The compelling logic of a Grand Alliance in UP

There’s nothing like the word Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) to make even the most boosterish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter sweat a little. And it’s not just because of what happened in Bihar in 2015, when an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Indian National Congress (INC) inflicted a defeat on the BJP. Ever since 1977, dominant parties – the INC until the 1980s, the BJP now – have been vulnerable to a united opposition challenge. Which is why Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have both urged the INC to engineer a national-level grand alliance to break the BJP’s current ascendance.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is of course the lynchpin of the BJP’s national dominance, having contributed 71 of its 282 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. That is why its recent state election victory was such good news for the party, since it places the BJP on a strong footing for the 2019 election, only two years away now.

The best way to stop the BJP juggernaut, at this point, seems to be a Mahagathbandhan in UP. After the Emergency, an opposition alliance forced the INC’s Lok Sabha seats in UP down from 73 (of 85) in 1971 to exactly zero in 1977. Its state assembly tally fell from 215 in 1974 to 47 in 1977. Little more than a decade later, another grand alliance knocked the INC down from 83 Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to 15 in 1989. In the state assembly, the INC dropped from 269 seats in 1985 to 94 in 1989. Grand alliances in UP have proved effective in countering dominant political parties.

Like the previous instances, a UP grand alliance might not be more than a stopgap. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) have a history of animosity that won’t be easy to overcome, though the INC could play mediator between former rivals as it did in Bihar.

So what impact might a Mahagathbandhan have had on the just completed state elections? Here’s what the new UP state assembly looks like:

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A simple addition exercise shows that the BJP and its allies exceeded the combined vote share of the SP, BSP and INC in 115 state assembly seats. If we include the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), this number drops to 101.

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What about the Lok Sabha? The BJP and its allies won more votes than a theoretical Mahagathbandhan in only 25 seats (24 if you include the RLD), compared with its 2014 tally of 73. The BJP would still have won the national election, but its Lok Sabha tally would have been down to (a still impressive) 236.

There are obvious caveats: it’s not clear that parties’s vote banks will seamlessly transfer to grand alliance partners. Some portion of BSP and SP voters who dislike the other party could instead vote for a third party, which could even be the BJP. Or party workers could be unenthusiastic for a candidate in their constituency from a different party. For instance, INC candidates on average won fewer votes in the 2017 UP election than did SP candidates, which political scientist Gilles Verniers sees as evidence that “SP supporters did not transfer their votes to Congress supporters to the same extent that Congress supporters did”.

On the other hand, a grand alliance that looks like a potential winner could gain votes purely on momentum. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ 2014 National Election Study found strong evidence for such a bandwagon effect: 43% of voters said that they chose the party they thought was leading the race.

Either way, the compelling logic of a grand alliance in UP suggests that the parties the BJP defeated in 2017 will put in a serious effort to get one going. Whether it happens or not is the 80-seat question.

An upper hand in the Upper House

Now that the dust has settled on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, let’s get down to the big question: how close does it get the ruling National Democratic Alliance to a Rajya Sabha majority, and when? The government’s minority status in the RS has slowed and even halted important elements of its legislative agenda, such as the GST and land acquisition amendments. An upper house majority would greatly strengthen its ability to pass bills, but it could also embolden the Sangh Parivar to push its core ideological issues such as a uniform civil code, eliminating Article 370 and perhaps even transforming India into a “Hindu Rashtra”.

Here’s what the Rajya Sabha currently looks like:

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UP is clearly the prize in the RS: it contributes 31 of the upper house’s 245 seats, of which ten will have elections in 2018 and another ten in 2020. With a supermajority in the UP state assembly, the BJP is likely to win seven new seats from UP in each round (it already has three RS MPs in UP).

Adding up all the states, the NDA will gain a total of 18 seats in 2017 and 2018 (including two grabbed from the Congress Party in Goa and Manipur), while the Congress Party and its allies’ tally will drop by a similar amount.

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Those are meaningful shifts in seats, but not enough to give the NDA control of the upper house, where it will remain short by about 30 seats (as this blog anticipated in 2014). It will continue to require the support of regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, AIADMK and Samajwadi Party to pass bills through the RS.

Things improve for the NDA in 2019 and 2020. If we assume no major changes in the state elections held in 2018 and 2019 (a strong but unavoidable assumption since we can’t predict the future), the NDA approaches an RS majority only in 2020.

