Elections in India have been notoriously unpredictable, barring of-course in 1971 and 1977 when the majority of the people had made a decision about Mrs. Indira Gandhi in no uncertain terms. This time, as various opinion polls over the last one year suggested, there is a wave in favour of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. But since, as the 2004 example tells us wave does not necessarily guarantee a win, the 2014 polls are as much, if not more confounding than any other in the recent past.
The wave for Modi was reflected in the high voter turn-out, in particular in the metropolitan and other urban centres, including Mumbai which polled 52 percent compared to 41.4 percent in 2009. Till the fifth phase of polling on April 17, which sealed the fate of 232 parliamentary seats, nine percent more voters cast their ballot than in 2009. Clearly, this surge is borne out of an increasing keenness in the voter to administer a change at the centre.
Most psephologists believed this may naturally translate into a vote for the BJP. In January, particularly in the aftermath of Arvind Kejriwal's resignation as Delhi chief minister which led to a disenchantment in people for the Aam Aadmi Party, the approval for Modi seemed loud and clear. The enthusiasm was seemingly more evident in India's 15 crore first time voters. Political analyst Pradeep Taneja had even remarked that young voters are likely to influence the election outcome. He said, "Young people are impatient for a growing economy, employment. Judging by all the opinion polls the younger demographic are likely to vote for Modi."
However, a lot of things have happened in the last four months which may frustrate an overall BJP sweep. At the helm is an increased personal attack on Modi by the Congress. The party's repeated accusations of Modi doling out sops to a particular industrialist friend in Gujarat at an appalling cost to state largess, and his perceived snooping of a young architect, may have created an invisible yet persistent undercurrent in India's young voters on whether Modi indeed is the change they need to instrument. Such an undercurrent had happened against the BJP's India Shining campaign in 2004, though it was not noticed in the perceived hoopla for the NDA.
The young may still vote for the BJP, but not as decisively as it appeared in January. That the Congress would lose the election is sure. At the same time a Congress loss is not sufficient to assume the BJP would replace it. That would depend on to what extent the Congress is decimated.
With a shrill campaign against him based on accusations of crony capitalism and snoopgate, Modi may not be able to completely decimate the Congress in urban centres where the latter performed very well in 2009. In 2009, the Congress took away as many as 115 seats in metros and towns throughout India, which was double its tally in 2004. Modi wave was hitherto expected to reverse the fortunes of the Congress just in those centres. But how effectively he will be able to do that now is unclear.
In the Hindi heartland, the "wave" remains unthwarted, as the loyalty element is traditionally more unwavering in smaller centres. However, barring Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the BJP already was in an advantage in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and neighbouring belts in 2009. Hence, a very good BJP tally will not add very significantly in terms of increase in seats for the party. In Rajasthan, if the December assembly poll trends are repeated, the BJP may reap in considerable gains. But the Congress too has played its part. The Rajasthan unit of the party announced five percent reservations for the Gujjar community - a community whose negative votes for the Congress is believed to be the cause of its debacle in the assembly polls - and very cleverly extended it to include Special Backward Class Communities such as Raika, Banjara and Gaadiya Lohar.
In Bihar, there is already a presumed, tacit understanding between the Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal United (JDU) to minimise the BJP wave. For example, Nitish Kumar’s close associate Sanjay Jha has been fielded by JD(U) in Darbangha against BJP incumbent MP Kirti Jha Azad. It is being perceived that the JD(U) is only helping to divide the upper caste votes that were otherwise going to Azad. This means the RJD Muslim candidate Md Ali Ashraf Fatmi will get undivided Muslim and Yadav votes. "Nitish Kumar hates Kirti Azad for publicly criticising him for the lack of development in the area. So he has taken the battle in Darbhanga very personally and sent Sanjay Jha to fight for him,” a local BJP leader, Sisir Kumar Jha, told the media last week.
