The Lever Pivots On The Magic Thirty

Magazine | 12 May 2014

Kumar Ketkar

If opinion polls are to be believed, it is only a matter of a fortnight before Narendra Modi is sworn in as prime minister. About a year ago, no one—not even the BJP—took the aggressive assertions of Modi and his fanatics seriously. Six months ago, when his juggernaut began to roll, the Congress seemed paralysed and clueless, the Left looked irrelevant, the regional parties stumped, awed, shocked. And now, the only question being asked everywhere is: How strong is the Modi wave and will it bring the BJP 200-220 Lok Sabha seats? A frightening and farcical mass hypnosis seems to have affected society.

Our sights are so low that the very definition of ‘wave’ has undergone a change. Nobody ever described Pandit Nehru’s victories as waves though he led the Congress to victory with 364 seats in 1952; 371 in 1957; and 361 in 1962. Talk of waves became fashionable 1971 onward. When Indira Gandhi won by a landslide on the ‘Garibi hatao’ slogan in 1971, it was called an Indira wave. The defeat of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi in 1977 was attributed to a Janata wave. In fact, after the Janata Party victory, everyone had concluded that the Congress and the Dynasty was over and that India had won a second independence. Janata Party leaders—who were seen as Emergency-born ‘freedom fighters’—symbolised this second freedom by taking oaths of office in the presence of Jaiprakash Narayan and Acharya Kripalani at Rajghat.

In contrast to waves of that momentum and magnitude, the media and opinion polls today are trying to see a ‘Modi wave’ in the BJP’s target of as low as 180-200 Lok Sabha seats—almost half the numbers won by Nehru, Indira or even the Janata Party. Election watchers and Modi followers seem to ignore the fact that should the BJP fail to get 182 seats (the Vajpayee benchmark of 1999), the swearing-in being visualised by the saffron brigade will have to be cancelled. Also, they don’t seem to be taking note that anything less than 182 seats for the BJP will be seen as a diminution of Modi. What then, if the ‘Modi wave’ tots up only 170 seats?

That’s neither my wishful thinking nor a prediction, just an exploration of possibilities. In 2004, despite the presence of a towering figure like Vajpayee, and the high-voltage ‘India Shining’ campaign, the BJP was cut down from 182 to 137. (In fact, it’s likely that in 2014, the Congress could face that sort of humiliation, thinning down from the obese current figure of 206. But that does not necessarily mean that the BJP will get 200-plus!)

Till the results are out, all of us have the liberty to speculate and write scenarios. So let me say that this landmark election is essentially being fought in only 30 constituencies. Let me elaborate. If the Modi-led BJP touches the 200 mark, he is clearly marching to 7 Race Course Road, though there could be hiccups. For, with 200, he has enough allies to remove the roadblocks and take the NDA tally to 250. If Dr Manmohan Singh could form a government in 2004 with just 145 Congress MPs, 200 plus 50 is a dream number for the BJP. If the BJP crosses 225 on its own and the NDA touches 272, the Sensex will hit the ceiling on May 16 and go over the top to 25,000, generating unprecedented euphoria. That can easily last over a month, for Modi will cleverly announce populist and business-friendly policies.  At that BJP tally, the disaster for the Congress will be huge and Rahul’s leadership could come into question.

Now another scenario. Modi has threatened—with backing from the RSS—that if he’s not made prime minister, the BJP will sit in opposition. That is, would-be partners had better know that there will be no “compromise PM” in a BJP-led government. In this case, it will not be possible for any of the remaining parties to take the lead in forming government. Mamata would not go with the Left; Mulayam Singh Yadav cannot go with Mayawati; the DMK cannot associate with AIADMK. The only option will be a ramshackle government that will go for an early mid-term poll. But no party would want another election in a year or two. The parties and the candidates would be too exhausted. So, under the threat of yet another election, many a party could melt and support a Modi-led government.

