Modi-led BJP is counting on first-time voters and women to have a notable impact on the results of 2019 General Assembly elections. The on-ground delivery of schemes to also play a key role
Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes into the battle of 2019 fully loaded with a carefully crafted script and a relatively unscathed personal image, which is head and shoulders above a faceless opponent. By the way, who is the “opponent,” does anyone know? A month before the elections, even the voter doesn’t know if it’s Modi versus Rahul, Mayawati, Mamata or an X rank-outsider in the event of a badly hung Parliament.
With the post-Pulwama popularity surge in Modi’s ratings, there’s reason to cheer the receding possibility of a severely fractured mandate, though it is premature to arrive at any convincing assumption. Because the vital question is that how long can the phenomenon of the well-known “recency bias” sustain voter attention?
Apropos the state of the Opposition a month before elections, an amorphous federal front is yet to coalesce and put forth its Common Minimum Programme, while Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s pre-Pulwama aggression of making joblessness, agri-distress and Rafale allegations thematic talking points for electoral campaigning has simmered down to a whimper. State-level rivalries and monumental egos of regional satraps to cede leadership at the national level remain key impediments to a unified, pre-poll alternative front. As for a Congress-led UPA front, the grand old party being the largest opposition bloc, it is still struggling to gain primacy within its alliance partners. Besides, for a reality check on the battle-readiness of the Congress, after its three Hindi heartland gains of December, it is smug in assuming that the verdict will necessarily mirror similar losses for the BJP in the national elections. It must consider that the BJP cadre is also working the ground since that debacle.
Popular sentiments in favour of Modi have taken a quantum leap over the last six months going by the three indicators of opinion polls, satta rates and a pre-poll market rally similar to 2013/14. All of these anticipate political stability with Modi’s likely return. But to think that the Balakot strikes will retain the pull and momentum in favour of the BJP till the voting date would be fallacious. The current dipstick shows that satta operators are betting heavily for 245 to 251 seats for the BJP, and over 300 for the NDA, more than sufficient to form the next government.
Whatever the scenario was before, as of now Modi goes into the elections with pro-incumbency sentiments as the ruling establishment has wrested the narrative from the jaws of the opposition with its muscular policy, reminiscent of the 1971 Bangladesh war that helped Indira Gandhi’s return to power. In many ways, popular sentiments are similar to 1971, with the overarchingly intimidating stature of the tallest national leader dwarfing his challengers, and with the emotive appeal of nationalism replacing even the Ram Mandir issue that the BJP partially relied on.
A month before elections, Team Modi is well armed with formidable Brahmastra, having unparalleled cash as well as a manpower resource edge over opponents. Second, the party is best-equipped for last mile connectivity with Modi’s social media warriors proficient in the states and national level communications. The third arsenal in BJP’s favour is that, as the potential architect of a “New India by 2022,” Modi has laid the building blocks for it during his first tenure.
Based on the above, let’s for a moment recalculate poll arithmetic another way, that is, not counting the post-Balakot strike as BJP’s sole lifeline, because no single factor wins an election. First, a super confident Modi is enthusiastically urging opinion leaders to influence an increase in voter turnout as a greater participation of urban voters is expected to favour the party. Modi is counting on two important demographics, which could have a sizeable impact on electoral outcomes. These are the millennial first-time voters and women. The latter comprise 48 per cent of the electorate and are expected to show up in larger numbers in favour of a vote for the BJP, given the on-ground delivery of female-prioritised schemes having benefited the particularly populous state of Uttar Pradesh, like Ujjwala, Awas Yojana and so on. Also, the political goodwill of the “Modicare” scheme is expected to touch the lives of 50 crore people.
The mathematics is differently calculated here, away from the caste, religious or polarising criteria. It is the “clutter-breaking formula” at play here, as it’s called in marketing parlance, which the BJP hopes would give it the defining edge, based on the following calculus as given by Amit Shah: “We previously had 2.4 crore workers. Today, there are 11 crore. Plus, our programmes have touched the lives of 22 crore families through delivery of cooking gas, toilets, health insurance, housing and so on. To form a government, we need 17 crore votes. We are in a strong position to convert the popularity of the PM into votes.” Should the BJP go it alone, not counting its allies, and get the backing of a little over one-fifth of the total 90 crore registered electorate, it could make for a comfortable win. These achievements entitle Modi to convincingly lay claim to the tagline of “Modi hai to mumkin hai” because he has tried to deliver on universal basic essentials, ease of living and ease of accessing finance for an entrepreneurial India, which is a legitimate proxy for job creation, a front on which he has ostensibly failed. Because, with the advent of ‘Industry 4.0’, nowhere in the world are governments and the private sector able to fully absorb the youth entering the workforce annually.
The pre-electoral media blitz, before the code of conduct kicked in, was a powerful forerunner series, with a compelling header that had the stamp of Prasoon Joshi’s ad-style of 2014. One can only guess if the strategists will retain the header, or if it’s a teaser leading on to a more potent caption for the ad-campaign to be released by the beginning of April. Modi’s media blitz, by early March, had carpet-bombed national dailies in print, on air, in social media, on billboards, and much more. There was no escaping his omnipresence and top-of-the-mind-recall. In addition to the above, came MyGov mails chronicling the government’s achievements, with online messaging relayed intermittently with a meticulously calibrated frequency. Add to that, Modi had been on a whirlwind of pre-poll rallies, achieving a higher run-rate than his opponents even before the the Election Commission had sounded the bugle for elections 2019.
The BJP’s much-awaited manifesto and electoral pitch by the beginning of April is now expected to go heavy on nationalism; on increasing the amount on the income support scheme of Kisan Nidhi Samman if voted back to power; on rationalising corporate taxation; on Modi, the reformist, determined to weed out a parallel economy; on job creation by facilitating entrepreneurship and increased spends on infrastructure; and the USP of a stable leadership versus a disparate coalition.
After BJP’ electoral setback in the state elections last December and post-Balakot, there is a popular shift in perception as mirrored in the online poll of Local Circles and the C-Voter survey. The upswing in sentiments is attributed to the BJP’s recalibrated course correction with counter-welfarist measures and on-ground delivery of the Kisan Nidhi Samman, which is expected to have a pan-country resonance somewhat. The sum of assumptions points to BJP in the worst case scenario not going below 220 seats on its own, with the Congress unable to more than double its 2014 tally. Even in that eventuality, keeping a party with over 220 seats and allies out of power in preference to a party with over 80 seats and allies is a distant possibility.
As war optics help galvanise voters behind a strong leader, it provides the BJP the best opportunity to expand its core voter base beyond its traditional constituency. It could help the party retrace potential losses in North India, which is historically more impacted by concerns of cross-border conflict than the South, where BJP’s expansion has always been negligible. An anticipated swing between one to two per cent of vote share can raise the tally significantly by even 20 seats out of 543, enabling Modi’s NDA to return to power.
However, unlike the first surgical strike in 2016, the patriotic euphoria may well be dissipating at a faster rate this time in smaller towns and villages, because the rapid pace of news flow has reduced attention span even in India’s hinterland. Yet, nationalism can succeed in keeping livelihood issues on the back burner from regaining full dominance during the campaign phase. The key to electoral gains for the BJP will hinge on a higher voter turnout and the actual level of satisfaction voters experienced through the BJP’s egalitarian programmes, should no new X-factor come up within the next few weeks.
(The author is the chairperson for National Committee on Financial Inclusion at Niti Aayog.)
Writer: Bindu Dalmia
Courtesy: The Pioneer