India Focus

S t r a t e g i c    A n a l y s i s    &    F o r e c a s t s

Vol 4, No 3                                                                                                                                                                                                August 1999

Politics    •    Business        Economy    •    Society        Culture    •    Diplomacy

Elections ‘99


In this section, we look at domestic factors and trends other than the Kargil war with Pakistan which are likely to play an important role in forthcoming general elections.

Key Political Trends

Absence of any wave: The current election campaign is most notable for the absence of a defining political issue or strong current in public mood, whether pro-Congress or pro-BJP. An indication of this is in the fact that so far, unlike in the previous two elections, there have been very few defections from one party to another. Even Kargil will perhaps not help the BJP much more than winning a few extra seats, and that too where the contest is close. But the absence of any wave will in the end help the BJP more than the Congress.  Why ?   Because its committed vote bank in most areas is likely to stay intact, and the party has been able to neutralize any anti-incumbency disadvantage it may have otherwise faced in UP and Maharashtra.   On the other hand, the Congress party is now trying very hard to find an election issue which will stick. It has already tried to raise the issues of political stability, corruption, secularism, Kargil and the new telecom policy, but none of these charges have resonated with the masses. The Congress party suffers from a serious credibility problem on many of these matters, and its efforts may actually rebound if it pushes too hard.

Congress is very weak in major states: Congress party’s national vote share has been declining consistently over the last 4 national elections and it has suffered electoral reverses in 17 out of the last 25 provincial elections. More significantly, Congress vote share in the crucial states of UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal has dipped to historic lows, in some cases close to single digits. For example, Congress vote share in UP in 1998 elections was less than 6 percent. For Congress to make any sort of credible comeback in UP it has to climb back to at least 25 percent voteshare, an impossibility given the lack of any pro-Congress wave and the short time left between now and elections. Also, in contrast to Congress, BJP’s wins in the last elections were by a much bigger margin than its losses. Taking into account two-horse races where it either won or was a close second, BJP is a potential winner in almost 320 seats by itself. And if its allies are included, this number goes up to almost 430. Based on past voteshare alone, it is clear that Congress is much weaker than the BJP, and that it must grow at least twice as fast in popularity just to achieve parity.

Economy & opposition disunity will help BJP: The two biggest factors working to BJP’s advantage are the economy and fragmentation of anti-BJP votes. First, most economic indicators (and certainly the ones affecting common people) are doing better than in the past few years. Inflation is at 2 percent, GDP is growing by 6 percent, manufacturing sector is growing by 8 percent, and the country is expecting a record crop this years. This translates into more jobs, income and buying power for the poor in both rural and urban areas. Also, the middle class is happy because the Sensex is close to its all-time high, white collar jobs are being created again, the property market has bottomed out, and there is upward trend in investor confidence. Second, anti-BJP votes will be diffused in these elections. Given the increasingly fragmented nature of Indian politics and society, even a weak alliance partner helps in increasing voteshare. The inability, or unwillingness, of the Congress to pick up alliance partners in major states will cost it dearly, and specially in UP -- a possible Congress+BSP alliance could have matched BJP’s strength here -- which is the most crucial state of all. A win in UP is almost a prerequisite to coming to power at the centre. In contrast, the BJP has been able to pick up key alliance partners in almost all major states despite some early problems.

It may come down to Sonia v/s Vajpayee: Given the lack of any strong issue or theme, the Sonia Gandhi v/s Vajpayee contrast will probably be the deciding factor in the minds of many uncommitted voters, and this is perhaps the single largest disadvantage for the Congress. Sonia’s political inexperience, stoic demeanour, lack of fluency in the local language and the disadvantage of being a foreigner are no match for Vajpayee’s already high popularity. BJP will not attack Sonia directly, since that may appear petty, but through a subtle whisper campaign with the help of friends in the media. And by bringing in Arun Nehru and Arun Singh, both of whom were close to Rajiv Gandhi at one point, the BJP is trying to neutralize any ‘Gandhi family’ advantage that she may draw. In fact, the induction into the BJP of two of Rajiv’s most trusted friends is a clear signal by the BJP of its intention to corner Sonia both psychologically and campaign-wise.

