By the end of this month, the country is poised to have a new government – after the most acrimonious and keenly contested general elections in the history of Independent India. And everyone waits anxiously for 23 May, when the results of the 2019 elections will be announced
The question uppermost in the minds of all Indians, and also of leaders around the world, is whether current Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be able to retain power. The answer is difficult. Going by the mood of people and reports from across the country, retaining power is not going to be easy for Modi. If he does, it would be only on the basis of increased religious polarisation, faux nationalism and the projected image of a ‘strong’ leader.
However, Modi seems to be facing a worse scenario than what Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced in 2004 when his government went to polls with the ‘India Shining’ slogan. To be fair, India was doing better then — a growing economy, better governance and many good infrastructure schemes.
There is, however, no doubt that the BJP is likely to emerge as the single largest party in Parliament, even if it gets less than 200 seats. It is here that Modi and his party have the advantage.
Having selected an unknown leader like Ram Nath Kovind for the post of the President of India, ignoring veterans like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, the BJP leadership will now be looking at Kovind to repay the debt.
The President can play a big role in deciding which party to invite first to form the government in a scenario where none of the existing coalitions get a clear majority. He can easily go by inviting the leader of the largest party. This convention has also been okayed by the Supreme Court when the Janata Dal-Congress coalition in Karnataka had moved the court after Governor Vajubhai Vala decided to invite the leader of the largest party, the BJP, following a fractured mandate in the Karnataka assembly elections last year.
And with the BJP likely to be the largest party even in the Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Modi is expected to receive the President’s call first, though the opposition parties may try to cobble together a coalition. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi has already invited leaders of all opposition parties to a meeting on the day of the results.
2019 another 2004?
Will Modi, unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004, succeed with just the existing NDA coalition? It seems unlikely if one goes by his dented image, caste arithmetics in Uttar Pradesh, and the change in fortunes of the Congress as witnessed in assembly elections to three Hindi heartland states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Now, the Congress has its governments in all these states which were with the BJP going into 2014.
In 2014, after many ‘scams’ during the UPA rule and the resultant massive Anna Hazare-led ‘anti-corruption’ movement, Modi’s victory was unbelievable, though all expected the NDA to come to power. For the first time since 1984, a political party was able to win an absolute majority on its own – 282 seats, with the NDA collecting 339 seats in total.
But five years later, the situation is quite different. Modi’s record is quite bad as far as the common citizens are concerned. His government failed to correct the economy, could not create the jobs he promised, failed to bring in the black money stashed abroad and end orruption. The economy is in crisis, facing a slowdown. Unemployment is at a 45-year high. Businesses are closing down. Even corporates are not happy with the Modi government.
Since the ‘Modi wave’
During his tenure, Modi took two big decisions – demonetisation and abolition of the Planning Commission. Demonetisation crippled businesses and affected mostly the poor. Modi claimed it was done to flush out black money and cripple terrorists’ funding. But the results say otherwise. Old big denomination notes were replaced with new ones – without any curb on counterfeit. The creation of Niti Aayog as a replacement for Planning Commission was just one of the many examples of a recurring feature of Modi’s tenure — old Congress schemes rehashed and presented as new plans. Modi’s hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) added to the problems of businesses, besides making products costlier for people. His crop insurance for farmers has been a huge failure while the health insurance for poor is yet to take off.
Above all, Modi’s clean image has been dented with allegations of malpractices in the purchase of Rafale jets and charges against BJP president Amit Shah’s son in his business. It is clear that the PMO had re-negotiated the defence deal, which ended in India paying more, and included Anil Ambani’s firm in the contract instead of the earlier promised state-owned HAL.
In this scenario, Modi is facing a huge trust deficit among the voters. The youth who voted for him in the name of development last time, would have found it unlikely to believe in his promises this time. Even the ordinary voters, including the minorities, are upset with the government over its aggressive pushing of the BJP-RSS’ brand of Hindutva. The priority attached to cow and the Hindutva brigade’s politics over it have affected the lives of dairy farmers across the Hindi heartland and elsewhere.
Fall in seats certain
However, the biggest hurdle and challenge for Modi is the coming together of the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP and Mayawati-led BSP in Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest number of MPs — 80 — to Parliament. This SP-BSP alliance is what started the BJP’s decline in assembly and Lok Sabha bypolls, after winning 71 seats (73 with Apna Dal) in 2014 elections. A deficit of even 30 seats in UP this time will be too much to make up for the party because it is only going to lose seats in other Hindi heartland states. The BJP’s tally is also going to come down in Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.
In the last election, Modi had an ally in Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party) in Andhra Pradesh. But now Naidu is in the opposition camp. Similar is the case in Telengana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. So, in the south, winning even 10 seats is difficult.
Modi’s hope was northeast. But the exercise to update National Register of Citizens (NRC) to detect ‘foreigners’ and the Citizenship Amendment Bill to help Hindu refugees in the sub-continent have spoiled the BJP’s chances for a good show in this region. The BJP’s seat tally is also going to come down drastically in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi region — all such states, barring Haryana, where the opposition parties hold considerable sway. The BJP had swept both Jammu, Haryana and Delhi in 2014.
In short, the NDA is likely to face deficit of at least 60-80 seats, and the most deciding states will be UP, Bihar (40 seats) and Maharashtra (48 seats).
Will nationalism bring partners?
The only hope for Modi will be the number of parties the BJP could bring on its side. It had been wooing parties like Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and Biju Janata Dal (Odisha), which could win about 40-odd seats between them, by promising important cabinet posts. But it won’t be an easy task.
To defeat the BJP strategy, Sonia Gandhi has called a meeting of all opposition parties on the day of the election results. The Congress camp is certain it likely won’t win a majority but is is trying to cobble together a coalition like it had in 2004 – to defeat a Vajpayee-led camp, which was sure about its victory.
Will Modi face the same situation like Vajpayee? Will Sonia Gandhi, joined by her son and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, again play the trump card and lead the opposition? The Congress, which is expecting at least around 100 seats this time (it had got 44 seats in 2014), has made it clear that it will not insist on the PM candidate – the thorny issue before the opposition parties. Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Stalin (DMK), Chandrababu Naidu, K. Chandrashekar Rao (TRS), Deve Gowda (Janata Dal-Secular), NCP, and the Left parties are also expected to win together more than 140 seats. If the Congress gets more than 140 seats, it can be in the driver’s seat to form a larger coalition.
Modi and the BJP went all out whipping up the nationalist frenzy in a bid to show the prime minister as the only strong leader. The same strategy — of one leader versus the rest — was followed when Vajpayee government was seeking re-election in 2004. But people didn’t fall into that trap then. Will the scenario repeat itself? Or will nationalism override other issues? Thursday will tell.
But if there’s one thing that is clear, it’s this: India is poised for a larger coalition – either led by the BJP or an amalgam of opposition parties. And the one who will play the key role in if the results put out a hung Parliament, it will be the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind.
The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi and is currently Additional Director (Communications) at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.