A senior leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party forecasts it will require the support of allies to form India’s next government, the first time the prospect of a coalition has been raised as the country heads into the final two weeks of its marathon election campaign.
The conservative prediction by Ram Madhav, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national general secretary, is just short of a clear majority in the 543-seat parliament, and is far below what other party leaders including finance minister Arun Jaitley and party president Amit Shah have publicly claimed.
"If we get 271 seats on our own, we will be very happy," Madhav said in an interview with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait in New Delhi on Saturday. "With NDA we will have a comfortable majority," he said referring to the National Democratic Alliance.
The party will make up expected losses in the north Indian states it swept in 2014 with new gains in the country’s remote northeast, as well as in the eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha, Madhav said. It will pursue pro-growth policies if it returns to power, he added, and has not shifted from a focus on economic reforms to one based on populist cash handouts.
"We have expanded in eastern India very well -- if similar effort had been put into south India also, probably we would have been more comfortable," Madhav said. "As politicians, we must remember that what we achieved last time, we may not repeat because of anti-incumbency."
The mood was more upbeat among the 50,000 people who packed into barren farmland covered in a huge tent near Bhadhoi -- the carpet manufacturing capital of India -- at one of Modi’s many election rallies. Before the prime minister spoke, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Keshav Prasad Maurya, warmed up the crowd.
"2014 was a Modi wave. 2019 is a Modi tsunami," Maurya said. "Your vote on the lotus will mean dropping 1000 kilogram bombs on terrorist camps," he said, referring to the party’s symbol -- a lotus -- which is featured along with other party insignia on electronic voting machine buttons.
Modi arrived in an India Air Force helicopter and was greeted like a rock star.
"What’s the reason for India’s success," Modi asked as people chanted ‘Modi, Modi.’ "It’s your vote."
"When India attacked terrorist camps did it make you proud? Is Modi right? Should we proceed on this path?" The crowed yelled "yes."
Still, for all Modi’s harsh rhetoric on Pakistan, Madhav -- who deals with some foreign policy issues for the party -- sounded hopeful about India’s relations with its nuclear-armed neighbor following a tense military clash in February.
The recent United Nations Security Council designation of Masood Azhar -- the Pakistan-based head of a group that claimed a recent suicide bombing in India -- as a global terrorist offers the chance for Islamabad to prove it’s cracking down on militant groups, he said.
Credible action could yield a productive meeting between Modi and Prime Minister Imran Khan, who are due to attend the Shanghai Co-operation Organization summit shortly after the end of India’s weeks-long election, which wraps up on May 23, Madhav said.
"They should show their sincerity towards the fight against terror," Madhav said. "Why I’m saying this is, three weeks after the results, we have the SCO. At the SCO, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Prime Minister Modi will be face to face. It’s an opportunity for Pakistan. If something credible comes out in the next one month or so, before the SCO happens, I’m sure the relationship will have some improvement. But the onus is on them now."
Azhar’s listing came after China dropped its objection at the UN. "My understanding is that China has finally calculated the gains and losses of taking a position on Masood Azhar this time around," Madhav said.
Another significant development in India’s foreign policy had been the strengthening relationship between Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping. "They have developed a very good personal rapport," Madhav said.
On China’s vast and contentious Belt and Road infrastructure project, which India has refused to sign on to, Madhav said until the question of sovereignty was resolved there could be no compromise. India has long objected to the program because it funds $60 billion worth of infrastructure in Pakistan, including in parts of disputed Kashmir, which India claims as its own.
"We still have a view that the whole project is conceived unilaterally," Madhav said.