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The ruling coalition will still fall a few seats short, but should be able to corral support from a wide selection of regional parties to pass bills. The good news, at least for people wary of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, is that the BJP will lack the power to change India’s constitution. But it should be able to push economic reform bills through both houses if its allies are supportive.

The bad news: the BJP has every intention – as revealed by Adityanath’s anointment as UP chief minister – to push ahead with hardline Hindutva. And if the environment is polarized enough, there is no guarantee that the BJP’s allies won’t cave to an aggressive right-wing assertion. Assuming, of course, that 2019 is in the bag for the BJP.

Uttar Pradesh is the BJP’s to lose. Or is it?

As counting day on 11 March approaches, it seems as difficult as ever to gauge which way the political wind in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is blowing. Even before the campaign began, pre-election opinion polls offered little help, showing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance neck and neck, with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lagging.

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We know from elections in Delhi (2015), Bihar (2015) and West Bengal (2016) that a dead heat in pre-election polls is almost never a good predictor of the eventual outcome.

So what are the BJP’s chances of pulling off a win? If the starting point is the BJP’s historic 2014 victory, its lead seems unassailable. The BJP won 328 of 403 assembly segments, including 253 with more than 40% of the vote, and as Praveen Chakravarty states, for it to win fewer than 200 seats even if “two of the opposition parties get together, the BJP would still have to lose more than 10% of its voters”.

But if the baseline is the 2012 state election, the SP-Congress alliance begins to look formidable. As Karthik Sashidhar writes: “it will take a 7 percentage point swing from the 2012 elections to pull the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance below the halfway mark”. While this sounds big, it is well within the realm of possibility: in 2014, the SP dropped seven percentage points from its 2012 tally, giving the BJP a sweep in that four-cornered contest.

So which is it? The opinion poll numbers suggest that 2014 is, in fact, the appropriate baseline: 33% represents a near doubling of the BJP vote in the past three state elections and a decisive break from UP’s two-party dominant system. Yet it is undeniable that the SP-Congress alliance has raised the threshold of votes any party needs to attain a majority, transforming the contest from a seeming BJP walkover to a tough fight.

One way to resolve this impasse is to look at UP by-elections. Since the 2014 general election, the state has had 18 assembly by-elections: 11 in 2014, two in 2015 and five in 2016. These constituencies are fairly representative of the state: they are distributed across UP, and their combined 2014 general election vote shares approximate how the whole state voted in 2014, albeit with a slight bias of 3-4 percentage points each towards the BJP and INC (see table below).

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And this is how those 18 constituencies’ votes moved, from 2012 to 2014 to the subsequent by-elections:

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Note that the BJP’s vote share fell about 11 percentage points in the by-elections, while that of the SP rose more than 24 percentage points. The BJP retained only three of the 14 assembly constituencies in which it had a lead in 2014, and lost 11 to the SP. That’s a sharp fall in votes compared with 2014.

There are two obvious caveats. One is that ruling parties tend to do very well in by-elections. Voters calculate that having a ruling party legislator is more beneficial for their constituency, and parties in power tend to win by-elections about 2/3rds of the time. The second is that the BSP does not generally contest by-elections, so the 2014-16 numbers aren’t strictly comparable to 2012 and 2014 when the BSP was in the fray.

But that’s also the bad news for the BJP. One reason it did very well in the general election is that many BSP voters – including Dalits and MBCs – preferred Modi in 2014. But in the subsequent by-elections, the BSP’s vote appears to have gravitated towards the SP rather than to the BJP. It’s possible that incumbent advantage, including control of the state’s law-and-order machinery, contributed to this shift, but the BJP will have to fight to retain its 2014 voting bloc.

Such big drops in vote share are not unheard of in the wake of “wave” elections, such as in 1984. In November that year, the INC won 51% of votes in Uttar Pradesh, only to slip three months later to 39% in the state election that followed. Even bigger dips have occurred: in 1987, the INC won 29% in Haryana, a sharp drop from the 55% it received in 1984.

Now 1984 was a long time ago, and the obvious counter-argument is that UP has seen many big political events since the by-elections that could put wind beneath the BJP’s wings. These include the army raid across the Line-of-Control, demonetisation, the civil war in the SP and the high-pitched election campaign in which the BJP has brought out its big guns. And voters could decide that the BJP deserves a chance to run UP after successive BSP and SP governments.