Similarly, Akhtarul Iman, JD(U)’s candidate from Kishanganj, withdrew his nomination admitting that he wanted to help Congress Candidate Asrarul Haque against BJP's DK Jaiswal by avoiding ‘division in Muslim votes.’ He told the media, "I have decided to withdraw myself from election in favour of sitting Congress candidate to check split of minority votes."
In the mother of all states, Uttar Pradesh, opinion polls have predicted BJP may just end up winning 50 plus seats. But many psephologists contend this is an over estimation of the perceived polarisation following the Muzaffarnagar riots. Abhay Kumar Dubey, analyst with Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), recently told mediapersons, "There is no denying that communal polarisation in Western UP and the extraordinary campaign sustained for more than a year is going to help the BJP, particularly in UP. Yet, one cannot interpret it as a huge advantage to the BJP because of myriad political, social and economic factors."
Significantly, polarisation might just work in disadvantage for the BJP by an aggressive conglomeration of the minority votes. If that happend, the obvious gainer will be the Bahujan Samaj Party. Disenchanted with the ruling Samajwadi Party for having failed to prevent the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, and with an eye to stop Modi's accession to power, the minorities may just end up tactically voting for the BSP. The BSP, if it accumulates a good tally on account of large chunk of Muslim vote, will be least likely to enter into any kind of post-poll alliance with the BJP for obvious reasons.
In the south, Congress remains insulated against the Modi wave apparently. History tells us even as rest of India voted against the Congress in 1977 and 1989, the south did not imitate the trend. In 1977 Congress won 70 percent of the 131 seats in the four southern state even as it was decimated across the country. The same trend was repeated in 1989, despite a pro VP Singh wave and the Congress tainted with Bofors scam. In any case, the Congress has not too many seats to lose in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, where it won 8 and 6 seats respectively in 2009. In West Bengal too, where it lost its alliance with Trinamool Congress, it has only 6 sitting MPs.
Rather, it is the BJP which has lost possibility of an alliance with Mamamta Banerjee in West Bengal by entering into a spat with the lady most likely to become one of the key kingmakers. “Modi is a devil. He has presided over riots in his own state and has turned his attention to Bengal… He wants to divide Hindus and Muslims in the state," Mamata said recently after the Gujarat chief minister attacked the TMC leader for lack of development in the state in Srirampur rally in West Bengal on April 27. Another would-be kingmaker, Jayalaitha too attacked Modi recently. She said Gujarat's development is a "myth" and that Tamil Nadu's growth has been far more impressive than that of Gujarat. "I would like to tell him (Modi) that the AIADMK is the only party which has done good work and constantly thinks of the people," Jayalalitha said in an election rally in Chennai on April 17. Interestingly, her remark came a day after Modi said he shared a good rapport with her.
Overall, three trends suggest the regional sataraps - Mamata, Jayalalitha, Maya - will be seemingly more interested in putting together a front of their own rather than support the NDA - barring of-course the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, where the BJP will obviously benefit from the alliance. In fact, Mamata said she would support Jayalaitha has the prime minister in a possible third front government. "I will be happy to support Jayalalithaa for the prime minister's post," Banerjee said in an interview to a tv channel in March.
Importantly, the Congress may not completely be routed nationally as it was earlier expected. This is partly because Modi lost some points on account of charges of crony capitalism and snoopgate, and partly because Congress's pro-poor initiatives - aggressively campaigned in the rural belts - may neutralise the damages in urban regions to some extent.
The BJP on the other hand, completely depends on the gamble it is understood to have played in UP. If the polarisation works to its favour and it manages a 50 seats win, Modi forms the government. If the BSP benefits from the polarisation, BJP will most likely not be able to reach a 180 plus figure, desperately needed to ascertain its comeback to power. There will be two scenarios then. Either the Congress managing to cobble up a "secular alliance", or extending outside support to a third front in a repeat of 1996. What eventually happens, will happen through the gamble in UP. We will have to wait to see how this gamble pays off.