One thing is becoming increasingly clear about the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. These elections are turning out to be an aggregation of state elections and largely being micromanaged at the local level, with no overarching national issue playing a key role. This is not a wave election, nor is there any dominant national narrative running through 29 states and seven union territories.
In 2014, we saw a pro-Modi and anti-Congress wave in a large number of states, which resulted in the Bharatiya Janata Party winning on average nearly 90% of the Lok Sabha seats. These states included Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Gujarat. The BJP got 216 seats from these 11 states alone.
But this stellar performance will not repeat in 2019, simply because in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bihar and Delhi, the BJP seems to have lost ground. Even if we assume that the BJP retains 50% to 60% of the seats at an average in these 11 states, the party could still lose about 90 to 100 seats. Most opinion polls also suggest the BJP could lose about 40% to 50% of its present tally in most of these states.
Anti-incumbency caused by a combination of economic factors and opposition on the ground, like in UP, has created a new political dynamic. There is every indication that in UP, the Congress will seriously fight no more than 16 to 18 seats. In the remaining seats, there is no threat to the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party gatbandhan from the Congress candidate’s symbolic presence. Modi is trying to minimise anti-incumbency by pitching national security and terrorism linked to Pakistan as the dominant theme, but it is not fully working on the ground.
The BJP’s constant claim that it will get a bigger majority than it did in 2014 sounds a bit hollow when you see the way Amit Shah is trying to strike micro-level alliances in Uttar Pradesh by ceding territory to small groups like the Nishad Party and keeping in constant touch with other breakaway groups like the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia) formed by Mulayam Singh Yaday’s brother Shivpal Yadav who recently declared, “We will emerge as kingmakers in this elections.”
The paradox is that the BJP has been more generous than ever in conceding seats to allies like the Janata Dal (United) and Shiv Sena. This betrays a deeper anxiety within the BJP leadership that 2019 is not 2014.
The BJP’s biggest worry remains the alliance between the SP and BSP, which increases the opposition unity index and reduces fragmentation of the anti-BJP vote in the crucial state of UP. By all accounts, the BJP doesn’t expect to do as well as 2014 in western UP, where polls have just concluded in eight Lok Sabha seats.
Another factor worrying the BJP is the manner in which Priyanka Gandhi is trying to influence ‘upper’-caste voters in eastern UP. This problem has been compounded by media reports that the BJP’s founding member and veteran leader Murli Manohar Joshi has expressed his disappointment over not being allowed to contest this time, and this could have some impact, even if marginal, on the Brahmin community. Brahmins partially moving back to the Congress could hurt the BJP.
The BJP, of course, is also hoping that the Congress, which is fielding candidates all across UP, hurts the SP-BSP alliance more than it hurts them. This also depends on how effective the Congress candidates are in several seats they are pretending to contest seriously. Remember, the Congress almost lost its deposits in the by-elections of Gorakhpur and Phulpur, where the SP-BSP gatbandhan did very well. If this is to repeat now, the Congress will do minimum damage in most seats it is contesting. The Congress capacity to damage others may also turn out to be a mere bogey.
Overall, the BJP is clearly worried that it may lose substantially to the alliance in UP, and see its biggest decline from the 72 seats it got in 2014. The whole question now is to what extent the BJP is able to stem the fall from its tally in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The uniform and intense pro-Modi wave in the Hindi-speaking states in 2014 has clearly dissipated in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. In these states, the BJP is bound to lose many seats from its 2014 peak. In Delhi, where the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party have almost finalised an alliance, the BJP could lose most of the seats.
As for the states outside the Hindi-speaking areas, the BJP doesn’t have much influence anyway. The southern states have their own regional dynamic, whether it is Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh or Kerala. The BJP has influence in Karnataka, but the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance will erode the saffron party’s impact there.
The BJP has stuck many local alliances in the eight northeastern states and until a few months ago, was hoping to return in 22 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats. But this plan went awry after the Modi government tried to push the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, which has angered people and BJP’s political allies across the northeastern states.
In the final analysis, the BJP can only try its best retain most of its Lok Sabha seats from the ten Hindi-speaking states and in Gujarat as well as Maharashtra, as had happened in 2014. But 2014 clearly witnessed a massive pro-Modi wave which was uniformly spread across these states, which is missing in 2019. This remains the main worry for Narendra Modi and the BJP.