But the reality is that the BJP’s vote share has dropped substantially since its 2014 victory, and the SP-Congress alliance has built a vote chest that makes it imperative for the BJP to outperform. As it happens, in the 2015 Bihar election, by-election vote shifts overstated the ruling alliance’s vote share but captured the drop in the vote share of the BJP and its allies. The BJP should hope that it won’t be the same story in UP.

How various regions fare in Modi’s Cabinet

There has been much talk of the politics behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘s 5 Jul Cabinet reshuffle. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that several new appointees came from Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, both states in which the BJP has big stakes and that have elections due in 2017.

But how important is regional representation in the appointment of ministers? One way is to look at how under- or over-represented various regions are. This map (from the business news daily Mint) shows that Hindi heartland and western Indian states have the strongest representation:

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A good first cut, but this only gives us absolute numbers. And it shouldn’t surprise that the more populous states get the most ministerial positions. One way to check under- or over-representation is to compare a state’s presence in the Council of Ministers with a baseline expectation of how much it should have. One way to do this is to look at the ratio of a state’s share of ministries with the proportion of Lok Sabha seats that it has (a number that is also roughly aligned with its population share).

And here is what we find:

Best represented states in the Council of Ministers (ministry share/LS seat share)

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Surprise! Goa and Arunachal Pradesh are at the top of the list, since the appointments of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju give each 3.5 times (or 350% of) their parliamentary presence (proportionate representation is equivalent to 1, or 100%). However small states skew these results because the appointment of only one or two ministers can give them huge over-representation.

Sticking to the larger states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar now stand demoted. The best represented are Haryana (2.1), Madhya Pradesh (1.9),  Rajasthan (1.7), Gujarat (1.6), Jharkhand (1.5), Bihar (1.4), Uttar Pradesh (1.3) and Karnataka (1.2). The poorest represented are Tamil Nadu (0.2), West Bengal (0.3), Odisha (0.3), Telangana (0.4), Assam (0.5), Chhattisgarh (0.6), Andhra Pradesh (0.8) and Maharashtra (0.9).

The states with the highest representation include those with well-established state BJP units that comprise the party core (with Haryana a notable outlier). Conversely, the states with the lowest representation are mostly those where the BJP is weak (with the interesting exceptions of Assam and Chhattisgarh where the BJP is the ruling party).

Regional representation isn’t the only factor in allocation ministerial positions, administrative ability and identity group balancing being other plausible drivers that could explain some of the deviations from 1 (or 100%). But the broad pattern seems consistent with a patronage model of politics in which political parties need to keep their base happy, motivated and delivering benefits to supporters.

Update

Another way to predict how much representation a state “deserves” would be to look at its contribution of parliamentary seats to the ruling coalition, in this case the 331-member National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The pattern now appears somewhat different:

Best represented states in the Council of Ministers (ministry share/NDA seat share)

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This time the small states are joined at the top of the list by large states in which the NDA has a limited presence. West Bengal and Tamil Nadu score high because they account for two and one ministers respectively, the same as the number of MPs they sent to the Lok Sabha. Among the larger states, the best represented are West Bengal (4.2), Tamil Nadu (4.2), Odisha (2.1), Haryana (1.8), Madhya Pradesh (1.4), Punjab (1.4) and Karnataka (1.3).

Other than Madhya Pradesh, which remains in the overrepresented column, the Hindi heartland and western states now seem more fairly represented, staying close to their weightage in the NDA: Bihar (1.1), Jharkhand (1.1), Rajasthan (1.0), Gujarat (1.0), Uttar Pradesh (0.9). Under-represented NDA states include Chhattisgarh (0.4), Maharashtra (0.6) and Assam (0.7).

From the NDA’s point of view, Modi’s Council of Ministers provides a good balance. No major state other than Kerala gets short shrift (though some in BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Assam might grumble).

No end of the road for the Congress

Here’s a look at the Congress Party’s national prospects, first published as an oped in the Hindustan Times:

After a merciless series of election defeats since 2014, it’s tempting to write off the Congress as a leading national force. With few visible signs of a Congress revival, some argue that India’s regional parties are now the main bulwark against the BJP.

This certainly seems to be the case with the next big state election: Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The Congress is very much the underdog, with the BSP seemingly best positioned to beat back the BJP. The Congress’ current irrelevance was shown up — if in a small way — in the two recent UP by-elections where, in the absence of the BSP, voters dissatisfied with the Samajwadi Party gravitated towards the BJP.

