Narendra Modi’s quest to lead India’s 1.2 billion people may ultimately lie in the hands of three women who wield clout as regional power brokers and have attacked him on the campaign trail.
Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa, and Mayawati head parties that Modi’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has relied on in the past to form coalitions at the federal and state level. Most polls show them winning enough seats to make one or more indispensable to Modi’s efforts to form a stable government should he emerge victorious on May 16.
“Modi will need the support of at least of one of them to form the government,” said Ajoy Bose, a journalist who covered Indian politics for almost 40 years and wrote a biography of Mayawati. “They are very tough politicians with unprecedented bargaining power, and chances are a government will be unstable if their demands aren’t met.”
A coalition filled with regional parties focused on local issues could hamper the next government’s ability to rein in subsidies and revive Asia’s third-biggest economy. Markets anticipate a stable government that takes quick action, Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan said April 1, warning that an unclear result would hurt stocks, bonds and the rupee.
India’s economy is estimated to have grown 4.9 percent in the year that ended March 31, up from 4.5 percent in the previous 12 months, the slowest pace in a decade. Stocks have reached new highs and the rupee has been the world’s best performer since hitting an all-time low on Aug. 28, partly on optimism that a Modi government will boost economic growth.
“A weak coalition government could hamper the speed of decision making,” said Shubhada Rao, chief economist at Yes Bank Ltd. in Mumbai. “What you need at this juncture is a stable government which could take sensible economic policy decisions.”
Voters are heading to the polls today in 121 of the 543 constituencies up for grabs, the fifth of nine rounds in polling that began April 7. The last phase is on May 12.
All opinion polls published before voting began showed the BJP and its allies winning the most seats while falling short of a majority. A poll released April 14 by Hansa Research for NDTV of 24,000 people showed the BJP-led alliance winning a slim majority of 275 seats, within the 2 percent margin of error, boosting its chances of taking power for the first time since 2004.
Polls released this month show Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress winning as many as 30 seats, third-most after the BJP and ruling Congress, which would get as many as 104. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, would be next with as many as 22 seats, while Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP -- now the third biggest -- would take as many as 16.
In recent weeks, all three women -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- have attacked Modi, who has run the western state of Gujarat since 2001. Of the three national coalition governments formed by the BJP, the only one that didn’t include at least one of the women lasted 13 days.
Banerjee, 59, a part-time painter and poet, became chief minister of West Bengal state in 2011 after demanding Tata Motors Ltd. abandon a car factory and return land to farmers. Known as “didi,” or elder sister, Banerjee lives in her family home in Kolkata, the capital formerly known as Calcutta.
Banerjee quit the BJP-led coalition in 2001 over cabinet posts, and also abandoned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government in 2012 because it allowed foreign retailers to open supermarkets. She wants regional parties to form the next government, All India Trinamool Congress spokesman Derek O’Brien said by phone.
“Their hands and faces are soaked with the blood of riots,” Banerjee told a rally on April 12, criticizing Modi for his handling of 2002 violence in Gujarat that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. “A rioter can’t become India’s prime minister.”
Modi has denied wrongdoing over the unrest, which erupted after Hindus died in a train fire. A Supreme Court-appointed panel said two years ago it found no evidence that his decisions prevented victims from receiving help.
“If there’s any truth to the allegations, I should be made to stand in the crossroads and hung,” Modi said in an interview with ANI News broadcast yesterday. An apology would serve no purpose because “it isn’t the right way” to deal with such an issue, he said, adding that voters would judge him.
Mayawati, 58, has similarly attacked Modi, telling a rally on April 10 that “the whole nation will witness riots” if he takes power, Press Trust of India reported.
Known as “behenji,” or honored sister, Mayawati draws support from the lower rungs of the country’s traditional caste system. She grew up in a Delhi slum and served as a teacher before she started her political career by cycling to dusty villages to meet constituents in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
The BJP and BSP formed alliances in 1995, 1997 and 2002 to govern Uttar Pradesh -- each of which fell apart after less than a year. They’ve never linked up on a national level.
Mayawati is the only one who will decide if the BSP joins the next government, party leader Brajesh Pathak said by phone.
Jayalalithaa, 66, attended Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2012 and only started attacking the BJP this week, when she criticized it over a local water dispute. Her supporters, mostly from lower classes, call her “amma,” which means mother or goddess in Tamil.
Jayalalithaa sang and danced in Tamil-language movies in the 1960s and 1970s before entering politics. She had joined the BJP in 1998 to form a national government that collapsed after 13 months when she withdrew over cabinet positions, triggering elections.
“The AIADMK may consider supporting any coalition that promises to support the aspirations of Tamils in the state,” party spokesman K. Samarasam said by phone.
Modi has returned fire. He said in campaign speeches over the past month that Banerjee “cheated” her constituents, Mayawati’s BSP keeps her supporters poor and Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK attacks opponents at the expense of developing the state.
Even so, in yesterday’s ANI News interview, Modi said he was on “good terms” with Jayalalithaa and other rivals.
All three women could still end up backing Modi, said Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“These women will swiftly change their positions and find some excuse or other to support BJP if after the results they sense Modi has the possibility to form the government,” he said. “They will extract a pound of flesh for their support.”