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Can Modi Win A Simple Majority?

May 09, 2024 09:19 IST
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2019 was the BJP's breakout year, when it stretched the boundaries of what was thought possible and ended up with 303 seats on its own steam.
Now it is forced to play defence, on a pitch queered by too many variables, asserts Prem Panicker.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi at an election meeting in Warangal, Telangana, May 8, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

On May 7, while the third phase of voting was ongoing, I read this Reuters deep dive (external link) into the BJP's plan to win a supermajority. The nut graf:

His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is relying on the prime minister's popularity as it seeks a super-majority in India's parliament. Its message: Modi has delivered economic growth, infrastructure upgrades and India's improved standing in the world.

Over a month earlier, the Deccan Herald had carried a similar piece (external link), complete with graphics:

I don't mean to diss either of those media organisations, but now I want someone to write an explainer on how the BJP plans to win a simplemajority -- because the news from the electoral battleground is not good for the ruling party.


Think of a player having a breakout year on the tennis circuit. Starting with the Australian Open, she makes the top four in all tournaments she enters; she makes the top two in several of those; she wins a Slam or two for good measure and zooms up the rankings.

Come next January, she turns up for the Australian Open, and loses in the semifinal. Making the top four in a Slam ranks as achievement of a high order -- but for her, it is actually a failure because last time around, she had made the top two. And so she loses points. And the rest of the year follows a similar pattern -- the game for her is not to rack up points and trophies, but to defend those she had won the previous year.

The BJP is in the position of that player. 2019 was the party's breakout year, when it stretched the boundaries of what was thought possible and ended up with 303 seats on its own steam. Now it is forced to play defence, on a pitch queered by too many variables. Phase three underlines that dilemma, nowhere more so than in Karnataka.

In 2019, the BJP won 25 seats of the 28 on offer, an increase of 8 over 2014, and an Independent backed by the BJP won one seat. The Janata Dal-Secular, now a BJP electoral ally, won one, and a defenestrated Congress was reduced to a solitary seat).

14 of the 28 seats polled on April 26, and it didn't go too well for the ruling party. Ground reports indicate that the best case scenario is that the BJP did well in five or, if you are being unreasonably optimistic, six of the 14 seats.

In the remaining 14 seats that polled on May 7 the BJP has, based on reports from the ground, done worse, with the most optimistic assessment being that it is losing in at least ten of those seats.

This is the phase where the BJP was fighting to save its 2019 points. Of the 93 seats that polled on May 7, the BJP-led alliance had won 80. Any loss at all is that much more it has to make up -- in other words, the presumed front-runner will have to play catch-up in the remaining four phases.

To even match its 2019 performance, holding Karnataka is crucial. If the most optimistic assessment, even within BJP circles, is that this time the party will win at best 10 seats (the worst case scenario is that it could lose 18 of the 25 it held), the conversation is no longer about supermajorities or even about an encore of 2019, but about whether it can even touch the 272 mark to give it a working majority.

And this is without taking into account Maharashtra, where 11 seats polled on May 7. In 2019 the BJP, then in alliance with the Shiv Sena, had won seven of the 11. This time round, the Shiv Sena (UBT) is in opposition and the regions that polled in this phase are not BJP ally Eknath Shinde's territory.

The BJP had cottoned on to Shinde's limited sphere of influence well over a year ago, and sought to compensate by splitting the NCP. What seemed a 'masterstroke' at the time has turned out to be a burden -- not only is the BJP saddled with a leader it had accused of corruption, Ajit Pawar finds himself largely shackled to the Baramati region, where his wife Sunetra is competing against Sharad Pawar's designated heir and Baramati's tai, Supriya Sule.

That the BJP-led alliance will bleed some of the 11 seats in Maharashtra seems certain; how many is not as clear, but it doesn't really matter because every single seat lost is one more to be made up.

Couple this with reports of the BJP facing headwinds, however unquantifiable, in both Uttar Pradesh (10 seats) and Gujarat (all 26), and what phase three does is to further underline that the ruling party is being subjected to the death of a thousand cuts.

While on Uttar Pradesh, it is worth noting that in the 2019 wave election, the BJP enhanced its vote share to almost 50% but ended up dropping nine of the seats it had won in 2014 (from 71 to 62) -- and this at a time when the Opposition parties in the state were in disarray.

In UP this time, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance is far from being a spent force. But the real issue for the BJP on the ground is the buzz doing the rounds that if Modi wins a third term, he and Amit Shah will do to Adityanath what they had earlier done to the likes of Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia. There is talk of considerable disquiet among the BJP cadres over this rumour -- which the Opposition alliance is diligently fanning behind the scenes.

