The polls of 2014 were about Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, and this election is still about him. That is his unmistakable message.
Deciphering the mood of the Indian electorate in the midst of the Lok Sabha polls is a dicey task. More so, when nobody is reading a strong wave in favour of anyone but sees an undercurrent in favour of one political leader — if not a political party.
Psephologists and analysts alike acknowledge the huge traction for Prime Minister Narendra Modi among voters across India as he works towards securing a second term through a very personally persuasive campaign.
As the seven-phase polling completed its fourth lap, the BJP is seen having an advantage over other parties, particularly the Congress, in some states.
At the same time, the regional players, such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party (BSP-SP) combine in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led opposition alliance in Bihar too show that they have enough reasons to be undaunted by the challenge posed by the Modi-driven BJP.
Despite the flip-flop over Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s electoral debut, Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his sister are bearing the burden of the Congress’ counter-campaign. They do not appear to have given up either as they refresh their campaign on the NYAY plank.
In between his rallies and filing his nomination from Varanasi, Modi has kept the optics alive — with his riverside and boat-ride media interviews and an interaction with a Bollywood celebrity after the Election Commission of India (ECI) refused to allow the release of his biopic.
The polls of 2014 were about Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, and this election is still about him. That is his unmistakable message. Modi has ensured that the debate is on why he should get a second chance as PM and about the problems that would arise if his mandate is nor renewed at this juncture.
If not Modi, who will it be? A counter-narrative, which the Opposition should have had by now does not appear to be in place.
Of course, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar is on record that it does not matter who will succeed Modi. “Modi was chief minister of Gujarat before taking over as the prime minister,” Pawar said an interview. “In my opinion, since the possibility of the NDA securing a clear majority is remote, Banerjee, Naidu and Mayawati are better options for the prime minister’s post.”
In doing so, Pawar has openly ruled out Rahul Gandhi’s candidature, stating that the Congress President has himself expressed that he was not in the race. One wonders why has Pawar counted himself out when his family and supporters have always felt that the one-time Maharashtra strongman is yet to get his due.
However, these names fail to generate any excitement among the voters as much as Modi’s name does. So much so, strategists rule out any uncertainty after the results are declared on May 23. “The BJP should romp home with a comfortable tally that will keep present allies intact and attract new ones — even if the party does not get the magic figure of 272 on its own,” say key members of Modi’s team.
Echoing this optimism, Modi has not failed to drive home that the Opposition, which had its focus fixed on him, has now turned its focus to ‘faulty’ electronic voting machines (EVMs). The Opposition has raised questions over the EVMs after about 10,000 of these machines malfunctioned at different places during the first three phases of the polls.
What marked the completion of the first three phases of the Lok sabha polls was that Modi made his filling of nomination papers a show of strength of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at Varanasi. It was a day after an impressive road show in the ancient city.
If Modi wanted to show that he is cool about the poll outcome on May 23, he did it with a galaxy of other NDA leaders in tow. The sub-text was that in the event of the BJP falling short of numbers the allies would stand by Modi. Other parties, such as the TRS, YSR Congress and even the BJD, may not be averse to joining hands with the BJP in the post-poll scenario.
The Lok Sabha has 543 elected seats. With voting over in 374 seats in the four phases, the battle for remaining 169 seats is very crucial for the BJP. It faces the Congress directly in many places. Of the 161 seats of the 282 seats which the BJP won in 2014, it defeated Congress on 79 seats.
That means the BJP has to replicate the strike rate it got in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand.
It is no secret that the BJP has lost considerable ground in these states since 2014. Uttar Pradesh remains the BJP’s trouble spot because of the BSP-SP alliance. The big question is whether it can fight to retain as many as seats possible of its previous tally of 73 out of 80? The vote share of the BSP-SP combine is more than that of the BJP in 2014. Privately, some BJP leaders admit that the alliance and the Congress presence in some pockets could hit the party’s chances in more than 25 to 30 seats.
Any loss in these states cannot be easily compensated by the gains in West Bengal and Odisha where the BJP hopes to gain a minimum of 10 each from these two states.
Nevertheless, Modi has been battling out with Banerjee and her TMC at a direct level in a state where the BJP won only two seats, Asansol and Darjeeling, in 2014.
Similarly, in Odisha, where it had won only one Lok Sabha seat in 2014, Modi has not spared incumbent Naveen Patnaik who has been chief minister since 1999. Interestingly, many of the BJP’s candidates are defectors from Patnaik’s BJD.
Bihar presents somewhat a hopeful picture for the BJP where Modi managed to put in order an alliance of the BJP under the leadership of JDU’s Nitish Kumar and LJP’s Ram Vilas Paswan. With Lalu Prasad in jail, his son Tejashwi Yadav has, however, emerged as the new symbol of a combination of Yadavs, Kushwahas and Mushahars and Muslims. Caste-dynamics of Bihar makes this Mahagatbandhan a formidable force to challenge the BJP’s strategy of finding its space behind Kumar’s leadership.
In Jharkhand too, there is a Mahagatbandhan of the Congress, the JMM, Babulal Marandi’s JVM and the RJD. This is to prevent the repeat of 2014 when a split in the opposition votes enabled the BJP to win 12 of the 14 seats.
It is no surprise that Modi is pressing upon the BJP workers to reach out to first time workers who are estimated at 84.3 million among the 900 million voters in the country.
Never before has the BJP ground force is so vital to script a victory as in 2019.
Rahul and Priyanka too got their moments of social media traction by posting videos of their having fun at each other at an airport in midst of their campaign in northern India. The message was the Congress too is confident and cool about the outcome of the elections. Congressmen could keep their fingers crossed.
Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.Get access to India's fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code "GETPRO". Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.