Predicting a poll outcome has never been easy and more so when 900 million people from far-flung places as diverse as Arunachal Pradesh and Lakshadweep exercise their franchise to elect a national government to lord over their destinies for five years. What has made the 2019 Lok Sabha elections even more unpredictable for even poll veterans is the mindboggling range of issues the campaign has thrown up from demonetisation and lack of jobs to terror, the nation’s security and now, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. With no wave discernable, either against the ruling dispensation or in favour of the opposition, and issues like the 'Bhrashtachari No. 1' campaign and the INS Viraat controversy being brought up against former PM Rajiv Gandhi at the fag end of the campaign, a surprise result is very much on the cards with no one ready to hazard a guess on whom these explosive charges will benefit. The BJP-led NDA could emerge as the single-largest formation but the opposition including the Congress and the Mahagathbandan could very well strike a poll pact to deprive the saffronists of another shot at power. Sensing a real chance to seize power from the BJP, efforts have been launched by the canny K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the ruling TRS in Telangana and many other CMs to firm up a third front or a federal front, with or without the support of the Congress. As the voter trudges to the polling booth to get his finger inked, the big question is: what weighs most on his mind - lofty national issues or more mundane matters like the scarcity of jobs, drought and farmer issues? SANJAY BASAK delves into the paradoxes of the 2019 polls where the BJP-led NDA, despite its failures on many fronts, could still forge ahead of the opposition making the best of its lack of unity and a cohesive approach to national issues.
Is the cat finally out of the bag? At a time when the long drawn out seven-phase election is slowly drawing to a close with 118 seats yet to go to polls — 59 this Sunday — and the remaining on May 19 and when saffron pundits, strategists and a section of the media are forcefully projecting a figure of nearly 300 seats for the BJP alone, comes the Ram Madhav and Shiv Sena spoilers.
"If we get 271 seats on our own, we will be very happy," Madhav said in an interview with Bloomberg News in New Delhi on Saturday. "With NDA we will have a comfortable majority," he said referring to the National Democratic Alliance.
Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut quickly followed suit. "What Ram Madhav says is right. The NDA will form the next government. The BJP will be the single-largest party. As of now, it looks a bit difficult for the BJP to reach the 280-282 figure on its own but our NDA "parivar" (family) will cross the majority mark," was his admission.
Despite the shrill campaign of muscular nationalism blended with aggressive Hindutva, a section in the BJP apprehends that it might be difficult for the party to touch 200 if they falter in Uttar Pradesh and fail to make considerable gains in West Bengal and Odisha.
For the BJP, it has always been the Hindi heartland which decided its fate. The six major Hindi heartland states which gave the BJP a major boost included UP (80 Lok Sabha seats), Madhya Pradesh (29), Rajasthan (25), Chhattisgarh (11), Uttarakhand (5) and Himachal Pradesh(4). A survey in The Wire indicated that "in each of these states, the BJP will lose its vote share. The smallest loss in terms of vote share will be seen in Uttar Pradesh (2.8%), followed by 5.25% in Himachal Pradesh, 8.79% in Himachal Pradesh, 13% in Madhya Pradesh, and about 16% each in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. While the loss of vote share is important, its conversion in terms of loss of seats is more important."
The survey then went on to state that "if voting patterns in the recent past are good predictors of current voting trends, then BJP could face a deficit of 75 parliamentary seats in these six states alone, vis-a-vis its performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It will lose the most in Uttar Pradesh - a total of about 44 seats. But it will lose significantly in terms of seats in three other states: 12 seats in Rajasthan, 10 seats in Madhya Pradesh and 9 seats in Chhattisgarh. It is only in the two smaller states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand that the BJP will manage to retain its tally of seats."
Other internal analyses of booths by parties show the Congress' tally could stand between 120-180 seats, while the BJP may muster 200-240 seats.