But just as this scenario is possible, the other extreme, too, cannot be ruled out. If the Modi-led BJP is stuck with 170 seats, he won’t possibly get 105 from other parties without massive compromises and vicious horse-trading. Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalitha and Mayawati could well extract their pound of flesh from the vegetarian Modi. Knives will also be out in the Sangh parivar. With a dozen less than Vajpayee’s 1999 tally of 182, it will be humiliation for Modi and his campaign that cost thousands of crores. Corporates and mncs that invested in the Modi brand will be shocked.

Restless, Relentless A Modi supporter canvassing door-to-door in Mumbai

So again, as I said, it’s a question of 30 seats—the difference between 170 and 200. If the BJP is stuck at the lower figure, Modi’s detractors in the RSS and the party will question his so-called popularity and charisma. Hidden Brutuses will unsheath their knives and his own party could end his dreams of prime ministership. Surely he could wait for another round, but­—given the spectacular campaign he has created this time—one can be sure it will be difficult to replicate the mood and the momentum.

So if it’s a fight for 30 seats—and not all 543—where are these 30 crucial seats? Put another way, which seats could the Congress and other anti-BJP parties focus on to slow the juggernaut? That’s not a tough question. In the four southern states, the BJP is on the margins. In the east and the northeast, the lotus does not bloom. In western and central India—Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—the BJP is already peaking. So there are effectively only two states—Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—from which he could win the jackpot and march beyond 170, presuming, of course, that he can take 170 for granted.

If the Congress, the BSP and the Samajwadi Party could arrive at an understanding that they would not let the Modi juggernaut get more than its current tally of 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP would be stuck like the Nazi forces were stuck in the winter and thick snow of Stalingrad. And if Bihar too denies the BJP more than its current tally of 15 seats, Modi’s Operation Barbarossa could be blocked. Modi’s strategists know this. This is why he set the goal of 272-plus seats for the BJP very early—actually, even before the campaign was set in motion. If indeed the BJP wins those many seats, it will be a real landslide—from 116 to 272 is a quantum jump and for a party like the BJP to achieve it is close to revolutionary.

But the Congress is in no position to put up that effective a fight. In fact, it went into decline almost immediately after the victory of 2009, which gave the party the stunning and totally unexpected number of 206 seats. The best case scenario projected for the Congress in 2009 by an opinion poll was about 180 seats. Even the Congress war room  was surprised that it had won a war it did not really fight. The crucial seats had come from Andhra Pradesh (where it won 31 seats, one more than in 2004) and Uttar Pradesh (where it won 21 seats). But these results were unexpected: the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was supposed to be facing anti-incumbency; and in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress had not really re-established itself strongly enough. But for those 52 bonus seats, the Congress would have been stuck at 154, or with a few more seats retained, at 165 seats maximum. Indeed, the Congress had already started backdoor talks with Nitish Kumar then. That was the first time Nitish warmed up to the Congress and began to be cold towards the BJP. Delhi grapevine was abuzz with stories that Manmohan had begun to pack up and that the movers and shakers had been alerted. The Left had made it clear it would not support a Congress prime minister. But nobody really anticipated that the Left’s tally would come down to 31 from its high point of 62, and that the BJP would collapse to 116. The 2009 results were even more shocking than 2004. In fact, those 206 seats in the Congress’s kitty acted as an anaesthetic drug and since then the Congress has been sleeping with eyes wide shut.

In the BJP, on the other hand, the decline and fall was of L.K. Advani. With the Lok Sabha tally down to 116, the RSS made it clear to the patriarch that he should quit leadership and make space for someone else if he cannot bring the party to power. It was the 2009 BJP debacle that set Modi off on his ‘Chalo Delhi’ project. But he had to win the Gujarat elections in 2012 before embarking on a Delhi mission, and he turned the Gujarat campaign into a dress rehearsal for 2014. An elaborate war machine was created, with event management teams, research teams, social media groups, fund management networks in India and abroad, election monitors, lawyers and ex-police officers, former intelligence operatives and of course platoon upon platoon of corporate executives and young MBAs. In fact, the old guard in the RSS is apprehensive of these teams because their idiom is different and their approach is much like the sales and marketing machinery of big international corporates.

