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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Apr 2024  Mohan Guruswamy | Elections 2024: Modi up a steep & slippery slope?

Mohan Guruswamy | Elections 2024: Modi up a steep & slippery slope?

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Apr 19, 2024, 1:14 am IST
Updated : Apr 19, 2024, 1:14 am IST

Economic woes, agrarian discontent, and regional dynamics may pose hurdles for BJP's electoral prospects.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI File Image)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI File Image)

Be it a democracy or a dictatorship, governments are almost always changed by throwing out the incumbent. The former is called a democratic transition and the latter is inevitably a revolution. Even if it is, as usually is the case, more of the same.

India’s electoral process that begins on April 19 will be concluded on June 4 when the results are announced.  Most psephologists, commentators, astrologers and bazar gossips are sanguine that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be easily re-elected to a third successive term. I do not agree with that sanguinity.

I think Mr Modi has a hard hill to climb and the slope may be too steep and slippery for him. Look at the objective reality. In 2019, the BJP won 303 seats or almost 56 per cent of the Lok Sabha with 37.4 per cent of the popular vote. This skew is how it usually is in a first-past-the-post system. Even a minority mandate translates into an overwhelming outcome. But the problem with the BJP mandate is that it is concentrated in a minority of states. The saffron mandate is restricted almost entirely to the large Hindi-speaking states (202/235), as well as Maharashtra (41/48) and Karnataka (25/28). It got 268 out of its 303 in just this concentration. Winning these states is not the issue for the BJP. Repeating this performance is.

The BJP governments in these states have not exactly covered themselves with glory. The party got resoundingly thrashed in the recent state elections in Karnataka, where Mr Modi fully deployed his mind spread and headgears, turning it into a Modi versus Congress contest. In the years after 2014, the BJP has turned every election, including for municipal councils, into a Modi versus the rest contest. It has lost many of these. For Prime Minister Modi to repeat 2019, we have to assume that the electorate is able to selectively choose Mr Modi for Parliament and not for the Assemblies.

But a lot of murky waters have flowed down the Ganga, the Narmada and Godavari since 2019. The effects of demonetisation (2016), the Covid-19 lockdowns and general mismanagement have set India on a much lower growth trajectory than the one it was between 2004 and 2014. In that decade India’s GDP grew from $721 billion to $2.03 trillion, or an increase of 182 per cent; while in 2024 it grew to $3.75 trillion from $2.03 trillion, or by 86.6 per cent. But lower growth has not slowed down the accumulation of wealth with the upper class. Income inequality is among the highest in the world now. At the end of 2022, the wealth Gini coefficient of India stood at 82.3, a significant increase compared to 74.7 in 2000.

Joblessness and job dissatisfaction have grown to dominate our economic and social landscape. The ILO’s “India Employment Report 2024” paints a bleak outlook for the 7-8 million youth being added to the labour force each year, with youth accounting for almost 83 per cent of India’s unemployed workforce. Even more distressing is that among the unemployed, the proportion of educated young people, those who have had a secondary-level education or higher, has doubled to 65.7 per cent now from 35.2 per cent in 2000. Unemployed graduates (29.1%) outnumber illiterates (3.4%) by nine times. This underscores the shortage of jobs requiring skills and education.

The peasantry is disaffected and has taken to the highways again. While the Jat peasantry of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh fattened on assured MSP and near 100 per cent procurement wants more, the peasantry in the rest of the country chaffs at state regulations to control prices and hence restrict their incomes. The fragmentation of land holdings has only added to farmer discontent. Ironically, it is widespread even among those who get all and those who get little.

That this general mood will not affect Mr Modi’s standing in the saffron belt even somewhat, despite a half-constructed temple in Ayodhya, is to be excessively hopeful. People are natural repositories of discontent. Even after Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya it didn’t take people too long to raise uncomfortable questions and Queen Sita had to seek refuge in Valmiki’s ashram.

Mr Modi has to deal with discontent and in all likelihood there will be attrition. In each of the saffron states, the BJP won in 2019 with well over 50 per cent of the popular vote. In Gujarat, it polled as much as 62 per cent, in UP it currently holds 64 seats with 49.56 per cent, and in MP and Rajasthan it had over 58 per cent each. Only in Assam did the BJP do well (9/12) with only 36 per cent of the vote. Even in West Bengal, where Mr Modi waged a vicious and personalised campaign against Mamata Banerjee to win 18 seats, it won 40 per cent.  The picture is clear, there is too little room to climb higher, while a drop could be very precipitous in terms of seats.

Presuming Mr Modi will lose support in the BJP’s existing strongholds, where can it hope to make up for the losses? Let's start from the South. It is very unlikely to gain any seats in Tamil Nadu and Kerala -- meaning zero will remain zero. It has 25 out of 28 in Karnataka, which is unlikely to be repeated. The Congress is expected to make strong gains here. The BJP has a recently cobbled up an alliance with the TDP, which could mean a couple of seats in Andhra Pradesh. It has four in Telangana and is unlikely to add to it. Thus, even a 10 per cent loss in seats in the saffron heartland and a further loss of, say 10-15 in Karnataka, will leave it well below the halfway mark. Along with its on and off ally, the JD(U), the BJP won 39/40 in Bihar. With the RJD resurgent and a settled alliance with the Congress, that record is unlikely to be maintained. The INDIA alliance is tipped to easily do double digits or even 50 per cent of the seats in Bihar.  The AAP/Congress alliance might sweep Delhi’s seven seats. The saffron alliance won 41/48 in Maharashtra. With every party split in the state and with an uninspiring state leadership, Mr Modi alone may not be able to pull all the chestnuts out of the fire.

Spread it on a spreadsheet and see how the cookie crumbles. It doesn’t look like the BJP is anywhere near 400. Even the halfway mark of 272 looks like a hard climb.


Tags: prime minister narendra modi, aa edit, 2024 lok sabha elections