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Coalition Wrangling
The Three Powerful Ladies Who Can Stop Narendra Modi

Their names evoke strong emotions among supporters and rivals alike—anxiety, admiration, fear. They are formidable, physically and in politics. One reportedly beat a former employee black and blue with a high-heeled shoe. They extract high prices from those who desire their loyalty. They can create and destroy governments with a wave of a dismissive hand. And to rule India, you need the support of at least one.

They are Mamata Banerjee, of West Bengal; J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu; and Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh. Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, are expected to come out on top of India’s election, which is underway and finishes next month. But not many expect the BJP to win the 272 seats necessary to form a government on its own. That means Modi needs allies, but allies come with a price.

“In the case of Jayalalithaa, there is a give and take,” a journalist based in Tamil Nadu told the New York Times. “That is, she will be very, very clear on what she wants to take.” A US diplomatic cable from 2009 calls her “the toughest person in Tamil Nadu politics.” A firebrand speaker, she has run the state—one of the country’s best-performing—off and on for the past two decades. Before that, she was a beloved movie star. Arriving in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, a visitor is immediately confronted by images of Jayalalithaa. They hang on streetlights and buildings, in taxi cabs and bus stations. Her “worshipful following” was on clear display at a recent rally, Ellen Barry reports for the New York Times. “Her face stared down from posters the height of five-story buildings, from shimmering porticoes made of bamboo fronds, from giant balloons that bobbed in the sky. Some 1,000 banana trees, heavy with fruit, had been cut and lined up to create an alley for her motorcade, interspersed with columns fashioned out of pineapples, watermelons and sweet limes.” Jayalalithaa is a prime option for Modi if he must go searching for allies after the election ends. There are relatively few Muslims in Tamil Nadu, so not many voters will be angry with her for allying herself to him.

The other two ladies are equally popular in their home states but are likely to be more difficult to entice into an alliance with the BJP. Both have large Muslim populations, both are unreliable in coalitions. A US diplomatic cable calls Mayawati “unpredictable and high-strung.” When she was chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, which has roughly the same population as Brazil, she commissioned over a hundred statues commemorating herself and her party at enormous cost. “She delights in Gucci bags and heavy gold jewelry,” Barry writes.

In the end, coalition building in India comes down to arithmetic rather than personality. The more seats the BJP wins in the election, the less need there is to search out coalition partners. But if the BJP’s win isn’t a total landslide—if it gets say, less than 200 seats—“you will see a lot of unsavory things happening in the first year,” as the editor of the Hindu put it.

[UPDATE: A previous version of this post listed Mamata as the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, rather than Mayawati.]

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  • Andrew Allison

    Why is it so important to TAI to stop Modi? The Gandhi dynasty, to be polite, does not have a great track record.

  • Venkat Rao Dasari

    Your penultimate paragraph has an error. Mamata is the Chief Minister of West Bengal — the high strung one. Mayawati was the CM of UP — the one that erected statues of her own. Names are confusing and it is an understandable mix-up.

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