The Power of 70

Forty-one out of 58 recog- nised political parties in India have lost faith in EVMs and are demanding paper ballots in the next election. That works out to 70 percent of all national and regional parties recognised by the Election Commission.

There is something strange about the number 70. Nowadays many things in the country have something or the other to do with that number. 'The rupee is 70 to the dollar at the time of writing. The price of diesel is Rs 70 per litre'.

And there is more.

Public sector banks have announced that 70 overseas branches would be closed.

The number of debt-ridden companies facing compulsory bankruptcy after the August 28 deadline set by the RBI is 70.

A new book called "70 Policies that Shaped India from 1947 to 2017" by Gautam Chikermane was released last week by the Observer Research Foundation.

One can go on and on with more examples of the power of 70—for instance, the Prime Minister's pet phrase is that there was no development in India during 70 years of rule by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty—which he repeated this week in Junagarh by saying that if the Swachhta Abhiyan had been launched 70 years ago the country would have been totally free of disease by now.

To which Rahul Gandhi retorted during his interaction with the Indian Overseas Congress in London by reminding Narenda Modi that there has been no Prime Minister from the Nehru-Gandhi family for the last three decades since 1989 and that for 15 of those 70 years the BJP has held the reins at the Centre, directly or as part of the Janata Party.

Interestingly, the escalating war of words between Modi and Rahul, which is turning out more evenly-balanced and more fast and furious than it was during the 2014 election campaign, is being viewed by some election pundits is a battle over just 70 seats in the next Lok Sabha.

The calculation, even though it may sound somewhat fanciful, is based on the numbers game that the Opposition parties need to win to stand a good chance of preventing the BJP-led NDA from coming back to power. A swing of just 70 away from the present combined strength of BJP and its allies (estimated at 336) would bring the numbers down below the half-way mark of 272.

Even BJP president Amit Shah is believed to be seriously concerned about the possibility of a 70-seat slippage.

The efforts being made by various regional parties to focus on a joint strategy to avoid splitting of anti-BJP votes is further queering the pitch for Amit Shah. What he is finding particularly troublesome is that the emphasis of the anti-BJP parties is just that—they are targeting the BJP more than other NDA partners.

In other words, the worst-case scenario confronting the BJP leadership is the danger of the number of Lotus symbol candidates falling by 70. The apprehension is based on a realistic assessment of the political and electoral mood in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Bihar.

The BJP currently draws its numerical strength of 282 mainly from these seven States. A slippage of 70 is by no means a remote possibility. Given the groundswell of unrest among farmers and Dalits combined with the disturbing signs of Congress resurgence in at least some of the bigger States, it may even be a probability.

A BJP tally of around 210 seats would ruin Narendra Modi's plan for a second term as Prime Minister. Even if all the NDA partners are in a position to cobble together a majority with or without the support of a few new allies, it will not serve the purpose as far as Modi and Shah are concerned.

The reason for this is quite different from the obvious arithmetical and usual political factors involved. Nobody knows better than Amit Shah that it is not in Narendra Modi's DNA to function as the head of a coalition government on the basis of consultation and consensus.

The key to Modi's personality is that he needs to be in total and absolute control of what he does. Acting as the gentle shepherd of a motley flock of parties is not his cup of tea. Unless he holds the whip and unless other regional party leaders bow to his dictates, he will not be able to find the space to call the shots as he does now.

The second most important thing about Modi, as certain Gujarati journalists who have seen him at close quarters have chronicled, is that he is terrified of humiliation.

The fear of a 70-seat swing in seats bothers both of them—Modi and Shah. Which is also why the BJP chief has been laying such much stress on doing whatever is necessary to perform well in Uttar Pradesh. As he told a meeting of party workers in Mughalsarai last week, the BJP will have to aim for at least 70 out of the 80 seats from Uttar Predesh.

Regardless of whether the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party join hands and irrespective of whether they are bolstered with help from the Congress, the target has to be 70.

70 percent of anti-BJP political parties which have no faith in EVMs, had better become more aggressive in their demand for paper ballots. Otherwise, the next Lok Sabha elections may be as good as lost already.

Vol. 51, No.13, Sep 30 - Oct 6, 2018