As far as Gujarat goes, the BJP is facing three major issues -- disgruntled youth, a weakening grip on the women's vote, and a Rajput community up in arms and openly vowing, in significant numbers, to vote against the BJP.

The manifest Kshatriya ire has been particularly problematic -- so much so that a day before polling, the BJP got an array of its Kshatriya leaders to ask the protesting community to forgive, to forget, and to vote for the BJP in 'the national interest'.

Whether that late intervention will work, whether the Kshatriya community will vote against the BJP en masse, whether this will impact seats and if so, how many -- these are unquantifiable.

What is evident is that the BJP is facing unexpected problems in a state it thought was sewn up tight.

IMAGE: Modi greets supporters at an election meeting in Karimnagar, Telangana, May 8, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo


The officially released voting percentages as of 11.40 pm on Tuesday night make for unpleasant reading, if you are the BJP.

Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, two key states where the BJP had to equal its 2019 performance in the former and better it in the latter, witnessed (external link) 58.98% and 57.34% respectively. (Keep in mind that these are provisional numbers and subject to change).

If you are the ruling party, there is only one way to read that: Your message is not resonating sufficiently to enthuse voters in your strongholds. In contrast Karnataka, where there is both anger against the BJP-JD-S alliance over the Prajwal Revanna rape allegations and a marked degree of acceptance of the Congress message of inclusion, benefits and development, recorded 70.41%.

All of this underlines the key problem the BJP is facing: The lack of a narrative compelling enough to enthuse its committed voter.

2014 was a change election. The ruling UPA was heavily burdened by an assortment of corruption allegations, amplified by the political theatre that was K B 'Anna; Hazare's India Against Corruption movement. The Nirbhaya case, irrespective of how it was handled by the government, was an albatross around the UPA's political neck. The stasis in governance, the policy paralysis, and the resulting slow-down of the economy, was all too visible and, again, spotlit by the media.

Against that was arrayed a Modi who had managed to put distance between himself and the dark underbelly of Godhra 2002, and was campaigning on a platform of change, of inclusionary development.

Sabka saath, sabka vikas.

It was a campaign of hope -- Achche din anewale hain -- that played well against the doom-laden zeitgeist of the time. And most importantly, the election featured an elemental narrative that pitted identifiable villains against the hero with the 56" chest who was charging to the rescue.

In 2019, the BJP had much going against it -- demonetisation, the hastily imposed GST, and even a series of attacks that cast doubt on Modi's claim to lead a strongman regime that would frighten terrorists away. Forget terrorists, even a bird cannot fly across the border without Modi's permission, boasted then defence minister Manohar Parikkar.

Birds flew. Terrorists streamed in with kilotons of high explosive. What ensued were some of the worst terrorist attacks India has witnessed since 26/11: Gurdaspur in July 2015, Pathankot in January 2016, Pampore in June 2016, Kokrajhar in August 2016, Uri in September 2016, Baramulla and Handwara in October 2016, Sukma in April 2017, the attack on the Amarnath Yatra in July 2017, Sunjuwan in February 2018, Pulwama in February 2019.

National security seemed in tatters -- but then the government pulled the Balakot surgical strike out of its hat on February 26, 2019, and Modi got his narrative.

IMAGE: Supporters listen to Modi speak at an election meeting in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, May 7, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Hum dushman ke ghar mein ghuskar maarenge

2019 became about whether you were with the army or not. Whether you were a 'patriot' or not. The Opposition had no counter -- questioning the intelligence lapses that led to the serial terrorist strikes, pointing out that at the time of the Pulwama attack Modi was busy with a video shoot in Corbett, pointing out that the much-touted surgical strike resulted in quantifiable losses of men and material to India but nothing of significance to Pakistan -- all of it was met with loud accusations of being 'anti-national', a 'terrorist sympathiser'.

Modi -- in defiance of the Model Code of Conduct and the Representation of Peoples Act, asked for votes in the name of Balakot, and an adrenalin-fuelled electorate gave Modi's BJP its best mandate ever.

(In passing, it is worth mentioning that between the first and second phases of the ongoing election Modi tried the dushman ke ghar mein ghuskar... line, and then hastily dropped it when he found that it not only didn't resonate with his audience, it was attracting unwelcome international notice at a time when India's covert assassination plots in various countries were in the news).