But it may well be premature to write off the Congress. Even in its present nadir, the Congress is either the ruling party or the principal opposition in six of India’s 12 largest states (which account for 80% of the Lok Sabha seats). The BJP, at its current zenith, is one or the other in six states, although it clearly hopes to add UP to this list soon. Obviously ruling a state counts for more than being the opposition, but the Congress remains the only feasible alternative in a big swath of the country. Recall that the party ruled only two such states (Orissa and Madhya Pradesh) when Sonia Gandhi took over in March 1998. In military terms, the party’s intentions might seem suicidal to some, but its capabilities cannot be ignored.

Things will remain tricky for the party through early 2017. It will need to put in a respectable performance in UP, which at a minimum means winning enough seats to affect government formation in the state. It will have to fight off a challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and retain some of the smaller states. This won’t be easy: The BJP could lose a third of its 2014 UP vote of 42% in a four-way race and still have a chance of winning the state.

But once the Congress is past this stage, opportunities may begin to open up in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which are ruled by the BJP and together account for 91 of the 543 parliamentary seats. The Congress won just three of the 91 in 2014. As tempting as it is to project BJP’s invincibility indefinitely into the future, the fact is that all of these governments are vulnerable to a challenge, and the Congress will be the only party positioned to take advantage.

Gujarat has been plagued by a Patidar agitation and its chief minister is facing allegations of cronyism. The three-term Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments are also battling corruption charges, while Rajasthan tends to seesaw between the BJP and Congress (although the BJP will also be defending a large vote margin — as the AIADMK just managed in Tamil Nadu). The Congress will be in danger of losing its last major state, Karnataka, but the risks will weigh against the BJP.

So how does any of this matter? Despite the 2014 Modi wave, the national landscape is still shaped by state politics. While dissatisfaction with the UPA was obviously a factor, the data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that satisfaction with the ruling state government was perhaps the most important determinant of voting. Consider that the Congress’ 2014 vote share in Karnataka actually rose in comparison with 2013; but the BJP gained seats because of its merger with BS Yeddyurappa’s splinter party.

It is possible, as many commentators assert, that the Indian voter’s disenchantment with the Congress is irreversible. But it’s too easy to extrapolate the most recent trend into the future. Nationally, the Congress is positioned to the left of the BJP, ready to reap any disappointment with Narendra Modi’s development rhetoric, possesses a deep bench of younger leaders and has more boots on the ground than any other contender.

And if the party shakes off its stupor and survives the UP and Punjab elections, it has the chance to take the battle to the BJP heartland.

The use and abuse of President’s Rule

After the furore over the Modi government imposing President’s Rule in Congress-ruled Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand  — in seeming defiance of the Supreme Court’s 1994 Bommai judgement — supporters have pointed out that previous governments have used Article 356 more frequently to remove state governments:

There are two obvious problems with this line of argument:

  1. Legitimacy. It fails to distinguish between the use and abuse of President’s Rule. To take the most recent examples, the Modi government had little choice but to impose President’s Rule in Maharashtra (2014) and Jammu and Kashmir (2014, 2016), but arguably used state power for partisan ends in the cases of Arunachal Pradesh (2016) and Uttarakhand (2016).
  2. Propensity. There is no attempt to control for the length of time a government might have been in office. In the chart above (drawn from here), Prime Ministers Chandrashekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee invoked Article 356 five times each, but the former did so over an eight month period while the latter did it over six long years. There is clearly a difference.

So how to evaluate Modi’s record?

Here we look at 113 cases of President’s Rule since 1950 (drawn from a very useful data set put together by The Hindu’s Rukmini S and Samarth Bansal), and divide them into three categories: routine, controversial and for reasons of law and order. Note that the “controversial” category casts a wide net, and includes many instances that the 1988 Sarkaria Commission (PDF) report disapproved of on procedural grounds, even where no injustice was apparent (viz. categories A, B and C from Chapter 6).

And we find:

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President’s Rule was most frequently invoked between the late 1960s and early 1980s, a period of political churn. The leader of the pack turns out to be the Janata Party government, which in only three years racked up the same tally as Indira Gandhi did in her first 11 years in office (1966-77). The most egregious misuse of Article 356 occurred on 30 Apr 1977 when the Janata Party dismissed nine Congress state governments, well, just — because. This fact should give pause to those who think that strong central parties are mostly to blame for the abuse of Article 356. Indira Gandhi paid her opponents back in the same coin when she returned to power and dismissed nine opposition-ruled states on 17 Feb 1980.

