With the BJP losing three crucial Assembly elections just a few months before the Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is where the last BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was 20 years ago.
A brief flashback to December 1998 – the Congress had just defeated the BJP in assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. It was an important victory for Congress' new president Sonia Gandhi, who had taken over the reins of the party just nine months before. For the Congress, it wasn’t very different from the recent victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan a year after Rahul Gandhi took over as party president.
In March 1999, the Vajpayee government fell after losing a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. However, when the Lok Sabha elections were held in the autumn of 1999, the BJP won a majority along with its allies. And driving the BJP's surge were the same three states it had lost less than a year ago. What explains this reversal?
The reversal in these states was largely the result of the rise in Vajpayee's personal popularity especially after the Kargil war.
Kargil must have weighed significantly in the minds of voters, as the Vajpayee government wasn't particularly popular a few other counts. Here are a few findings from the 1999 post-poll survey by Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
- 79% people said that prices had increased under the Vajpayee regime.
- On corruption and national security, a larger proportion of people said that the situation had deteriorated under Vajpayee than those who said it had improved.
- 62.8% disapproved of the nuclear tests at Pokaran
However, there is one more key factor in addition to the Kargil war that worked in favour of the BJP: the alternatives were unpopular.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey in 1999, 34.7 percent people said they liked the Vajpayee government (1998-99) compared to the Narasimha Rao government (1991-96) and the United Front government (1996-98). One must remember that between 1989 and 1999, India had seen six different Prime Ministers and the need for political stability was an important issue.
Can Modi Repeat Vajpayee’s Victory?
Past elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which the BJP lost recently, suggest that the party that won the Assembly polls ended up doing well in the Lok Sabha polls in these states as well. In fact in most cases, the ruling party's lead consolidated.
The only exception was 1999 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Opinion polls suggest that despite the BJP's defeat, Modi continues to be popular in the three states the BJP lost recently. However, it’s close to impossible for the BJP to repeat its 2014 performance of winning 62 out of 65 seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
A survey released by polling agency C-Voter this week predicts that the BJP is losing 15 seats in these three states compared to 2014 – six in Rajasthan, five in Chhattisgarh and four in Madhya Pradesh. But if the Lok Sabha results are a repeat of what happened in the Assembly elections, the BJP's tally could be down by half, to just 30 seats.
Vajpayee At 180 Seats Equals Modi At 250
However, the Vajpayee-Modi comparison isn't just about these three states. There is one key aspect that separates the two: under Modi, the nature of the BJP and the NDA is very different from what it was under Vajpayee.
While Vajpayee maintained his power by making alliances and winning over friends, Modi has ruled by constantly expanding his own power and that of the BJP, often at the expense of potential allies. Vajpayee saw BJP as the fulcrum of anti-Congress forces – his allies included parties like the Trinamool Congress, DMK and Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, who would now have nothing to do with the BJP.
In contrast, Modi's aim is the complete dominance of the BJP in every corner of the country. He is having difficulty in maintaining even the BJP's existing allies, with the Shiv Sena becoming a bitter critic of the Prime Minister and even smaller allies like Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Apna Dal making noises of disaffection.
Quantitatively, we can understand the difference in their approaches by comparing two aspects:
- The number of BJP MPs and MLAs under the two leaders.
- The support of allies they got at the national level as reflected in the number of MPs of allied parties
The numbers show how different the Vajpayee era was from the Modi era. Under Modi, the BJP has 1346 MLAs, nearly twice the number it had under Vajpayee – 709. BJP has 12 chief ministers currently. In 1999 it had just three. This shows the massive expansion of the BJP under Modi. The most significant aspect of this expansion is the BJP's spectacular rise in the Northeast, forming governments in Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and becoming part of the ruling alliance in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Two other states where the BJP's tally has grown significantly are Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
On the other hand, there is a huge difference between Vajpayee and Modi as far as alliances is concerned. Vajpayee could form a stable government in 1999 with just 182 BJP MPs because he got the support of 117 MPs from other parties. Modi's allies, on the other hand, account for just 36 MPs. Remove Shiv Sena, which has been more anti-Modi than even some Opposition parties, the BJP's allies would just have 18 members in the Lok Sabha. Many parties, which supported Vajpayee are now opposed to Modi.
Even BJP's potential allies can't really be counted on for a post-poll arrangement in 2019. The Biju Janata Dal is facing a threat from BJP in Orissa. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi needs Muslim votes in Telangana and supporting Modi openly could harm it in the long run. The YSRCP tried to initiate a No Confidence Motion against the Modi government earlier this year so even its support can't be taken for granted.
Therefore, if Vajpayee could form a stable government with the BJP having just 182 seats, Modi would need 250 to become Prime Minister.
The sudden buzz around Nitin Gadkari is not coincidental. It is the result of certain key questions the BJP is confronted with in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls: Can Modi take BJP to 250 seats? What game-changer can he come up with to reverse the recent losses? And if BJP goes below 200 seats, does it have another Vajpayee-like figure to win over new allies? Watch this space.
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