The devastating air strikes on the Pakistani Army-backed Jaish-e- Mohammad terror group in Khy ber Pakhtunkhwa, deep inside-Pakistani territory, has changed the calculus of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, making it the most unpredictable in decades.
Has Congress president Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, made a tactical error by converting the general election into a quasi-presidential contest? Gandhi’s daily attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, muted temporarily after the Pulwama terror outrage, could attract the law of diminishing returns. Modi has mastered the ability to turn personal attacks into political advantage.
United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi learnt that lesson the hard way. She was among the first politicians to spot Modi’s potential to pose an electoral threat to the Congress following the polarising events of 2002. Modi was then unknown in national politics. Yet Sonia Gandhi, with her well developed political antenna, saw him as a future national leader. In 2007, she called him maut ka saudagar. The remark led to two unintended consequences. One, it elevated Modi, until then regarded as a regional satrap, to the national stage. Two, it coalesced the fragmented Hindu vote around the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Sonia Gandhi was at the peak of her powers. Not only was she chairperson of the UPA government, but she also controlled policy-making through the National Advisory Council (NAC). Her maut ka saudagar taunt directed against Modi was not the first time she had sensed the electoral danger Modi posed to the Congress. The concerted effort to concoct a fraudulent theory of ‘saffron terror’ and implicate BJP leaders in the death of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist Ishrat Jehan revealed the anxiety that lurked in the minds of the Congress high command.
With every attack on him, Modi grew more powerful. He won the 2007 Gujarat assembly election comfortably. The Supreme Court-monitored Special Investigative Team (SIT) grilled him for 10 hours on his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The perceived persecution by the Congress and the co-opted media enhanced his national profile. Modi won the 2012 assembly poll to become a three-term chief minister.
But the Congress hadn’t yet absorbed the lesson. It continued to attack Modi personally. He was dismissed as a chaiwala. Modi turned that into an electoral slogan during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, further consolidating the Other Backward Class (OBC) vote around the BJP, long regarded as a Brahmin-dominated party. Rahul Gandhi’s chowkidar chor hai taunt has the potential to hurt the Congress in 2019 as much as the chaiwala taunt hurt it in 2014.
There are three sub-plots in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The first is the likely impact of Modi’s personal chemistry. The Modi wave has ebbed but not receded entirely. The second is Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as an aggressive political leader. As he approaches the age of 50 in June 2020, the Congress president has shed all pretence of engaging in civil political discourse. The third sub-plot is the growth of regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav in an anti Modi mahagathbandhan.
Turn now to the numbers.
The two states that could determine the outcome of the 2019 general elections are Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. They account for 120 seats in Parliament. In UP, a Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Congress alliance could have won over 50 per cent of the vote share had Mayawati not vetoed inclusion of the Congress in the state’s gathbandhan. The BJP could have been reduced to less than 20 seats, ending Modi’s chances of a second term.
Mayawati has wittingly or unwittingly thrown him a lifeline by converting a BJP versus BSP-SP-Congress binary battle into a three-cornered contest. This is why the politically shrewd Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wanted the Congress to join the BSP-SP-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance in Uttar Pradesh. But Mayawati, threatened by the Congress’ publicly declared resolve to form the next government in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 as well as the complications of diluted seat sharing with yet another party, has been cold to the overture.
Priyanka Vadra’s formal entry into politics as general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh complicates matters for the BSP-SP alliance. Polls show that her entry will cannibalise far more from the BSP-SP’s vote share than from the BJP’s vote share. Priyanka Vadra’s much heralded debut will thus enhance the Congress’ role as a spoiler to a BSP-SP landslide in Uttar Pradesh.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won 42.63 per cent vote share in Uttar Pradesh. SP won 22.35 per cent, BSP 19.77 per cent and Congress 7.53 per cent. Others won 7.72 per cent. With less than 43 per cent vote share, the BJP swept 71 out of 80 seats in what was not only a Modi wave election but, crucially, a multi-cornered contest. The math and chemistry in 2019 are vastly different. In a three-cornered contest, and with the Modi wave ebbing, the BJP could face serious headwinds in India’s largest state. Congress vote share could rise with Priyanka Vadra’s high voltage campaign from 7.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent. The majority of this increase will come from the Muslim and Dalit vote banks of SP and BSP respectively. The BSP-SP-RLD gathbandhan’s vote share could now fall back to around 40 per cent as cross-cannibalisation occurs.
The BJP’s upper caste vote share may remain protected by the 10 per cent quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). Brahmins comprise 11 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s electorate. Together with Modi’s vast OBC catchment area, the BJP could again hit the 40 per cent mark. A 40:40:12.5 per cent vote share outcome for SP-BSP-RLD:BJP:Congress (with 7.5 per cent going to others) can lead to a tricky outcome.
Moreover, in a three-cornered fight, transfer of votes is critical. Will the SP’s Muslim and Yadav votes transfer to the 38 seats the BSP will contest? Will the BSP’s Dalit votes similarly transfer to the SP’s 37 seats? Or will some drift to the Congress and some to the BJP? Crucially, how will the 40-plus seat aspirants in the BSP and SP, shut out from contesting by the alliance’s seat-sharing, react? Will Shivpal Yadav throw a spanner in the works? How will the SP cadre react after Mulayam Singh Yadav’s endorsement in the Lok Sabha of Modi as the next prime minister?
Other factors too will come into play.
