News reports suggest that the entry of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi into the mainstream of the Congress Party and the National BJP respectively is galvanizing their respective party members and traditional supporters. Most BJP supporters were extremely upset, if not disgusted, by the performance of their party in the last six years as an opposition party. Many Congress party supporters were in despair at the attack on its integrity and the collapse in economic growth. Developments in both parties over the past six months or so, have begun to lift the gloom that descended on them, though a certain element of confusion still remains.
About three months ago, one predicted that the next general election would be a contest between a Rahul Gandhi led Left of Center (LoC) Congress and a Narendra Modi led Right of Center (RoC) BJP. Analysis in the media has since written about a contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, while others have pointed to various reasons why this cannot happen. Note the subtle distinction between what we are saying and what the media is focusing on. Our main point is about the clash of ideologies (left of center, right of center), where the protagonists (Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi) are merely symbols of this ideology. In contrast most writers and commentators (pro and against) are focusing on the personalities and their strengths and weakness. Though both aspects are likely to come up during the election campaign, the former is likely to be more important in the rural areas and the latter in the urban areas. Political skill in framing the overall message and focusing it on different parts of the electorate will be an important factor in the final outcome.
This prospect has set off a flurry of rethinking and activity among current and former allies of the two parties. The Akali Dal and the Anna DMK were the only NDA partners of the BJP who indicated support for Modi as a potential NDA PM, suggesting that they saw his entry into National politics as increasing the prospects of a NDA government at the center. In contrast, other former or potential members of the NDA clearly feel that their party’s election prospects would be hurt if they were part of a Modi led NDA (pre-pol alliance). Nitish Kumar has showed discomfort with supporting Modi as PM and has gradually distanced himself from a potential Modi led BJP and towards the middle ground between it and the Congress. His recent statement of a National coalition of backward States (Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal), neatly brings together parties that feel uncomfortable with a Modi led BJP but have to fight the Congress in their home State. Post poll, however, they may have difficulty choosing between a Rajiv led congress or a Modi led BJP central government!
Among non-NDA, non-UPA parties, Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav was quick of the mark with a statement that a BJP, not led by Modi, would be a party he could work with. This statement sounds puzzling, coming from the architect of the MY coalition in UP and an outside supporter of the UPA government. It suggests an astute analysis of the potential negative effect on the support base of the Smajwadi Party of an election defined by Modi. A contest between a Rahul led LoC Congress and Modi led RoC BJP, is likely to benefit these two parties collectively at the expense of third parties. In other words the declining trend in the joint vote share of the two parties will be halted and likely reversed. Which party will gain more, from the polarization that this contest suggests, is not clear at this point.
Survey data indicates that the Congress has the widest and most diffuse support base among the electorate. In other words no cast, community, language or religion predominates among its voters, when compared to the distribution of these in the national population. Interpreted in a positive light it is the closest we have to a “liberal” party. Thus it is best positioned to attract the new, emerging middle class supporters from the narrow, caste, community, state-regional based parties, if it can fine tune its populist, “think from the heart” policies to their aspirations. In contrast, the BJP support base is still religiously biased and weighted towards the more educated and somewhat better off . However, the new aspiring middle class may also be susceptible to the economic message of growth, development and jobs that the so called “Modi model” projects. Thus, besides the effect on votes of any implicit religious polarization, which party is able to convey a credible commitment to creating a strong, fast growing, job producing nation with equal opportunities for the new /aspiring middle class from every caste, creed and religion, may have an edge.
Compared to the past, the relative seat shares of the Congress and the BJP will matter as much as if not more than the relative seat shares of the new UPA and NDA pre- poll alliances. The 2014 election is therefore likely to be followed by hectic post-pol alliance formation, to form the government. In fact the far-sighted power brokers are probably already maneuvering to position the different parties for perspective alliances between parties that will fight the elections as opponents.