India will vote in seven phases, starting April 11 to elect the 17th Lok Sabha, which will pave the way for the formation of the next government. Votes will be counted on May 23.
According to a recent CVoter opinion poll, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is likely to win 264 of the 543 seats in the lower house of the Parliament. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is likely to bag 141 seats. This should not be surprising as the NDA, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is widely seen to be in a stronger position. This is supported by the fact that the Congress and other opposition parties, so far, have not been able to pose a formidable challenge.
Though after the December 2018 assembly polls it looked like the momentum was shifting away from the BJP and towards the Opposition, public sentiment appears to have changed significantly after the Indian Air Force attacked terror base camps operated by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), deep inside Pakistan. The JeM had claimed responsibility for the terror attack on Indian security forces on February 14, which resulted in a loss of over 40 lives.
Aside from the national security angle, there are at least three big issues that are likely to work in favour of the BJP and limit the Opposition's chances.
First, as it did in 2014, the BJP will build a presidential-style campaign. According to the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Modi’s popularity remains intact. On the other hand, the Opposition doesn't have a face that can be officially projected to challenge him. In fact, declaring a prime ministerial candidate from the Congress or any other party could end up benefiting the BJP.
Second, the Opposition has not been able to present a credible alternative narrative to counter the incumbent. The Congress has promised a number of sops, including a guaranteed income programme for the poor. However, it has not given details in terms of who will benefit and how a scheme like this will be financed. The government, on the other hand, implemented an income support programme for farmers, retrospectively. Eligible farm households will receive Rs 6,000 per year in three instalments of Rs 2,000 each. The first instalment to a number of farm household has already been transferred.
To be sure, there are pain points in the economy, such as farm distress and lack of jobs, but the Opposition has not been able to capitalise on these to be able to corner the government. This is in sharp contrast to the way the BJP built its campaign in 2014 as a challenger. The Opposition is allowing the government to determine the narrative. If this continues for a few more weeks, it will hurt the Opposition.
Third, although the BJP will go with a presidential-style campaign, the importance of local factors and alliances cannot be ignored. Even on this count, the NDA seems to be ahead of the Opposition. For instance, the BJP agreed to even leave seats that it had won in 2014 for its alliance partner, the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), in Bihar. It also has the seat-sharing agreement in place in Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena.
Compare this with the Opposition. There is no grand alliance or Mahagathbandhan in sight. Further, the Congress has been practically left out of the main opposition alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh. The party is yet to finalise the seat-sharing agreement in states such as Karnataka and West Bengal. Also, it is not clear whether strong regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee would be willing to work with the Congress if the need arises.
Additionally, the expectation is that parties such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the Biju Janata Dal and the YSR Congress may be willing to work with the NDA if it falls short of a majority come May 23.
Therefore, as things stand today, the Opposition will have to cover a lot of ground to stop the return of the ruling alliance.