The misuse of Article 356 declined considerably after that, averaging between zero and three “controversial” invocations per prime ministerial term. One reason was the Bommai judgement, which laid down the conditions under which Article 356 could be invoked, such as requiring a governor to carry out a floor test to ascertain the support of a state government.

That said, a crude count gives us limited information. Remember that the 1977-80 Janata government equalled Indira Gandhi’s record in about a quarter of the time she had taken. Controlling for the length of a government’s tenure, we find a starker pattern:

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Turns out that shorter, less secure governments have a greater propensity to misuse President’s Rule. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and PV Narasimha Rao were most cautious, at least in part because of the restraining effect of the Bommai judgement: Rao never invoked Article 356 after that.

It’s too soon to make a definitive evaluation of Modi, since he has completed less than two of his five years in office, but his absolute count is already ahead of both Vajpayee’s and Singh’s. Modi’s relative count is a fairly high 1.1 — about the same as HD Deve Gowda and ten times Singh’s — owing to his still-brief tenure. This number could decline to a more reasonable 0.4 if Modi stops here — the same level as Rao and a tad above Nehru’s. But if he continues along this path, placing states like Manipur under President’s Rule, then all bets will be off.

Next, let’s look at the subset of controversial cases in which a governor controlled by a ruling party is making decisions that could result in a different political party either retaining or losing power, as is currently the case in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. While the Sarkaria Commission frowned on the tendency of governments to use Article 356 to bring their own state parties into line, it seems more problematic to use it to remove opposition parties.

And how do various governments fare in this regard?

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Modi is now doing even worse than Indira Gandhi did in her first stretch in power. This is also an artefact of his brief tenure so far in office, and Modi’s score could drop to a more reassuring 0.4 — the same as Rao’s — if no more opposition state governments are destabilised using Article 356.

Now it’s entirely possible that you consider the analysis presented here to be bunkum, or an effort to tar Modi or to bolster the opposition. The good news, dear reader, is that you can simply ignore my categorisations and focus on the pooled President’s Rule data. And this is what we find:

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Doesn’t look good for Modi — he is now the leading imposer of Article 356 in two decades, and within striking range of both of Indira Gandhi’s terms. Once again, this holds true of this first two years, and could drop to 1.0 if he stops here. The nation is watching Modiji.

Data notes

If you’re still a sceptic, here’s the raw data used (let me know if you have any constructive suggestions):

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Note that court judgements are treated here as definitive: this means that some controversial instances of President’s Rule, such as the removal of BJP governments in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the wake of the 1993 Babri Masjid demolition, are coded under “law and order”. Conversely, cases like Bihar (2005), found by the courts to be unconstitutional, are coded as “controversial” even if it was seems unlikely that a stable government would have emerged out of a floor test.

A tax too far

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s minority status in the Rajya Sabha has proven to be a big impediment to its legislative goals, and the long-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST) — which needs a 2/3rds majority in the Rajya Sabha to pass — seems as distant as ever.

In the Rajya Sabha elections held for 12 seats this week in Assam, Kerala, Nagaland, Punjab and Tripura, the Indian National Congress (INC) dipped from 66 to 63 seats (in the 245-seat upper house), while the BJP was flat at 48. The INC might drop another seat in the Rajya Sabha in the coming 4-5 months while the BJP could gain another three, but the ruling coalition is unlikely to make any meaningful gains in the upper house until 2018, close to the end of its term.

This is what the Rajya Sabha could look like by August:

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Clearly, the BJP will need the support of several uncommitted regional parties to pass bills through the upper house until at least 2018, and probably beyond.

And what of the GST? In a recent investor note, Morgan Stanley argued that:

The key to the bill’s passage is a reduction in the number of Upper House members opposing the bill. That number currently stands at 91 and it needs to fall to 82 for the bill to clear – we forecast that to happen by July 2016.

Not so fast.  It seems as if the Morgan Stanley analysts are treating the Janata Dal (United) as a GST supporter and placing the AIADMK — a vocal GST opponent — into the “opposing” column. But that’s overly optimistic: the JD(U) has a coalition in Bihar with the INC and is unlikely to vote for the GST bill. Neither are the two Left parties that control nine seats between them. And the Kerala, and Tam

The conclusion: this round of Rajya Sabha elections changes nothing for the BJP, it’ll still need INC support to pass the GST.