A week after the Assembly polls, the debate on the outcome of 2014 is yet trussed up by the wrong question. The question is not whether there is a Modi wave. Modi is the interlude between practiced renditions of ‘lungi dance’ by families at weddings. Modi is the ubiquitous elevator question. Modi has come to punctuate pauses and conversations at ballrooms and boardrooms. Like it or not, a decade of drift has made the alternative idea called Modi seductive. The question, therefore, that needs to be asked is whether there can be a BJP wave that Modi can ride, whether NaMo can modify the BJP run for him.
The question is really an enormous challenge. Of course there are many who have interpreted the results of the Assembly polls as the writing on the wall. It is another matter that history offers no legible pattern in past five polls to legitimise such conclusions. In 1998, the Congress swept the Assembly polls and in the following Lok Sabha polls in 1999 Vajpayee’s persona brought the Congress to its lowest tally of 114. Then there are also those geniuses at investment banks who have discounted politics and have declared victory. Dutifully, the stock markets have applauded. It is, of course, another matter, that the same Sensex had given UPA II a 2,000-point salute when they returned to power. The business of politics is far more complex than the binary equation of inflow and outflow that dictates the rise and fall of stock markets.
There is no question about public anger against the current regime—particularly the Congress. But that is by no means a promissory note that can be cashed in. Fact is no pre-poll alliance—leave alone a single party—has touched the magic mark of 272 in the past five elections. Every regime formed since 1996 is a post-paid connection. So can Modi work his magic?
The best score by the BJP in five polls is 182 in 1999 out of the 339 seats it contested with an impressive strike rate of 50-plus per cent. Cut to 2009. It contested 433 seats and won 116, a strike rate of 26 per cent. More worrying, its candidates lost deposits in 170 seats. This is because the party has scarcely a presence in many states, has never won seats in over half a dozen states.
To get a sense of the challenge, consider the asking rate. How well has BJP done across time frames and geographies? If one adds up the best performances of the BJP across states in different polls from 1996 to 2009, Modi could be hopeful. The best score by the BJP across the states and different polls is 240 (its best performance in MP (30), UP (57) and Bihar (23) are prior to creation of new states and ergo figures adjusted for the new states of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Bihar). And an all-time best score of 240 makes 272 do-able. If one looks at the past two polls, its best score is 127—a good 145 away from the mark. If one looks at an average across five polls, the score is 155.
The challenge for Modi is to ensure that the BJP holds on to its good performances and create room for the party in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh Tamil Nadu which account for over 120 seats. Above all the BJP needs to do spectacularly well in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And the party’s past performance will daunt any campaign star. In 2009, in the biggest market, Uttar Pradesh, the BJP scraped through 10 seats while over 45 of its candidates were in third/fourth/fifth positions. The problem is the party on the ground. In the two Assembly polls—2007 and 2012—the BJP has won 51 and 47 seats—less than a fourth cumulatively, in a house of 403.
The results of the five Assembly polls promises BJP an upper hand in states where there is a direct contest between the two parties. But the party flails and fails in multi-cornered contests. In Delhi—the most urbanised electorate—the BJP was thwarted by a parvenu. While Modi got the crowds into the meeting with his aggressive campaign style, the party machinery on the ground couldn’t harvest the votes. What was true of Delhi will be true of other states too unless the party finds itself.
The fact is that three or four party contests are a reality, especially so in the biggest political markets in the country. Add to this the stranglehold of regional parties—in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu—and the burgeoning number of candidates per constituency. This drives up competition and drives down the margins of victory making for very volatile politics. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, in Uttar Pradesh, 63 of the 80 seats were won by MPs who polled 11-20 per cent of the total registered votes. In Bihar, similarly, 29 of 40 seats were won with low margins. Add to this the X-factor of polarisation—there are across India an estimated 180 seats where victory or defeat is influenced by the 10-plus per cent Muslim votes.
Elections are about votes and the arithmetic of numbers. But critically they are more about ideas. A campaign cannot only be about despair, how poorly the Congress has done. It must also be about hope, solutions for change. Modi’s challenge is to find and articulate one or two grand ideas to bring in the algebra of politics into play. If he does that, we might see real change. If not, it looks like 1996.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change