Congress has limited post-poll maneuverability: Even if no major party/alliance gets a majority, it will be much easier for BJP than Congress to garner outside support and form a coalition government. This is because 1) Congress has steadfastly refused to share power, even as recent as during the fall of the Vajpayee regime in April, and its culture does not allow a sudden climbdown, 2) personal equations between non-BJP leaders are strained, and at a personal level many of them dislike each other much more than they do the BJP, and 3) many non-BJP and non-Congress leaders, such as Chandra Babu Naidu, Mulayam Singh, Sharad Pawar, RK Hegde and George Fernandes have already given strong statements to the press about Sonia’s foreign origin. Some have even hinted to her being a ‘threat to national security.’ In fact, for Mulayam and Pawar, defeating Sonia is more important than defeating the BJP. Given these postures and imperatives, none of these can or will ally with Congress under Sonia’s leadership, and Sonia will not allow any other Congress leader to become PM. Congress has very limited post-poll flexibility.

Our Forecast

  • BJP and its allies will probably win between 280-320 seats, certainly well above the majority mark, and will form the next government. But there will be serious problems in the formation of the next government, specially on how to accommodate new alliance partners in the cabinet without discarding older ones. The BJP will insist on keeping Finance, Home and Foreign Affairs portfolios for itself, even though there will be some tussle with key alliance partners over this issue. George Fernandes and RK Hegde will want a change of portfolios, and it not clear which ones they will get. One likely option is that they may switch jobs.

  • Probable new ministers in the next government are Ram Vilas Paswan, Arun Nehru and Mamata Banerjee, all of whom are expected to win their seats. Current minister who are likely to be dropped are: Jagmohan (Urban Development; will lose in elections), Nitish Kumar (Railways; will win, but wants to focus on Bihar politics in preparation for state elections next year), PR Kumaramangalam (Power; will lose in elections), Ram Jethmalani (Law; has lost his importance), V Ramamurthy (Petroleum; will lose in elections, and has also lost importance) and Som Pal (Agriculture; will lose in elections).

  • RSS will have less influence in the next BJP government and Vajpayee will exercise more independence and flexibility on cabinet formation and policy agenda this time around. The entry of new non-RSS faces at senior levels in the BJP, such as Arun Nehru, will also curb RSS influence on the next government. Hard-liners will be on the defensive but will bide their time till the post-Vajpayee period in Indian politics.

  • Vajpayee’s health is reportedly deteriorating and he is unlikely to stay the full 5-year term or run for office again. We expect that leaders in the BJP coalition will start jockeying for power early on, and this will pick up steam sometime in the middle of 2000. This turn of events could create serious divisions within the coalition government, not to mention between moderates and hard-liners in the BJP. This is probably also the last election for many other senior leaders in BJP and Left parties. Consequently, a younger generation of leaders will appear and new political combinations will evolve in the next couple of years.

  • Sonia’s leadership will not be challenged immediately if the Congress loses, but strong murmurs and whispers against her will start within the party. If the BJP and its allies win a thumping majority, say over 325 seats, then strong pressure will build up on Sonia to resign from Congress presidency, and if she does not then there will very likely be high-level defections from Congress to other parties.

  • There is some danger that, should it lose badly, Congress may revert to populist socialism of the old days and may draw closer to Left parties, at least tactically. Leftists parties are themselves in danger of becoming irrelevant, and given their common fear of the BJP and their respective strengths a coalition of Congress and Left parties looks increasingly synergistic in the current context. If this were to happen, it would increase opposition to reforms in insurance, telecom, mining and privatization.

Also in August 1999 Issue

Indian Diplomacy After Kargil: Detailed Report Overall Summary & Impact on MNCs

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