Will this square peg fit the round hole?

The Lok Sabha election verdict has cut Narendra Modi to size in more ways than one. Can he survive a coalition?

Can he handle pluralism? (photo: PTI)
Can he handle pluralism? (photo: PTI)

Kumar Ketkar

There were hardly any victory celebrations. None of the delirious song and dance and firecrackers you saw at the time of the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. At the BJP headquarters in Delhi, the mood on counting day was palpably sombre. Even the fact that the NDA still looked comfortably ahead was poor consolation, after all the hype and hoopla about ‘400 paar’ and what not.

The party’s loss in Ayodhya was the last straw — and nobody missed the significance of that loss; in four assembly segments out of the six that make up the Faizabad-Ayodhya Lok Sabha constituency. Contrast this with the celebratory fervour, the euphoria in the capital’s middle-class housing societies at the time of the pran pratishtha ceremony. Women dressed to the nines, huge cutouts of Lord Ram and, competing for size, of the man who had supposedly made it all possible.

In the first few rounds of counting, Modi was trailing in Varanasi, even as Rahul Gandhi was leading in both Raebareli and Wayanad. In Amethi, another high-visibility contest, laden with all sorts of significance for both the Congress and the BJP, Smriti Irani lost. In Maharashtra, the setback to the BJP and their Mahayuti alliance was a blow not just to the BJP but its ideological progenitor as well. The Sangh, which is crawling with Maharashtrian brahmins, is not amused.

After all the big talk, all the big-media propaganda, all the cooked-up exit polls, the brazen talking up of the stock market, and all that jazz, the fact that the BJP fell well short of a majority on its own — and is beholden to allies such as Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party — must hurt.

The BJP has also possibly learned (or is it doomed from birth to not get it?) that for all its attempts to argue the necessity, advisability, feasibility of ‘One Nation, One Election’ and other such unitary/ akhand fantasies, the elections to the 18th Lok Sabha have shown that there isn’t even ‘one electorate’ in India. For India is a ‘Union of States’, its very constitution is federal.

The electorate of Punjab is very different from the one in Tamil Nadu or in West Bengal. Voters in Maharashtra do not mirror the political predilections and preferences of voters in Bihar or Madhya Pradesh. This is but natural.

Our federal structure demands governance by accommodation, it demands a genuinely plural and liberal mindset. Narendra Modi’s temperament and style of governance is the perfect antithesis of this; he cannot handle situations arising from such a plural environment.

Chandrababu Naidu has placed an order for 10 big ministries, six of them at Cabinet level. These include finance, IT & communication, urban affairs, rural development, agriculture… He also wants the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post. Nitish Kumar has not yet presented his demands. Both will ask for Special Category Status for their respective states, the persistent denial of which was a bone of contention between the Modi government and Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh for the whole decade that Modi has been in power.

Nitish Kumar would’ve had — probably still does — an eye on the prime ministership. He is wily and knows this government cannot survive without him. He has been with the BJP before, and he knows how they work. He has also worked with other NDA partners as well as the INDIA bloc parties. He has all the cunning and ‘flexibility’ to turn a situation to his advantage. He could even try to drive a wedge between parties of the INDIA bloc.

So far, both Naidu and Nitish have expressed solidarity with the NDA; it is unlikely they’ll divorce them anytime soon. If they are not kept in good humour, though, they’ll wait for the right moment to strike. More importantly, for the first time, Modi will have to fit a coalition mould, which militates against his autocratic temperament. Up until now, it was others — be it other NDA partners, BJP MPs or Sangh leaders — who had to figure whether, where and how they fit; now that the funny shoe is on the Big Foot.

Naidu will not only be the big boss in Andhra Pradesh, he’ll also be the chief bargainer in Delhi. In the late 1990s, India’s big corporates saw in him a ‘future prime minister’. I was present at one such meeting of corporate bigwigs in Mumbai. Chandrababu will have memories of those politically turbulent days when coalition politics was the norm — from the V.P. Singh government of 1989-90 to the Vajpayee years (1998–2004) to Manmohan Singh’s tenure (2004–14).

Naidu is from the South, Nitish Kumar is from the Hindi belt. Their political compulsions and expectations from the Central government will be different. Many politicians from India’s South have a grouse about the ‘South subsidising the North’.

At the heart of the matter is a ‘demographic imbalance’. It rankles with the southern states that they have done better in human development terms, including containing their population, but are, for the same reason, at risk of being underrepresented in the Houses of Parliament after delimitation. Even while the taxation and development cost burdens are supposed to be shared by all.

The question could flare up violently when the delimitation of constituencies, scheduled in 2026, starts. The size of the Lok Sabha will go up from 543 to over 750. Almost 60 per cent of the members of the expanded House will be from the North, creating a great imbalance in representational terms. The issue is a political hot potato and can burn a leader who mishandles it.

A new President will be elected in 2027. That promises to be another full-blown confrontation. The BJP, even the NDA, will not have the numbers to choose a candidate unanimously. There will be disagreements even within the NDA over their preferred presidential candidate.

The verdict has mercifully put the brakes on India’s runaway slide into a majoritarian hell. Modi’s rumoured plan to drive the country towards a presidential form of government will not materialise. We can expect the polity to open up and the shackles on India’s democratic institutions to loosen. This is a window of opportunity to reboot the democratic process, but the election results also hide questions with explosive content.

The author is a former Rajya Sabha MP. Views are personal

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