In a new narrative between Modi versus the rest, the BJP could form the Government next year despite the loss of a few seats
What does the crystal ball say about 2019? The Lok Sabha poll and electoral fortunes of many political parties, including the ruling BJP and the main Opposition Congress, will dominate the year. Fortunes of some regional satraps, like Biju Janata Dal supremo Naveen Patnaik, Telugu Desam Party president N Chandrababu Naidu and Sikkim Democratic Front founder Pawan Kumar Chamling will also be decided as some States, like Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh will go to polls in the same year. Patnaik will bid for power for the fifth time; Naidu for the second time since the bifurcation of the State; and Chamling for the sixth time. At the national level, while Prime Minister Modi will be seeking a second consecutive term, Congress president Rahul Gandhi will test his fortunes for the first time since he took over the reins of the party. If Modi secures another term, the country will move closer to becoming a majoritarian state. It is clear that 2019 will not be a cake-walk for Modi and the coming months will be most crucial for Opposition unity.
Political parties are getting ready as poll dates are likely to be announced in late February or March. The Election Commission of India is also preparing for the event. About 900 million voters, including 100 million first-time voters, will exercise their franchise. Many opinion polls have suggested that anti-incumbency sentiment is on the rise. This can dash Modi’s hopes for a second term. Registering a landslide victory, the BJP and its allies had won 73 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, all 25 seats in Rajasthan, 27 of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, all 26 seats in Gujarat, all seven seats in Delhi, all five seats in Uttarakhand and all four seats in Himachal Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll. This peak performance may not be repeated in 2019 as the BJP might just lose at least 100 of all Lok Sabha seats. This, however, must be compensated from the North-East and the southern region.
According to India Today-Karvy Insights opinion poll released in August, the BJP is likely to win 30 per cent votes in the 2019 election, which means it will secure 245 seats, 27 short of the 272 needed for a majority. Pre-election surveys conducted by Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, also suggest that the BJP’s popularity is on the decline; although the Prime Minister’s personal popularity continues. First, the BJP has lost popularity due to two economic measures — demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. Both measures have hurt the small and medium businesses that were its core voters. It is not clear whether the winner will be a BJP-led or a Congress-led or a Third Front coalition. The fight will be between the ruling NDA and the Congress-anchored UPA. The Opposition needs an astute strategy to defeat the NDA. The new narrative is likely to be Modi versus the rest.
Second, while Modi will be the BJP’s face for the 2019 poll, the UPA is most unlikely to project anyone. Its prime ministerial candidate will be decided only in a post-poll scenario. Therefore, though the Congress is trying to unite the Opposition, party president Rahul Gandhi will not be projected as the prime ministerial face of the UPA as they have been talking of collective leadership.
Third, both UPA and NDA are in the process of strengthening their coalitions. The NDA has been weakened by the exit of two major allies — Telugu Desam Party and Peoples Democratic Party. The Shiv Sena, too, has threatened to quit. Besides, the party faces a tough challenge in the south. Meanwhile, Congress has already reached an understanding with some regional parties to build State-specific coalitions, including in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Fourth, economy and jobs are some major issues that will play a huge role in the election. There are also other issues, too, like corruption, non-delivery of poll promises, demonetisation, GST, Rafale, cow vigilantism, Ram Mandir issue, rising fuel prices, the agrarian crisis that will remain dominant. All of the above factors give potential threats to the BJP ahead of the 2019 poll. The BJP’s strategy is to attack the Congress for its failure to accomplish anything in the past 70 years and consolidation of Hindu votes. It has been vociferous about the achievements of the Modi Government.
Fifth, the economy is reviving. This may bring some relief to the Modi Government. Multilateral organisations, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have predicted a sound revival of the economy for 2019. Sixth, both the Congress and the BJP will play the Hindutva card with the Congress adopting a soft Hindutva line. Last, both Modi and Rahul will need a new narrative to win. Whatever it be, the BJP is likely to emerge as the number one party whether it gets a majority or not. It will be invited to form the Government first, as is the convention.
(The writer is a senior political commentator)