The shroud of silence covering the content of the cross-country discussions that the tireless N. Chandrababu Naidu, Telugu Desam supremo and Andhra Pradesh chief minister, is pursuing must have a purpose. The timing of the run, before the results are declared and the veracity of numerous exit polls is tested, is also for a reason.
Timing matters as never before. The near unanimous estimates by the exit polls that the BJP and its allies will win this race has been rejected by the leaderships of the regional parties as well as the Congress. On the assumption and the ground reports that these parties have collected, the exercise by Mr Naidu is critical to ensuring that the alliance that has no name and is not formally constituted is nevertheless in the reckoning, if the results reveal a hung Parliament.
The only way of keeping one step ahead of the BJP is through the optics of a cross country-race that Mr Naidu is running. If the exit polls read the mood of the voter wrong, then the alliance will have to try and beat the BJP at its own game, by putting in a bid first. That will matter with this President, whose response to the misdemeanours of a governor endorsing his party during the election process has been so languid that it would be possible to describe the action, if anyone else were to mimic it, as that of a wimp.
There are so many precedents on how Presidents in the past have handled the tricky business of deciding on who should form a government when there was no clear and simple verdict by voters. The problem is that the BJP and governors have successfully outsmarted the Congress and regional parties in the past five years to filch chief ministerships. In Karnataka, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) went to court before the coalition could stake its claim to form the government and prove its majority on the floor of the Assembly.
Mr Naidu has seen the shenanigans that precede government formation firsthand. The spectre that haunts the alliance that has many names — Federal Front, United Alliance and nameless alliance — is what will some regional parties do if the BJP under Narendra Modi woos them for votes in case there is a hung Parliament. Herding leaders of regional parties and their MPs in resorts is not as easy as herding MLAs; more so as managers of every party are beginning to man the gates.
There is also the complicated arithmetic of stitching up a front of regional parties on the one hand and with the Congress on the other. This fiendishly difficult task has to grapple with the exit poll numbers, that are unverified till the results are out, but which nevertheless are the only guesses available. Getting the relative weights correct, down to the last grain, will be crucial to the formation of the alliance as each regional party has its own calculation of what it is worth. Not getting this right can mean the difference between relative stability and vertiginous volatility; between ceaseless assaults by the BJP and endless efforts to propitiate potential breakaways.
If the exit polls are correct then there is a tectonic shift in the politics of West Bengal, for instance. The polls indicate that the ground has fallen from under Mamata Banerjee’s feet and the winds of change have heaped it under the BJP, raising its position to being a real challenge to the Trinamul Congress. If the Trinamul Congress loses heavily to the BJP, then Mamata Banerjee’s relative strength as principal sponsor of the United Alliance, as she now calls it, will change dramatically. If the exit polls have it wrong, then Ms Banerjee may have the third largest party in the Lok Sabha, after the BJP and the Congress, ousting the AIADMK from that slot.
Entirely expectedly, she has trashed the exit poll estimates and articulated her suspicions on what the Election Commission is up to with the EVM machines. In other words, she has formulated a face-saving reason for the Trinamul Congress and herself, in case the BJP emerges as a strong challenger, with a substantial voteshare and lots of seats.
If Mamata Banerjee has butterflies in her stomach, she has reasons. West Bengal’s voters can be brutal in their decisions. In 2009, the Trinamul Congress won 19 seats, dislodging the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from being the party with the most MPs from West Bengal in the Lok Sabha. In fact, the Trinamul Congress on its own won more seats in the Lok Sabha in 2009 than the combined Left Front, which won 15, of which the CPI(M) won nine.
The movement that Mamata Banerjee led in West Bengal after 2006 was exceptional. She alone led the Trinamul Congress that brought the CPI(M)-led Left Front to its knees. In the bargain, she took over the Left’s rural base, wooed away the “Muslim” vote, won over liberals and intellectuals who were in the Left camp and galvanised sections of voters who had never fully felt themselves included in the politics of West Bengal.
The BJP’s garish, noisy and polarising mobilisation in West Bengal in no way comes even close to making the kind of social alliances that Ms Banerjee had forged after 2006. The BJP in West Bengal has not been able to wean even a single notable intellectual celebrity away from the Trinamul Congress and even the vastly depleted CPI(M). The Sangh Parivar has certainly proved itself an attractive alternative for disgruntled political leaders from other parties, including the CPI(M) and the Trinamul Congress — Mukul Roy, but not his MLA son Subranshu, Barrackpore candidate Arjun Singh, Jadavpur candidate Anupam Hazra, Khagen Murmu. If the BJP does well, then maybe more than the 40 that Prime Minister Modi had announced would cross over may do so after May 23. That potential floor-crossers are keeping their options open in West Bengal is very revealing; nobody is certain that the BJP has finally transformed itself from an “up-country” Hindi heartland party into a native Bengali version.
The logic of coalitions is it reflects and represents the extraordinary diversity of the population, which is diametrically different from the centrally-controlled, formidably hierarchical BJP. The exit polls have revealed a voter preference for a command and control politics. The results on Thursday will confirm or reject the bias.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata...