Fifteen factors that hold the key to this election
National security/ Terror
A big theme in all polls since the 1990s, it did not appear to be an important part of the discourse this time — until a jihadi suicide bomber struck in Pulwama. The killing of CRPF troopers and India’s retaliatory airstrike on mainland Pakistan have turned it into one of the pivots on which the LS polls might turn. Opposition parties were quick on the draw as they blamed the massacre on government ‘failure’. But the Balakot airstrike may help BJP protect its ‘tough-on-security’ plank, burnishing the credentials that it acquired post the ‘surgical strike’ in response to Uri terror attack. BJP has since showcased Modi as a ‘bold and decisive leader’ who alone can deal with a hostile Pakistan, and has argued that a ‘grand coalition’ of Opposition parties won’t be up to the task of dealingwith the heightened security challenge. The reigning nationalist mood and anxiety about tension on the border might add to the attraction of the promise of strong leadership and political stability.
Generally a ubiquitous factor, it has been missing in action this time. The Modi government has succeeded in taming price rise, which, combined with corruption and perception of paralysis, contributed to UPA’s debacle five years ago. NDA’s success, however, seems to have come at a price. Some experts have argued that price stability has been achieved by depressing the price of farm produce, a strategy that has generated rural unrest and could cost BJP.
One of the main weapons in the Opposition’s armoury with which it has gone after the Modi government is the ‘betrayal’ of its promise to generate jobs, which had got it huge support among youth in 2014. It has alleged that the job situation has deteriorated on Modi’s watch, especially in the wake of the twin shocks of demonetisation and GST. The government has also been accused of concealing the seriousness of the problem by doctoring the data. The government has sought to rebut the charge by citing higher EPFO numbers and disbursement of Mudra loans, and by arguing that the methodology for data collection does not factor in changes in the nature of jobs, especiall ‘minority vote’ against Modi.
India has doggedly defied predictions of the advent of a post-caste society. This election is unlikely to be any different. The Opposition’s best hope of defeating Modi rests on the calculation that the coalition of Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims represented by SP and BSP could rout the saffron party in UP, which it had swept the last time. They are also laying store by Lalu Prasad’s plan to pit a block of OBCs and Muslims against BJP. Modi won handsomely in 2014 because his brand helped BJP win over sections of even those castes which have traditionally been aligned with its opponents. But the salience of caste was evident in November when BJP found itself caught in a pincer of resentments — of upper castes and Dalits over quota — and narrowly lost MP to Congress. It has since tried to control the damage by appeasing its upper-caste constituency with a 10% quota, while seeking to counter the estrangements of Dalits. It is obviously hoping that Modi’s popularity will help dilute the caste factor.
It cost Congress massively in 2014, with scams sinking its score to a historic law. Modi has ensured that BJP does not suffer any such handicap. Rather, he wants to capitalise on his success in ensuring there was no scam on his watch. People swallowed the bitter pill of demonetisation largely because of the strength of his image as a corruption buster. It is not clear whether Rahul Gandhi’s campaign over Rafale and the persistence of entrenched corruption at the grassroots will undercut the advantage. But it is clear that BJP is not saddled with the perception of institutionalised corruption that capsized Congress five years ago.
A new entrant in 2014, it has established itself as a formidable player in the field, giving combatants an unconventional handle with which to try and set the agenda, and bludgeon each other. Its entry five years ago was seen as one of the factors that contributed to Modi’s win. The period since then saw Congress closing the gap with a swagger. It took BJP time to respond to the challenge. But it has since moved aggressively to protect its advantage. Post-Balakot, it appears to be ensconced in the driver’s seat. Things could change, however. The sheer volatility of the beast is such that it cannot be taken for granted.
