As we approach the half-way mark in the 15th general election, with the third phase of balloting due on 30 April, it is tempting to read the tea leaves, as it were. A hazardous task in any circumstances, and more so after the country’s gradual transition to a coalition era.
Yet, a couple of things can be ascertained from the body language of the contestants and the reporting by correspondents and commentators covering the polls. The outcome of some informal exit polls (their publishing is banned until after the final phase of voting) conducted by some parties are out there on Internet blogs but, given their motivations, it would be safer to steer clear of their conclusions.
Broadly, it is clear that the verdict will be fractured, providing an opportunity to any party with a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats to play the role of a kingmaker or even become king. Since coalitions are now a way of life in Indian politics, everyone knows the drill and the bargaining will be that much tougher this time.
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All the more because parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have demonstrated that it is possible to have a disproportionately large clout in the final cabinet formation than what is logical given their seat strength.
Secondly, the electoral battle is once again narrowing down to two key battleground states: Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This, of course, assumes that pre-poll predictions about the key states in north India—with the exception of Uttar Pradesh that is proving to be an enigma—hold true. What makes these two southern states critical is that, on the one hand, they account for 81 seats in the Lok Sabha and, on the other, have the tendency to swing entirely one way, leaving the winner with a tremendous advantage.
In the 2004 polls, it was the poor performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA ) in these two states in particular that made the difference between forming government and sitting in the opposition benches in Parliament. It was not, as the abiding myth goes, that the NDA paid for the “India Shining” campaign that did not go down well with the rural populace, which had not reaped its share of the dividend from the spectacular spurt in economic growth in the first few years of the new millennium.
It is a fact that the BJP slid from its record 182 seats in the 1999 elections to 138 seats in 2004, while the Congress improved from 114 to 145, but with no major edge. More importantly, it was the virtual wipeout of the BJP’s alliance partners in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (and conversely for the Congress) that did the NDA in.
In Tamil Nadu, the NDA constituent, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), did not win a single seat. Ironically, the DMK, which till just before the 2004 polls was part of the NDA, along with the Congress and other allies (including the Left, which supported the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) till last year), won all 39 seats. In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) slumped to five seats (from 29 in 1999) and the Congress and its allies won 38. So, of the 81 seats on offer from these two states, the UPA and its then allies won 76 seats in 2004.
This time, things look different.
The ongoing battle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army is threatening to further roil the prospects of the ruling DMK-Congress combine; it is already hard-pressed battling anti-incumbency sentiment. With the Sri Lankan army closing in on the LTTE leadership, including its leader, V. Prabhakaran, it is no coincidence that India has assumed a proactive role, at the least seeking to delay the inevitable—the capture or killing of Prabhakaran. Anything inclement could severely jeopardize the DMK’s prospects and thereby the prospects of the existing UPA formation.
Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, the situation has altered. The Praja Rajyam Party, with film star Chiranjeevi at the helm, has converted a straight contest between the Congress and the TDP into a three-cornered fight. At the end of voting in the state, indications are that there would be no clear winner, unlike in 2004, either in the assembly or Lok Sabha elections. Both developments do not augur well for the UPA. Since on paper, the key opposition parties in both states are part of the so-called Third Front—a non-Congress and non-BJP political combination—it should mean a leg-up for them. However, the Left, the chief architect of the Third Front, may not be able to match the record 59 seats it managed in the 2004 Lok Sabha. A diminished Left would find it difficult to put moral pressure on the Third Front to stay together post-elections.
A vulnerable Third Front would then provide easy pickings to either the Congress or the BJP. Yet again, this depends on how well both these parties are able to do individually. Not surprisingly therefore, all political energies are focused on Tamil Nadu, which is due to vote on 13 May for all of the 39 seats in a single phase. Three days later the state should tell us who will assume power next at the Centre.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org