Modi is the CEO of this giant ‘corporate’. Like a target-driven and success-centric chief sales manager who pushes his sales teams into frenzy by giving them attractive but unachievable goals, Modi has told his team members they must score 272-plus with the aim of not only of decimating the Congress but destroying it. He and the RSS want to avenge the defeat and humiliation of 2004 and 2009. Management colleges exhort their students to develop the killer instinct. Modi has never gone to such colleges, but has nevertheless internalised the virtues of that predator instinct. Aggressive sales managers like him demand from their footsoldiers fulfilment of targets by hook or by crook. The ends matter, the means don’t.

If he did not set them a target of 540-plus, it’s not because he would not have nursed grandiose dreams of reaching that tally, but because even ‘killer’ managers recognise the irrationality and absurdity of setting such targets. Anybody who has worked in large corporate sales teams is aware of the hatred the field staff feel for their ruthless task-masters. The RSS, despite its own sort of ruthlessness, was incapable of working in Modi’s machine. That is how that behemoth—now known as the Modi Swayamsevak Sangh or the mss—was built, by sidelining the old guard of Advanis, Jaswant Singhs and Sushma Swarajs.

One year before the formal announcement of the elections, Amit Shah, Modi’s trusted aide, was sent to Uttar Pradesh.  The target given to him was 60 seats out of 80. In 1998, the party had won 58 seats in Uttar Pradesh. That was in the backdrop of violent polarisation between Hindus and Muslims after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Only that kind of polarisation would overcome the caste divide in the state and revive the Hindu wave so as to give the BJP 60 seats. The wave, it was hoped, would then spread across Aryavarta. So it could be said the Muzaffarnagar tragedy was not an accident. Shah’s language of revenge and  his references to historical events cannot be seen in isolation from conscious efforts at polarisation. Modi and his generals know that if the BJP does not win at least 45 seats in Uttar Pradesh, his ambition is doomed. That is precisely why the Congress should have thought of fighting, along with anti-BJP alliances, to stop Modi at not more than 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh, that is, 40 less than the target he had given Shah.

Proof that the Modi strategy was at work came when the results of assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chha­ttisgarh and Rajasthan were out: the BJP won sensationally. But for the maverick Arvind Kejriwal and his loose cannon aap, Delhi too could have gone to the BJP. The party was short of just four seats. The Hindu wave had clearly begun to take root. The disastrous performance of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh came as a bonanza. After the victories in the assemblies in western India, Modi’s lieutenants in the war room decided to concentrate only on the 120 seats in Uttar Pradesh (80) and Bihar (40). They had concluded: if Uttar Pradesh is brought under the spell with 50-60 seats and Bihar with 25, then these two states together will contribute 75-80 (out of 120) to the national tally. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will give  80 (out of 104), and if Maharashtra, Karnataka, Himachal Prad­esh and Delhi add 40 more seats, the tally would be 200.

But while the Machiavellis were working overtime in Modi’s war room, what stopped the Chanakyas from working in the Congress’s camp? The challenge before the Congress was not to win that 206-seat bonanza again but to stop the enemy at the gate. That unrealistic number had come in 2009 because of Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. It was quite clear after the Telangana fiasco that the Telugus won’t come to its rescue again; and Uttar Pradesh has not really been a Congress base since 1985.

Therefore, if the Modi-led BJP crosses the 200 mark, it is entirely because of the complacency and anaesthetic state that the Congress has been in. On the other hand, if the Modi juggernaut is stopped at the gate with 170 seats, then it will be entirely because of the internecine wars within the Sangh parivar. After all, it is a game of just 30 seats, not 543!

Veteran journalist Kumar Ketkar covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for the Business and Political Observer