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Will Phase 6 Stun BJP?

By PREM PANICKER
May 28, 2024 11:00 IST
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In Phase 6, indications are that the BJP, which is defending 40 seats, will lose in double digits and gain in single digits.
Not good, if you are the ruling party scrambling to earn a working majority, with just one phase left to go, argues Prem Panicker.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi during a public meeting for the Lok Sabha polls at Ghosi in Mau, Uttar Pradesh, May 26, 2024. Photograph: Amit Sharma/ANI Photo
 

Two events between phase five and phase six provide a frame for the larger narrative -- and no, neither of them is Modi claiming that he is not just God's gift to mankind, but that to the best of his knowledge and belief, he was un-biologically Dunzo-ed to earth directly by the Almighty. (More recently he has claimed (external link) to be avinashi, immortal -- an adjective applied to divine beings).

In the first, Rajat Sharma (external link) organised what purports to be an interview (external link) but was designed more on the lines of a rock concert, complete with an audience primed to cheer every vapid utterance.

In course of an event of Goebbelsian proportions, Narendra Modi explained (external link) that there was a deep strategy behind the use of the char sau paar slogan. His words, my freehand translation:

What happened? The Opposition had to go around saying 400-plus is not possible. They did not realise I was leading them by the nose in the direction I wanted them to go.

This is clearly profound, as evidenced by Modi's gleeful giggle -- Khee-khee-khee -- at his own cleverness, and the admiring laughter of the crowd.

It is also revisionist -- that slogan was launched not around the first phase as Modi claimed, but as early as January when the BJP, flush with its presumed success over India's G20 presidency, prepared for its grand electoral coming out party in Ayodhya, well before the opposition became an Opposition. (You don't hear of G20 these days, do you? Another propaganda ploy gone bust).

Facts aside, Modi's point escapes me -- no one, in the Opposition or on the sidelines, seriously believed the BJP had any hope of getting anywhere near that figure, but what do I know?

Equally, what does Amit A Shah know -- even a day before Modi's big reveal, his consigliere was saying that the BJP has already crossed 310 seats in the first five phases and is on course to top 400.

Modi's latest salvo has put pollsters in a bit of a fix. Starting in January and accelerating through the polling cycle, some pollsters had rushed to compliant TV studios where they outdid each other in proclaiming how the BJP would cross 400, just how big a bump the Ram temple inauguration would fetch, and how far above the mark the party could possibly go.

It now turns out that they've been had. Khee-khee-khee.

That brings me to the second of the two events: Pollsters turning apostate, sort of. Between phases five and six, the likes of Pradeep Gupta of Axis My India and Sanjay Kumar of Lokniti/CSDS have downgraded the BJP's prospects. They now set the bar at 272. Gupta thinks the BJP will fall slightly below that mark; Kumar suggests that the BJP might just scrape over the bar.

Both have had teams out in the field doing exit polls at the end of each round. Even though Election Commission rules prevent them from talking of their findings, the conclusions they are drawing are clearly derived from the results their teams have collated and tabulated.

The most logical conclusion is that pollsters had counted on Maharashtra, with an assist from Uttar Pradesh, in the fifth phase giving the party the gains that have largely failed to materialise in the south.

Maharashtra, by all accounts, has not obliged and UP is proving far tougher than anyone thought possible, and therefore the pollsters are adjusting their prophesies accordingly. They have a reputation to maintain; equally they have a living to earn -- so they can neither keep up the rah-rah optimism of earlier, nor can they suggest that the BJP is falling significantly short of even the bare minimum target.

So here is where we are: The South and the West are now locked down. In the sixth and seventh phases, it is all about whether the BJP will hold, gain, or lose seats -- and where.

***

IMAGE: Aam Aadmi Party National Convenor Arvind Kejriwal with his wife Sunita and parents at his residence. Photograph: Kind courtesy Arvind Kejriwal/X

Arvind Kejriwal knows a stick when he is handed one; he knows, too, where and how to apply that stick to maximum effect. The Delhi police, which reports to Home Minister Amit A Shah, handed him a hefty stick when on May 23 it asked for time to visit his residence and question his parents in relation to the Swati Maliwal assault case.

On the morning of May 24 Kejriwal told the media that he would not leave his ageing, ailing parents alone, and that he was waiting with them for the police to arrive. In a message to Modi, Kejriwal said 'Your fight is with me. Today, you crossed all limits as you targeted my parents. My mother is very ill. She came home from the hospital on the day you arrested me, March 21. My father is 85 years old and has hearing issues. Do you think they have done something wrong? Why will the cops interrogate them?'

The Aam Aadmi Party released a video (external link) of Kejriwal and his wife with his parents.

Word is that the BJP brass was advised that there was no way this would end well; that the Maliwal case was not giving the party the boost it was hoping for, and for the police to be seen 'harassing' Kejriwal's parents would merely solidify the sympathy Kejriwal was already getting over his ill-timed arrest.

