma—if it really wanted Modi to lose, then Congress had to be a very junior partner in West Bengal. That, the Congress party was (is) not willing to do.
Bihar: The one outstanding success of an alliance was in the 2015 Bihar assembly election—and it is this memory that likely provoked the Mahagathbandhan dream. It is important to understand why the Bihar alliance worked—it was because the joint opposition vote share was a very large 16 ppts higher than that of the BJP.
Hence, even if some of the glue wore off, the alliance would still win. In 2014, BJP won 22 seats and the 3-party opposition of JDU, RJD, and INC, fighting separately, won 8 seats. The vote shares: BJP 29.4%, and the other three 44.3%. One year later, in the assembly election, BJP vote share declined by 5%, and the alliance share declined by 2.5%. Vote share comparison: BJP 24.4%, alliance 41.8%. It was a no contest. The alliance worked because of the big gap in vote shares—BJP obtained 53 seats and the combined alliance 178 seats. The fact is that the Mahagathbandhan is not quite the idea euphorically envisioned in January—a simple reality check suggests inherent contradictions. Modi’s opposition is united because of political expediency, and politics requires that they fight each other, not the BJP.
How can there be an effective alliance with those one is in competition with? When that happens in the market place, one actor emerges supreme. The Mahagathbandhan constituents see that as a real danger with the Congress. When the national partner is big, and you are small, it is a positive sum game—both parties gain seats. But if the national partner is small and you are big (at a state level) it is a zero-sum game—the smaller party will lose.
The author is Contributing editor, Indian Express and consultant, Network 18. Views are personal Surjit tweets @surjitbhalla