The Modi government’s tenure was marked by the launch of a plethora of welfare and development schemes, and a focus on their efficient implementation. Some of these — Ujjawala, Swachh Bharat, PM Kisan, Ayushman Bharat — were conceived by the government and have BJP and Modi stamped on them. The welfare umbrella, along with demonetisation, helped BJP shake off the ‘suit-boot-ki-sarkar’ label opponents had sought to pin on it. BJP expects them to be a buffer against the incumbency disadvantage. There is competition from Congress, which successfully leveraged the lure of loan waivers in the end-2018 elections in three states, and is likely to go one better by promising universal basic income in some form.
BJP’s hope of a comeback is built almost entirely around his continuing pull with substantial sections of the electorate. It believes Amit Shah’s organisational machinery will be able to convert the goodwill for the PM into votes. The Opposition, on the other hand, is convinced that the onceformidable charisma has waned, becoming a victim of the iron law of diminishing returns as well as unfulfilled promises. In fact, they have focused on sullying the brand NaMo with unrelenting vigour. However, there is no denying that he remains the single-most important factor in the fray. Many of those who voted against BJP in the last round of state election did so declaring that they would be back in the saffron column for LS polls. And now there are also indications that Balakot may have restored a substantial part of the lost lustre.
BJP’s promise to ban illegal cow slaughter was one of the big factors in the party’s landslide win in UP. But the fulfilment of that same promise threatens to cost the party in the state. A swelling population, with standing crops as the sole source of sustenance, spells a serious threat to the livelihood of the farmer, turning a block of faithfuls into a resentful constituency.
Muslim fury over the slaughter ban compounds the loss. The Yogi government has taken steps to contain the damage with a plan to build shelters for abandoned cattle. There are doubts if the repair job will be adequate just as it is not clear whether the estranged constituency will take their resentment out on Modi. Farmers have no ideological quarrel with the idea of gau raksha.
They only don’t want to pay for its implementation.
Stability and strong leadership vs Diversity and shared leadership
The election will be a contest between BJP’s projection of Modi as the strong leader India needs to realise its potential, and the Opposition’s case that a coalition with a collegiate style of functioning is a better fit for a diverse democracy. BJP is seeking to turn the election into a presidential contest, arguing that the Opposition’s failure to name its choice for PM is recipe for the chaos that will characterise a coalition led by a crowd of satraps. Opposition parties, in contrast, have made the pitch that a coalition doesn’t just better mirror a variegated polity like India but can also serve as the antidote to authoritarian impulses in a ‘strong-and-decisive’ leadership model.
A huge addition to the electoral college, they can tip the scales with their sheer number. What makes them crucial is the enthusiasm to exercise the just-acquired franchise, the keenness ensuring that that they turn out in bigger numbers than other cohorts. Exposed to a deluge of information that was not available to previous generations, they are more likely to experiment with options; they could also influence a shift in preferences in the larger groups they are affiliated to. This could benefit the challenger who comes riding with the promise of a fresh beginning. But since the political millennials have not entered the job market yet, they have fewer disappointments and grudges and could be persuaded to stand by the incumbent who has not turned stale.
Increasingly a category that takes decisions independent of wishes of menfolk. It was in 1984 when, for the first time, many of them strayed from the line drawn by ‘guardians’ to vote for Congress because of the sympathy Indira Gandhi’s assassination generated for Rajiv Gandhi. They have since been a reservoir of support for several leaders from MGR, NTR and Jayalalithaa to Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nitish Kumar. BJP is expecting handsome support from them because of measures ranging from the substantial — like building toilets and providing LPG — to the dramatic, like capital punishment for those guilty of raping minors.
Dalit and Tribals
Just before they soured on BJP in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and horrific images of Dalits being assaulted by cow vigilantes at Una, they had begun to warm up to the party because of an ambitious outreach. Developments like the alleged dilution of the Atrocities Act by the Supreme Court and the emergence of a new leadership that often co-ordinated with the Opposition. Among tribals, BJP has come to acquire a significant constituency, thanks to RSS’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. But defeat in the Chhattisgarh polls and unrest over the now-aborted move to change the land ownership law in Jharkhand suggest BJP has a job on its hands.