The upshot was that the police backed off -- they will, the police said, be questioning his parents and also Kejriwal, but not just now.

The Maliwal case has boiled down into a he-said/she-said situation through affidavit and counter-affidavit. In the normal course it would drag on, as such cases do.

What makes this special -- and has raised eyebrows even among the BJP rank and file -- is the alacrity with which the BJP jumped on it and sought to make political capital. Modi, Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani and other luminaries have been excessively vocal and captive media has run incessant coverage -- all of which contrasts markedly with the party's attitude towards the Prajwal Revanna case of alleged sustained sexual abuse.

IMAGE: Arvind Kejriwal with Kanhaiya Kumar, the Congress candidate from the North East Delhi constituency at the roadshow in Bhajanpura. Photograph: Amit Sharma/ANI Photo

Delhi's seven seats polled on Saturday, May 25, in heatwave conditions. In 2019, the BJP won all seven seats, making Delhi yet another of those states where the ruling party has nothing to win, everything to lose.

In five of those seats, the Congress had come second in 2019, and AAP placed second in two. This time, both parties are fighting in alliance, with the INC contesting three seats and AAP the remaining four.

Curiously, though its candidates had all won big, the BJP this time has opted to retain only Manoj Tiwari (in the North East Delhi constituency, where he faces Kanhaiya Kumar of the INC) while dropping Harsh Vardhan, Gautam Gambhir, Meenakshi Lekhi, Hans Raj Hans, Sahib Singh Verma and Ramesh Bhiduri.

What the cumulative impact will be of the consolidation of Opposition votes comprising largely the working class, Muslims and Dalits, and an undercurrent of sympathy for Kejriwal, versus the diminished aura of Modi and ground-level discontent at the wholesale changes in BJP's candidates list, cannot be quantified.

What is sure is that the BJP will not repeat its 2019 sweep. In an optimistic scenario, the BJP will lose three, possibly four of the seven -- and we are at a stage where every seat lost is going to hurt.

***

Haryana is a bigger tripwire for the BJP than even Delhi. In 2019, the BJP swept all ten -- which puts Haryana in the category of states where there is nothing to be won. The BJP has retained Krishan Pal in Faridabad, Rao Inderjit Singh in Gurgaon, Dharambir Singh in Bhiwani-Mahendragarh and Arvind Kumar Sharma in Rohtak, while switching out its other six candidates in favour of turncoats.

Naveen Jindal from Kurukshetra; Devi Lal's son Ranjit Singh, an Independent turned BJP convert, from Hisar; and Ashok Tanwar who switched from the Congress to the Trinamool Congress to AAP to the BJP from Sirsa are recent converts. To add to this, Dharambir Singh, Raj Inderjit Singh and Arvind Sharma are also imports, though not recent.

Haryana is where the anger of farmers' and of the Rajput community is at its most visceral -- during this election cycle, village after village has put up 'No entry for BJP' signs (external link) and chased away campaigning candidates.

Recently a group of farmers surrounded former state minister Anil Vij in protest, (external link) and forced him to admit to, and apologise for, ordering police to fire on protesting farmers.

Former chief minister M L Khattar, removed from office to mitigate anti-incumbency and now contesting for the Lok Sabha from Karnal, was greeted with protests (external link) during his campaign.

The BJP-run government is in a state of stress following the recent upheaval when, on May 7, three Independent MLAs withdraw support to the government. The double-engine government's highhandedness against the Haryanvi farmers both during the farmers' protests and during the protest of India's ace wrestlers against the alleged sexual abuses by then Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh; Dalit unease at the hinted-at possibility that the BJP will take away reservations if it returns to power; widespread anger directed at the patent unfairness of the Agniveer scheme... the stress factors are many, and they have worked in concert to ensure that all the Congress has to do to decimate the BJP is make sure it doesn't trip over its own feet.

Bottomline, the best case scenario for the BJP here is that it splits the seats with the Opposition alliance -- and that right there is a loss of five seats; ground reports indicate that the backlash is likely to be even more severe.

***

IMAGE: Modi with the BJP's Uttar Pradesh leader Yogi Adityanath greets crowds during a public meeting for the Lok Sabha polls in Mirzapur, May 26, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Uttar Pradesh should have been a case of holding the existing nine seats which polled on Saturday, May 25, and maybe adding two or three more -- but it isn't.

Adityanath's campaign has centered around how the sound ('shriek' is his preferred term) of the azaan is no longer being heard; the BJP brass have hammered away at the theme that a Congress government will bulldoze the Ram temple and put the deity back in a tent.

Neither trope is firing up the voter to any noticeable extent, say regional journalists embedded in the region -- on the ground, rising prices of essentials, falling returns from agriculture, rampaging cows destroying crops, and unemployment forcing mass migration are top of mind for voters.