In 2024, much of the punditry I've read is on the lines of 'There is no wave, therefore Modi will win by default'. The more 'balanced' of the pundits qualify that with the 'even if with a reduced majority' caveat.

There is no wave -- but what is being missed is a quietly simmering subcutaneous anger. Modi's 'magic' works best when he can ride a national narrative. In this election however, what confronts him are dozens of local issues and societal discontents, a million localised mutinies he is unfitted or unable to cope with.

That explains why the BJP is unable to find a one size fits all narrative. You can counter terrorist attacks with a surgical strike -- but how do you counter the employed who are struggling with stagnant wages, the unemployed who look in vain for jobs that are not there, women who are burdened by rising prices and evidence that the BJP is a party that aids and abets sexual predators, farmers forced to the brink of despair, minorities systematically ground under the regime's heel...

As a result Modi, the star campaigner, is reduced to firing blanks. His mangalsutra storyline found no takers; his 'Congress will take one of your two buffalos' was met with widespread amusement. Now he appears to be merely flailing around.

On May 7, while several states (including Madhya Pradesh) voted, Modi was in the Khargone district in Madhya Pradesh, telling people that they had to chose between Ram Rajya and 'Vote jihad'. (More on this in the postscript).

In Dhar, also in Madhya Pradesh, Modi said (external link) he needs 400 seats so that Congress can be stopped from 'putting the Babri lock on the Ram temple'.

You do your aarti to the 'shehzada', I'll do aarti to Lord Krishna, he said (external link) elsewhere. What this has to do with the price of tomatoes, Krishna alone knows.

He gave one of his stage-managed interviews to Times Now where, among other things, he said he had been adopted (external link) by 'Ma Ganga' and then, as if the unseen director had called 'Action', mimed "man overwhelmed by emotion".

That interview, by the way, underlines one of Modi's biggest problems -- he can't quite figure out how to handle the Muslim problem. Prior to the first phase, the BJP was dismissive of the community as being politically negligible, mere canon fodder for their troops to torment at will.

Faced with serial setbacks across three phases, however, the party is trying to cover both bases at once -- vilify them, but also try its hand at appeasement.

Thus Modi, whose campaign thus far has been about how the Congress will snatch away the benefits of OBCs and other oppressed classes and give it all to the Muslims with a mangalsutra as bonus, now says that the Muslim community understands that the Congress is using them as pawns. And then, in that interview to TimesNow, he addressed the community (external link) directly.

Think, he said. If the country is progressing but you are not, what is the reason? Why did you not get the benefit of governmental schemes during the Congress regime? The doubts about our intentions that you entertain in your mind is harming the future of your own children.

There follows a lot of guff about how the Muslim community is changing worldwide, and a segue to his visits to Gulf nations and how the sheikhs tell him their wives want to learn yoga...

So what is the storyline? Are Muslims suffering because of the Congress, or is the Congress going to shower bounties on them at the expense of all others?

Modi went both ways on the same day, May 7.

One day after earnestly telling the Muslim community that all their problems stemmed from the Congress and that they should do atma manthan, he came up with this gem (external link):

The Congress is now eyeing sports as well. Who will play in the cricket team, and who will not, will be decided by the Congress on the basis of religion

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav at an election rally in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh. Photograph: ANI Photo

Who in this admittedly polarised country believes that the Congress wants to pack the cricket team with members of a particular community, Ram only knows.

And, in the surest sign yet that he is getting increasingly desperate, there is his latest salvo (external link) (emphasis mine):

He says that the Congress has gotten sackfuls of black money from, wait for this, Ambani and Adani. That tempos filled with notes have gone to the Congress from those two industrialists. What is the quid pro quo, he wants to know.

The bit that jumped out at me was this: 'Tempos'? Ambani and Adani use tempos to smuggle their sackfuls of cash to the Congress?

These last two days have been nothing less than an implosion. Almost against my will, I am now beginning to feel sorry for him.

PostScript: There are various other issues around the polling in phase three, the role of the Election Commission, etc that are worth highlighting, but I'll get to those in a day or two.

But one point merits mention. The Election Commission -- such as it is -- mandates a period of silence between the end of campaigning and the end of polling in any election. No speeches, no processions, no appeals to voters, nothing.

In these days of electronic media and multi-phase elections, the Election Commission needs at the very least to get rid of a rule that has outlived its usefulness. As I pointed out above, Modi was campaigning in Madhya Pradesh even as voting was going on in the state, so what is the point of the 'period of silence' mandate?

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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