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have deferred their Ram Temple agitation until after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, ostensibly not to politicise a matter of faith. That could be an own-goal. For decades, the RSS and VHP have done nothing but politicise the Ayodhya issue. Now just before the critical general elections, their pious decision reveals undercurrents, which may not please Modi. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court will soon hear the Ayodhya suit as well as the government’s application to stay an old order on returning 67 acres of undisputed land to its original owners, the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.
Whatever the pace and outcome of concurrent hearings in the apex court, the Ram Temple may play a significant role in the 2019 general elections. While development will be Modi’s calling card in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath will appeal to Hindutva sentiment. Of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, in a three-cornered fight against the BSP-SPRLD gathbandhan and the Congress, the BJP can hope to garner 35 seats.
The second state which could decide Modi’s fortunes is Maharashtra. Contesting together, the BJP and Shiv Sena will probably sweep the state’s 48 seats. The BJP could scoop up as many as 24 seats of the 25 seats it is contesting (leaving 23 for the Shiv Sena): The BJP’s tally in the two states: 59 of the 120 Lok Sabha seats on offer.
Turn now to the nine other key states that could determine the outcome of the
2019 general elections. First, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana in north, west and central India. Total: 101 Lok Sabha seats.
In 2014, the BJP won an extraordinary 95/101 seats in these five states. In 2019, there will be significant losses for the party of around 20 seats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Gujarat and Haryana though will remain strong with a potential loss of just three to five seats.
The total loss in these five states in north, west and central India is therefore likely to be about 25 seats. That could reduce the BJP’s tally in the five key states to 70/101 seats in 2019.
Consider now the east: Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand. Total: 117 Lok Sabha seats. In 2014, the BJP won only 37 seats in these four states, the bulk (34) coming from Bihar (22) and Jharkhand (12). In 2019, following an unfavourable seat sharing formula in Bihar with testy ally Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), and faced with a strong Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) alliance in Jharkhand, the BJP stands to lose up to 10 seats collectively in Bihar and Jharkhand.
It though could more than make up that loss from Odisha and West Bengal, which is why Modi has spent so much time campaigning in those two states. The overall gain in the east thus could be two seats. However, if the Left and Congress arrive at seat adjustments in West Bengal, it could complicate matters for the BJP, which would benefit most from a four-cornered fight with the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Congress and the Left.
Let’s summarise the numbers thus far.
In Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, the BJP is likely to win 59 seats. In the other five key states in the north, west and centre, the BJP could win 70 of 101 Lok Sabha seats. In the four states in the east, the tally would be 39 of 117 seats with West Bengal and Odisha making up for losses in Bihar and Jharkhand.
Thus the total so far in 11 key states is: 59 (UP and Maharashtra) +70 (Rajasthan,
MP, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Haryana) +39 (Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar) = 168 seats out of 338 seats.
What about the remaining 18 states and seven Union territories?
The BJP will do well in Uttarakhand (five/five seats), Himachal Pradesh (three/four seats), Delhi (six/seven seats, assuming the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party fight separately), seven northeast states and Sikkim (15/25 seats, taking the adverse reaction to the lapsed Citizenship Amendment Bill into account). Total: 29 seats out of 41 seats on offer. That will boost the BJP total from 168 to 197 seats.
The BJP’s tally thus far is 197 out of 379 seats. The south now comes into the picture. Apart from Karnataka, however, the BJP is unlikely to make an impression.
The five southern states account for 129 seats. The BJP will likely do well in Karnataka (15/28 seats) against the fractious Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress alliance but pick up only the odd seat or two in each of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. The BJP’s southern tally: 20 seats out of 129 seats.
The overall tally for the BJP therefore rises to 217 seats out of 508 seats analysed so far. The BJP will draw a blank in Punjab’s 13 seats but gain around eight seats from Goa, Jammu and Kashmir and seven Union territories.
The final tally for the BJP could thus move up to 225 out of 543 seats.
What about the allies? There are two big ones, JD(U) and Shiv Sena, and two smaller ones — All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) — with the Akalis likely to be wiped out in Punjab. Between them, the JD(U), Shiv Sena, AIADMK and LJP could contribute up to 35 seats at best.
The NDA total? 225+35 = 260.
How will the air strikes on the JeM affect these numbers? In the 11 big states in the north, centre and west it could add 25-40 seats to the BJP’s tally. The post-strike math: BJP 250-265 + NDA allies 35 = 285-300.
The Congress’ task meanwhile is to lift itself from the abysmal 44 seats it won in 2014 to at least 125 in order for Rahul Gandhi to have a realistic chance of leading a mahagathbandhan government in 2019. Congress’ main catchment areas are Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Punjab. In these six states the Congress can at best expect to garner 55-60 seats. The other key states of UP, Bihar and Maharashtra are unlikely to prove electorally fertile. The Congress’ Lok Sabha tally could therefore stop at 85-90 seats.
Along with principal UPA constituents Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, JD(S), Nationalist Congress Party, and National Conference, the UPA’s tally could touch 125-130 seats.
What about the mahagathbandhan? The TMC, SP, BSP, Telugu Desam Party, AAP and the Left will probably win 90 seats between them. The UPA-led mahagathbandhan could therefore garner 210-215 Lok Sabha seats.
The third front comprising, in the main, the Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi and YSR Congress Party would be expected to win, as outlined earlier, 35-40 seats. The UPA-led mahagathbandhan would need over 70 seats from the three principal parties in the third front as well as independents and others to stitch together a majority. That is a tall order.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections, following recent events, could see the emergence of Modi Wave 2.0.
Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher.
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