This, coupled with the Samajwadi Party/Congress alliance running a very strong campaign, has put several of the BJP's nine seats in play. A less noticed problem for the BJP is that despite a clear Modi wave in 2019, it not only dropped seats (from 71 in 2014 to 62 in 2019), but its winning margin in several of the seats polling today are wafer thin: 1.45% in Sultanpur, 8.8% in Ambedkar Nagar, 0.53% in Shravasti, 2.8% in Basti, 3.3% in Sant Kabir Nagar, 0.02% in Machchlishahar and 4.2% in Badohi.

The disenchantment with the BSP (which won four seats last time from this lot), the consolidation of the Opposition, and the sub-surface anger against the double-engine government means that the slightest swing away from the BJP can gut the party's prospects.

***

IMAGE: Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee at an election rally in Kolkata, May 25, 2024. Photograph: Amit Sharma/ANI Photo

Four seats polled in Jharkhand on May 25 with the BJP defending three of those -- and in a case of hubris, the needless arrest of then chief minister Hemant Soren could be what comes back to haunt the ruling party.

If the BJP struggles to hold its seats (it has nothing to gain here), much of the credit will go to Kalpana Soren, who by all local accounts has run an excellent campaign characterised particularly by her restraint when invoking the sympathy factor. She has avoided overt emotionalism -- her presence on stage is in itself a constant reminder of the state's well-liked Adivasi leader behind bars -- and focussed on issues, as in this election-eve speech (external link).

West Bengal has, expectedly, has descended into a vicious street fight between the BJP and the TMC. In this round, it is the BJP defending most seats -- five of the eight which polled on Saturday, May 25.

In three of these seats, the BJP's winning margin in 2019 are under 10: Jhargram which it won by a 0.84% margin, Bishnupur with 5.4% and Medinipur 6.31%. The TMC has maximised its campaigns in these seats in a flat-out bid to flip them.

The seat that is of particular interest in this round is Tamluk, which the TMC won in 2019 with a 13.15% margin. This time, the BJP has fielded former Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay, at the insistence of Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal assembly Suvendu Adhikari.

The ex-jurist infamously asked TMC chief Mamta Bannerjee what her 'rate' was, and suggested it was around Rs 10 lakh. Even the most compliant Election Commission in India's history found this a touch too much and benched Gangopadhyay for a day.

Modi had earlier found out to his cost what the consequences are of such attacks against Bannerjee, vide the 'Didiii-ooo-Didii' catcalling he tried out during the assembly elections. Ground reports say the TMC pulled out all stops to teach Gangopadhyay the consequences of crossing that red line, and the anger TMC has stoked is spreading well beyond the boundaries of Tamluk constituency.

Another factor is the Calcutta high court's cancelling 500,000 OBC certificates. The BJP and its media machinery has ridden this issue for all it is worth, arguing that Mamta Bannerjee's pro-Muslim bent has been exposed by the court. On the ground, though, the court action appears to not only have consolidated the Muslims behind the TMC, but also alarmed other Dalit communities who wonder if it is going to be their turn next.

Given the factors in play, the BJP's best-case scenario in West Bengal is to hold its existing seats -- chances of gains are slim to none. Word from the ground is that the BJP will likely lose one seat, possibly even two.

The other major states in play on Saturday was Bihar, with eight seats on offer of which the BJP is defending in four, and Odisha where the BJP is defending two out of six, and hopes to gain on the back of an increasingly vicious anti-Tamil campaign centered on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's long-time aide V K Pandian.

On the eve of polling, the BJP's Odisha unit wrote to the state police chief asking him to 'rescue' Patnaik from Pandian's captivity, and to do so in the presence of a judge and a few eminent personalities.

I'm not entirely sure what the BJP hopes to gain with such stunts -- Patnaik has been out and visibly about, campaigning across the state. Likely it is one of those inscrutable-to-mortals strategies that Modi will gleefully reveal some other time.

Expect tight fights in Odisha: Of the two seats the BJP was defending, it won Sambalpur in 2019 with a 0.81% margin, and Bhubaneshwar with 2.37%. By the same token, the BJD had scraped through in Puri with 1.03%, Dhenkanal with 3.13% and the Keonjhar reserved constituency with 5.63%. Flips are very much on the cards in this state.

I'll avoid detailed comment on Bihar and Odisha, though, because for reasons of paucity of time and resources, I haven't been able to gather as much feedback from the ground from those two states.

For data junkies, here is an excel sheet (external link) with seat by seat details of all 58 seats in contention on May 25. (I am indebted to Deshdeep for help with the research).

Bottomline, in this phase indications are that the BJP, which is defending 40 seats, will lose in double digits and gain in single digits. Not good, if you are the ruling party scrambling to earn a working majority, with just one phase left to go.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024