In the past five years, the government's track record has been less than stellar. A survey, conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) between July 2017 and June 2018, showed that the unemployment rate stood at 6.1 percent, higher than the previous high reached in 1972-1973. The government has officially denied the data, claiming this was "not verified." But unemployment, acute agrarian distress, price rise and the economic slowdown have virtually shattered BJP's 2014 slogan of "Achhe Din" and "Vikas."
In an article entitled 'In the world’s biggest election, India’s Narendra Modi pushes fear over hope,' the Washington Post sums up the Indian voters' dilemma: "Five years later, those lofty expectations have not been met. The economy is expanding but not creating enough jobs, while farmers are struggling with debt and rising costs. Much depends on whether Modi can persuade Indian voters to focus on nationalist pride rather than bread-and-butter issues in a campaign based less on hope than on fear... Much like President Trump, Modi, 68, is both polarizing and charismatic..."
But at a time when worry lines on the saffron forehead were getting deeper, the Pulwama attack happened.
The February 14 attack in which 40 CRPF personnel were killed was the turnaround moment for the BJP, struggling for an issue to shift the goalposts. Leading the saffron charge, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought votes in the name of Pulwama martyrs. "When you earn your first salary, usually you don’t keep it for yourself. You want to dedicate it to your mother or sister. Similarly, can you dedicate your vote for the Balakot strike, for the Pulwama attack victims..."
Post Pulwama, the saffron campaign has not shied away from evoking the fear factor among the voters. Fear of terrorism, fear of minorities changing the demography of the country, fear of losing national pride, were all aggressively stoked by the BJP. In all the five of the seven phases of elections "fear over hope" resonated at rally after saffron rally.
Are there signs of desperation in the party? Officially a big "no" is the answer. But a section of saffron watchers feel that the Prime Minister's resorting to low rhetoric by launching personal attacks on Congress president Rahul Gandhi could be a "sign of desperation".
By all accounts, while Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar's labelling of Modi as a "chaiwalla" was a game changer for the BJP in 2014, PM Modi's attack on Rahul by shaming his father and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with a "Your father was termed ‘Mr Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘Bhrashtachari No:1" could be equally cataclysmic and possibly boomerang. The BJP justified the attack where it blamed Rajiv Gandhi for instigating the anti-Sikh riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, by claiming that it was the PM's response to Rahul Gandhi's barb - "chowkidar chor hai." Analysts say however that it's clearly a move to shift the narrative in Punjab away from the deep anti-Akali Dal sentiment and whip up anti-Congress feelings among the Sikhs, both in Delhi as well as in Punjab, where the Congress chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh has successfully seen off the BJP.
While these could possibly be signs of desperation, with 118 seats still to go for polls in the next two phases, on the surface, the BJP exudes confidence and claims brand Modi will get them nearly 300 seats.
This week's Time magazine cover story which describes the Prime Minister as "India's Divider in Chief" does touch on the lack of a strong opposition to the BJP poster boy: "Modi is lucky to be blessed with so weak an opposition - a ragtag coalition of parties, led by the Congress, with no agenda other than to defeat him." But, given the complete absence of a discernible pro-Modi wave that buoyed the then Gujarat chief minister to Delhi in 2014, whether the lack of a strong opposition will power the prime minister back to Lok Kalyan Marg, with the numbers needed to form a government, is the question. The saffron-run social media is, working round the clock to project the "Modi wave," "300 seats in the bag" line. Feeding into that trope is the other persistent narrative that Brand Modi has a hold on the young and that this voter base backs the prime minister with the "India is safe under Chowkidar Narendra Modi" despite the rise of terrorist activities between 2014 to 2019. The Congress' counter is that Punjab and other border states who will be the first to pay the price in any war, see this differently from the young in the cities.
Either way, with the help of a high-pitched and aggressive campaign that stokes nationalism and anti-minoritysm, BJP has attempted to avoid the debate on unemployment, agrarian distress and the Rafale controversy. And if polarisation and muscular nationalism translate into votes, there'll be no stopping the Modi juggernaut. The arithmetic of changing caste equations in UP and the high-octane emotions in rural India between the politics of majoritarianism and minoritysm, notwithstanding.