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Election Pointers

Print edition : Dec 27, 1997 T+T-

However, what is not assured is a coalition government that will be able to keep the BJP out. Overall, developments over a murky period of some 18 months have worked at least to the marginal advantage of the BJP. With a decrepit, desperate and comically led Congress(I) brought to an unprecedented low in national politics, with a yet-leaderless United Front needing to get its act together (given the slow meltdown suffered by its 'core', the Janata Dal), the communal formation looks set to make gains that might - at worst - bring it within credible distance of cobbling together a Central government.

An alternative post-election scenario is not inconceivable: this is a coalition government that draws together the two other formations, or at least most of their constituents, in a new kind of post-election compact which keeps the BJP out. It could happen if efforts against the odds to avoid the division of the very large non-BJP vote in two very large battleground States, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, succeed.

In U.P., the BJP's share of the popular vote was just over a third in the 1996 Lok Sabha contest. Yet the fragmentation of the non-BJP vote brought the saffron party a harvest of 52 out of the State's 85 Lok Sabha seats in the eleventh general elections. Any combined effort against the BJP in U.P. must accept the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) of Mulayam Singh Yadav as the spearhead of the secular and democratic camp. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati must also be roped in as the second most important non-BJP force. (Mulayam Singh seems to have distanced himself from the Congress(I) for now, chiefly on the ground that it is a minor player in U.P. electoral politics.) But can the improbable be achieved in the next few weeks - an effective Statewide seat adjustment, if not alliance, between the S.P. and the BSP that is also likely to enthuse all non-BJP parties, including the Congress(I) and the Left, to cooperate in the task of defeating the BJP in India's most populous State? On the answer to that question essentially depends the BJP's prospect of forming the next Central government.

As of now, the situation in Bihar looks disadvantageous to the BJP. The alliance among Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress(I) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) looks capable of inflicting a severe defeat on the BJP (considering that the combined share of the Janata Dal, its allies and the Congress(I) was 54 per cent, and it was the breakdown of the Janata Dal-JMM alliance that enabled the BJP to snatch 11 of the 15 Lok Sabha seats in south Bihar in 1996). Assuming that the new alignment can be made to work on the ground and there is no popular wave against Laloo Yadav on account of his involvement in major corruption scandals, the camp he leads seems headed for major gains in Bihar. If that happens, it would be a significant setback to the national-level calculations of the BJP, which with its ally the Samata Party, made a breakthrough in Bihar in 1996 by winning 24 of the State's 54 Lok Sabha seats.

By general analytical consent, 220 seats or so in a Lok Sabha of 543 is considered the threshold this time for any formation that wants to bid credibly to form the Central government. (To reach this, the BJP will probably have to raise its vote share and that of its allies to something above 25 per cent.) If the BJP, the single largest party in the last Lok Sabha, reaches the threshold, it can be expected to move heaven and earth to break other parties, notably the Congress(I), and woo defectors in the well-established, unsavoury Kalyan Singh mode.

The BJP's share of the national vote was, at one-fifth, stagnant between 1991 and 1996. Its 1996 harvest of Lok Sabha seats came as a result of the following factors (as a Frontline analysis in the issue of June 14, 1996 pointed out): first, the concentrated incidence of BJP strength (the disproportional representation effect); secondly, the opportunist alliances made in two States; thirdly, the general, and in some cases precipitous, decline of the Congress(I); and, fourthly, disunity among secular non-Congress parties in certain areas of relative BJP strength.

If the anti-BJP alignments work effectively in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP's chances of reaching the threshold are sunk. Nobody within or outside the Sitaram Kesri-led Congress(I) gives the party the ghost of a chance of coming anywhere near the threshold. Its prospects look extremely bleak in key States such as Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance is expected to improve on its gains made last time, and West Bengal, where the collapse of the Sonia Gandhi-brokered compromise and the expulsion of Mamata Banerjee and her associates mean a debilitating split of the non-Left votes between the Congress(I) and the pro-BJP Trinamul Congress. The Congress(I)'s share of the national popular vote has been in uninterrupted decline - from 48 per cent in 1984 through 39.5 per cent in 1989 to 36.5 per cent in 1991 and 29 per cent in 1996. Will it go this time below the 25 per cent mark?

As for the United Front, its hopes rest essentially on its regional party constituents - the Telugu Desam Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Asom Gana Parishad - the Samajwadi Party and, of course, the Left. An unexpectedly good performance by the Janata Dal in Karnataka will also help. But the performance of the RJD and the BSP could also make a qualitative difference to the chances of a 'third force' taking shape through the twelfth general elections, coming to a new kind of Central government arrangement with a weakened Congress(I), and keeping the BJP at bay.