Majority may elude BJP; regional parties may be kingmaker

The long-drawn parliamentary election has begun winding down. After the fifth phase of polling on May 6, the process has been completed in 424 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies and voting in the remaining 118 seats (election to one seat has been deferred as the process was vitiated by money power) will be remaining two phases on May 12 and 19.

 Although vote-count will be taken up on May 23, the conversation in political circles across India has already started revolving round the nature of the mandate that will emerge from the elections. Will there be a clear majority for any single party or alliance of parties? How will the Bharatiya Janata Party battling anti-incumbency and the Congress party perform? What will be the strength in terms of seats of powerful regional parties like Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Dravida Munnetra Kazagham in Tamil Nadu, Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party coalition in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Telangana and Telugu Desam Party and Y S R Congress party in Andhra Pradesh?

Given the multiple factors in play in elections in a hugely diverse country like India, caste and religious equations, local factors like performance of lawmakers and grievances, farm and job crisis and national security influence the voters’ mind and there is no overarching thematic narrative or wave on any particular issue in this year’s national poll.

 This is a far cry from the run up to the general election five years ago when a series of scams under the Congress-led UPA’s decade-long rule and Narendra Modi’s vision of economic development had swept the BJP to power giving the party a clear majority of 282 seats in the first such emphatic mandate for a party in India in three decades.

The SP-BSP tie-up in Uttar Pradesh that has the potential to consolidate backward caste (Yadav), Muslim and extremely backward caste Jatav (to which BSP chief Mayawati belongs), the Congress victory over the BJP in assembly elections in assembly polls in heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the broad-based alliance firmed up by RJD in Bihar and the Congress in Jharkhand have combined to serve up a strong local colour to the contests. 

But one factor that is constant across the whole country is that it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi versus the entire opposition. Go to any state and you find all opposition leaders attacking only one man—Modi—day in day out during the electioneering. The one question uppermost in everybody’s mind is:  will Modi return to power? And that has framed the 2019 national polls as an absorbing battle between those who want to see him back in the saddle and others who want him to be voted out of power.  

Much will depend on how caste equations in the key battleground of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar play out. If there is the coming together of SP’s vote base among Yadav caste members with Muslims and Jatav caste members in UP, there is a potential counter response in the form of unity among upper caste Hindus and sections of backward castes except Yadavs and Jatavs. 

Can such fault lines in the society take the sheen out of Modi’s sustained efforts for an over-arching narrative of Hindutva and national security? The BJP is hoping that if not an over-arching pan-India campaign narrative of the party, then Modi’s popularity looms large across the country and trumps all caste considerations and local level factors. That is the reason why the BJP has set up the national polls as a Presidential type of contest. But will it work? Can Modi’s charisma help the party overcome anti-incumbency and to what extent?  Reports suggest the BJP’s core themes of nationalism and Hidutva is not getting enough traction to eat into core support bases of the SP and the BSP this time.

On paper, the contest in UP is a multi-cornered contest between the BJP, SP-BSP and the Congress. However, the reality on the ground is that it is by and large a clash between the BJP and the SP-BSP alliance with the Congress, stuck on the margins in the state’s politics for a long time, showing semblance of challenge in just a few seats.

The assessment in the opposition camp 

as of now is that clear majority will

 elude the BJP even though it may 

emerge as the single largest party.

 A split in anti-BJP votes should go to the advantage of the BJP like it was in 2014 and in 2017 assembly poll but this does not seem to be happening in the parliamentary poll this time. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra herself revealed her party’s poll strategy recently when she said the Congress has put up candidates in many constituencies in UP in order to cut into the BJP’s votes and help the SP-BSP even through the latter kept the Congress out of their alliance.

 In the last two phases of polling, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan stand out for a number of reasons. Most of the constituencies in UP in these phases are in eastern part of the state where the BJP had put up an exceedingly good show in 2014 and their ability to defend their seats will be put to a stern test. The BJP lost power to a resurgent Congress in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh just five months ago and this is too short a time for the anti-incumbency to set in against the Congress so that the saffron party can benefit a lot. 

The challenges for the BJP and the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which together 54 parliamentary seats, are contrasting: the BJP, which won 52 of those seats in 2014, trying to minimize its losses and the Congress looking to gain as many as possible riding on the back of a surge in assembly polls in December last year. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka are the major states which have seen a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress. Can the Congress overcome a Modi-centric campaign of the BJP there?

An interesting twist to speculations about the poll outcome was given by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav an interview to news agency Bloomberg last week in which he reportedly said that his party will be happy to win 271 seats, which is short of the majority mark, and will take the help of allies to reach that mark. If Madhav is correctly quoted, implicit in his remark is a growing recognition within the BJP that the odds are heavily stacked against its securing majority on its own. Madhav’s assessment was endorsed by the BJP’s oldest Hindutva ally Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut.

The assessment in the opposition camp as of now is that clear majority will elude the BJP even though it may emerge as the single largest party. Based on this, the Congress and anti-BJP regional parties leaders like N Chandrababu Naidu and TRS supremo K Chandrasekhara Rao have already initiated consultations for the post-poll scenario.

 Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D Raja had separate meetings with senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel a few days ago. Telugu Desam Party chief and Andhra Pradesh N Chandrababu Naidu, who parted ways with the BJP early last year, could hold more consultations with other anti-BJP leaders. Rao met Kerala Chief Minister and Marxist leader Pinarayi Vijayan on May 6 and discussed the political situation and possible post-election scene. 

But Chandrasekhara Rao’s objective of a non-BJP and non-Congress Third Front of regional parties is not in sync with the Left and other anti-BJP regional parties which acknowledge the primacy of the Congress party in the event of a non-BJP coalition. It is pertinent to recall that the only time India had had a federal coalition government of regional parties in 1996 after the general elections was backed from outside by the Congress party. This time, even though the Congress and the regional parties are fighting against each other in many states, they are more united in their opposition to the BJP.

 Arunabha Bhattacharya is a contributor based in India.