NDA ahead, but the opposition can still wrest victory by uniting

Stall the release of his biopic, ban the broadcast of a web series on him, do whatever you can, but Modi will always find a way to tell us dramatic stories about himself, his mann ki baat, served with a self-effacing smile, tea and pakoras.

Unless you believe in the panchtantra tale of a Brahmin being misled by four thugs into believing a gift goat he was carrying on his shoulders was a dog, there is very little to doubt the spate of surveys predicting an NDA win in the general elections.

Hours before the campaign for the first round of polls ended, three agencies — C-Voter, CSDS and VMR — came out with near identical numbers to argue that the NDA is within striking distance of power. The poll of these polls gives the NDA 274, UPA 140, and others 129 seats in the 543-member parliament. All these pre-poll surveys gave almost identical number of seats to the three groups with almost similar vote shares. Unless all of them are out to get the goat of the anti-BJP camp, it can be safely assumed that psephologists genuinely believe the NDA will inch past the half-way mark.

So, is it all over for the opposition bar the counting? Is the announcement of a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi a mere formality? Is the opposition just contesting to see how far behind the BJP it ends? The hope for the opposition is in the survey details.

According to CSDS — one of the most reputed pollsters in India — the NDA may or may not get the majority on its own. Its numbers are predicted to be between 263 and 283. It also says there is no pan-India wave in favour of the BJP; and the opposition is doing better than 2014 because of its alliances in different states, especially in Uttar Pradesh. In these two findings is hope for the opposition.

First, it must understand that the NDA — unlike in 2014 when it had a comfortable majority — would need every seat it can win. And, every seat is loses will take the NDA farther away from the majority mark. Consider for instance the scenario where the NDA gets around 260 seats — a psephological possibility not ruled out by the surveys. If that happens, it would require at least a dozen more seats to form the government and a few more to ensure its stability.

Who can the BJP look at if such a need arises? There are three possible contenders — the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, the YSR Congress, and the Biju Janata Dal. Together the three parties are likely to win around 40 seats. In case the BJP needs just around a dozen seats, the TRS and YSR Congress would most likely run to the NDA with letters of support. But, what if it needs more and the opposition co-opts TRS leader K Chandrasekhar Rao and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik by offering them deals they can’t resist?

In the run up to the campaign, Rao has been subtly selling himself as a contender for the top post, a possible leader to head a non-Congress, non-BJP front. Given an opportunity, he would jump at a bigger role at the Centre.

The BJD, similarly, has to be naïve to believe it can benefit with a tie-up with the BJP. Every opinion poll suggests the BJP is breathing down Patnaik’s nape and is even in a position to go past the BJD. If Patnaik decides to become the BJP’s junior partner, he would pay a heavy price in the forthcoming assembly polls.

The short point is this: Except for Jaganmohan Reddy, no other regional leader with a substantial number of seats would readily support the NDA in case it falls short of the majority mark. All other parties would weigh their options and may look for opportunities to serve their own ambitions.

The BJP knows this very well. Over the past few months, it has done everything possible within the norms — and even outside — to take its numbers up. It has swallowed its humiliation by the Shiv Sena, kow-towed to unreliable allies like Nitish Kumar, gone out of its way to woo back deserters like the Asom Gana Parishad and stolen partners of the opposition like the Nishad Party in Uttar Pradesh. For, it knows from Atal Behari Vajpayee’s history, every seat counts and that a government can fall even by one vote.

BJP has shown urgency and desperation also in its campaign. From nationalism to NaMo TV, Ram Mandir to triple talaq, Kashmir to Balakot, Hindutva to promises of bigger doles, biopics on the PM to kitschy cinema on its rivals, it has tried every weapon in its arsenal. And the efforts have yielded results. Almost all surveys show the NDA has improved its position and has been able to counter anti-incumbency.

The opposition needs similar micro-management, seat-by-seat plan and a burning desire to win if it needs to stop the NDA. Even if it wrests back 15-20 seats from the projected NDA tally, it would be in a position to call the shots. And, to do this, it merely needs to learn the other moral of the pre-poll story: United opposition can beat the BJP.

On paper, there are at least three major states where the opposition has bigger vote share than the BJP’s. In Delhi, the Congress and the AAP together account for around 50 per cent votes compared to the BJP’s 43 per cent. In UP, the SP-BSP-RLD combine and the Congress have a 12 per cent lead over the BJP. And in Haryana, the AAP and the Congress can give a tougher fight to the BJP. In these three states, the BJP is expected to win around 55 seats. But, if the Congress, AAP and Mahagathbandhan come together, the BJP numbers could fall further.

In the panchtantra tale mentioned in the beginning, the Brahmin is made to believe by four thugs acting in unison into believing that his goat is a dog. In the case of the UPA, somebody seems to be telling them the exact opposite—that they are winners for contesting alone when in reality they are about to be vanquished. Unless they see face the truth, implement the lessons the surveys are teaching them, the chances of the BJP slogan of ‘Phir ek baar, Modi sarkar’ (once again, Modi’s government) will become a reality on May 23.