No-trust: Why Mamata is on to another losing proposition

On Thursday, 22 November, India’s democracy will resume another chore: it’s called the winter session of parliament. Neither the Congress nor the BJP – the two biggest parties in India – is eager to join in the melee, for neither has anything to fight for or rejoice over. Both are in the boondocks.

Between the last session and now, the BJP has lost its anti-corruption belligerence to Nitin Gadkari’s business indiscretions, and the Congress has gone into its shell, thanks to rising anti-incumbency sentiment all over. The noises emanating from Arvind Kejriwal’s shrill anti-corruption campaigns have, in fact, made both parties realise that both stand accused in terms of public perceptions.

If at all anyone has something to gain, it is some regional parties. Among them: Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, and possibly Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra and the Telangana Rastriya Samiti (TRS) in Telangana.

Is Mamata headed for another loss of face? PTI

But, as against this small pro-election grouping, there are other regional parties who are either neutral to an early test of popular sentiment, or opposed to it altogether. In the former lot are Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, and in the latter group would be the DMK and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. We can add the Left parties too to this lot of reluctant election seekers.

If we accept this logic, there are just three major regional parties with about 50 MPs between them who are keen on an early elections. This is why, barring a real big miscalculation on the part of the Congress in the winter session, Mamata Banerjee’s threat of moving a no-confidence motion is DOA – dead on arrival. The BJP is hemming and hawing, and the Left parties have already said no.

Even if the BJP decides to back the no-trust, it will still lose, for the Congress needs only 65-70 naysayers to win. These 70 naysayers to a no-trust vote include 46 who are already part of the UPA, and it only needs a Mayawati to back it to win.

The problem with the Congress and the BJP is that neither is in a position today to win an election, though one could lose more than the other. They are thus both likely to prefer an election in 2014 for opposite reasons: the Congress in the hope that it will be able to pass some aam aadmi laws that will give it something to talk about (food security, health insurance, the land bill), and the BJP in the hope that the economic situation will grow worse, giving it a stronger anti-incumbency wave to ride 18 months hence.

For the BJP, there is another issue to settle before the next election: leadership. This won’t happen before the Gujarat elections. Even assuming Narendra Modi is home and dry, and the year-end sees Nitin Gadkari being eased out as party president and Modi emerging centre-stage from January, an early election still does not suit the party.

Reason: With just around 115 seats, the only states where the BJP can hope to make substantial seat gains are in Rajasthan, while it could lose heavily in Karnataka. An election in May or October 2013 does not suit Modi since it will not give him enough time to change the party into a fighting force: currently, the party is a fighting force only internally, with its leaders trying to undercut one another. But none of them are vote-winners in themselves.

This is one reason why the party needs Modi as much as Modi needs the party. Without Modi, the party will move from 115 seats to 125-130 seats, hardly the number from which it can stake a claim to power.

With Modi, it could do better, but even if it manages 150, the Modi effect will put off allies in the short run.

To have a successful Modi candidacy, the BJP needs to get seats in the range of 180-200, and this cannot happen in 2013. There is too little time to create a wave.

The only people in BJP who will be praying for an election in 2013 will be those who hope the BJP will fail to top 130, which may give them some chance of being a compromise candidate – but this is really a vain hope, since with 150-170 seats, the Congress would be more viable as a coalition leader than the BJP.

A larger reason why both Congress and BJP will not be looking forward to an early election is that it will not end the deadlock: whoever wins will inherit an economic mess, and will not have the Lok Sabha numbers to fix the problems. The next government needs to take tough decisions on the economy and needs staying power. A party with 150-160 seats will not be able to do the trick.

Perversely, this is what must be giving hope to the Mulayam Singhs and Nitish Kumars of the world.

With 150 seats, and an economic crisis at hand, the Congress may prefer to let Mulayam Singh take the hard decisions, and the BJP, with 130-140 seats may prefer to let Nitish Kumar to do the dirty work – provided Kumar is willing to play sacrificial goat.

In short, we are facing either a 1996-like situation, or a 1989 one. In the former, we had the Congress backing a United Front for two years from the outside; in the latter, we had the BJP backing VP Singh from the outside. Neither lasted more than two years.

After the next election, both Congress and BJP may prefer to let the regional parties run the country for a while in the hope that they will compound the problems further before the big parties can pull the plug and try for a better mandate.

The conclusions:

Mamata’s no-trust will fail because only a handful of parties want an election, despite overwhelming sentiment against the Congress.

Both Congress and BJP do not want an election now since they do not see themselves benefiting much from it.

Can Mulayam Singh push the country towards early elections? Unlikely, if Mayawati does not play ball. All three M's - Mamata, Mulayam and Maya - have to be in tandem to make the no-trust work. As of now, this seems highly unlikely. Moreover, Mulayam may not push his luck too far, since he can keep his hopes alive for 2014 - and he would still need Congress support, assuming his party makes big gains in UP.

If an early election happens in 2013 by accident, we will see a non-Congress, non-BJP government supported by one of them from the outside.

If elections happen in 2014, we may see different results, but 18 months is too long a time horizon in which to predict which party will have the real advantage.