“It is a fine game to play — the game of politics — and it is well worth waiting for a good hand before really plunging.”
Going by Winston Churchill’s quote, the Congress would indeed be looking at Lok Sabha (LS) elections 2019 with a lot more confidence given that it has managed to land with three aces (states) in the recent assembly elections. After being wiped out in the tsunami of 2014, the country’s grand old party, till a year back, was not even being considered a force to reckon with in 2019. However, with the achhe din narrative unraveling with the two big initiatives of the government — demonetisation and GST — failing to deliver on its grand promises, growing farm distress, and a flagging job market, the aura of invincibility around the Modi government is waning. And it’s showing.
The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview with ANI mentioned that he wasn’t given a mandate to win the 2019 elections but to govern for five years is in stark contrast to his victory speech in 2014 where he had hinted at being in power for 10 years. While in opposition, the BJP had capitalised on the sense of anger that voters had nurtured against the UPA-II for being corrupt and, today, the Congress sees the Rafale deal as Modi’s Achilles heel. The party has alleged that Modi has increased the benchmark price of the deal to acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets from France from €5.2 billion to €8.2 billion, resulting in a loss to the exchequer, besides favouring industrialist Anil Ambani through an offset deal. Prashant Bhushan, a public interest lawyer in the Supreme Court (SC) and one of the petitioners in the Rafale PIL, says, “The perception advantage that the Modi government had over Congress in terms of corruption has been washed off by the Rafale deal.” Though the SC had thrown out all petitions, stating that there were no irregularities in the deal, Bhushan believes otherwise. “It’s a ham-handed judgement aimed at putting the lid on controversy…there are too many flaws and errors in the judgement,” retorts Bhushan, sitting at his home in Noida. The Congress, despite the SC verdict, is in no mood to let go, with Rahul Gandhi continuing with his “chowkidar chor hai” tirade and raking up the issue in the just concluded session of the LS. However, Nalin Kohli, a SC advocate and an official spokesperson of the BJP, believes the smear campaign run won’t stick. Rahul had also cited the presence of a note by the defence secretary, objecting to the interference of the PMO in the Rafale deal. Kohli, however, points out that by leaving out the-then defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments to the note, Rahul was distorting facts. “The opposition is creating a narrative built on falsehood by selective splicing of facts.”
Yet, quite a few media and independent surveys reveal that though Modi’s popularity ratings have fallen since 2014, he remains the preferred PM candidate even as Rahul is catching up on the charts. Rajdeep Sardesai, a seasoned political commentator and TV anchor, feels the Congress president is still battling a perception issue among the masses. “The weakness of Rahul is that he still doesn’t command that trust, and a national appeal to challenge Modi,” says Sardesai. Bhushan, however, sees Rahul slowly coming into his own. Of late, Rahul has seen his Twitter following increase from 7.23 million (as of July 2018) to 8.46 million as on date. “Rahul is not an orator, but he is earthy, speaks clearly, short and pithy. His messaging is clear, and by the time polls come, Modi will no longer have any personality advantage over him,” feels Bhushan.
Though Congress is doing its best to stir up the Rafale issue by also getting in state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) into the picture, Bhushan does admit that for most voters, corruption is not a major issue anymore. “Corruption is not a big issue as it was in 2014. Today, in the minds of the people, the bigger issues are unemployment, farmer crisis, lack of education and increasing social disharmony,” explains Bhushan.
The biggest challenge that the BJP faces is overcoming the growing disenchantment in the hinterlands, which was the primary reason that swung Modi into power. Of the country’s 342 rural constituencies, as per Census 2011, the BJP had won 178 constituencies in 2014 compared with just 66 in 2009. The party also managed a first in 2014 by winning more votes from the rural poor which traditionally voted for Congress. But post the job losses in the informal sector, in a short span of time, after demonetisation and GST, the rumblings in the farmlands have increased over unmet promises.
Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Commission and founder of farmer advocacy body, Bharat Krishak Samaj, believes the Centre has not gauged the sense of distress. “The MSP announced by the government is not what has been promised,” he says. Farmers are riled up since they feel the MSP announced for 21 crops has not factored in the 20% spike in input costs owing to GST and a hike in prices of diesel and fertilisers.
As per IndiaSpend’s analysis of the assembly elections, the BJP lost 180 seats that it had won in 2013, while the Congress wrested 162 across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh. Of the 678 seats in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram — which account for 15% of the country’s population — the Congress won 305 seats, and the BJP won 199. Jakhar believes the message is loud and clear: “Farmers can band together to defeat ruling regimes, but not form governments. Today they feel deceived. The recent assembly results substantiate this fact.”
Though in the recent budget the government is offering Rs.6,000 per acre to farmers, Jakhar believes the move has also come in a tad too late. “The proposal should have come last year as it would have at least ensured that farmers would have got some money and may have fetched BJP some political dividend. Just before the elections, it appears to be a political gimmick and makes the establishment seem insentient to our hope and fears, unconcerned with our fate,” says Jakhar.
More concerning for the BJP, the move does not help landless farmers. “The move benefits only landowners and not landless cultivators and agriculture labour. Due to shoddy quality of data and records at state levels, even identifying farmers will be difficult. Those who actually receive the cash will perceive it be a pittance, while those left out will feel cheated,” points out Jakhar. The Congress too has been quite critical of the sop. Manish Tewari, spokesperson for the Congress, points that the Rs.17 a day package is a pittance. “For a family of five, the sop works out to Rs.3.5 per person and that’s hardly any relief… the BJP is all set to lose the elections,” feels Tewari.
Besides the farmer crisis, rising unemployment has been the other grouse that the incumbent government faces. Though not entirely of its making, the private sector slowdown as revealed in capex spend and the NPA burden that the banking system was saddled with when the government came into power, have come to haunt Modi. Though the government through the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) has managed some big-ticket resolutions, 11 public sector banks were brought under the ambit of prompt corrective action of the RBI. Given the private investment downturn and credit squeeze, jobs have been far and few between. As per Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, the country’s unemployment rate shot up to 7.4% in December 2018, the highest in 15 months. Further, over 11 million jobs were lost in 2018, of which one-third was the salaried class. The numbers don’t make for a good reading considering that more than 12 million Indians enter the labour market every year. As a result, the promise to first-time voters, who numbered around 100 million in 2014, is seen as unfulfilled. What could pose a challenge to the Modi government is that 133 million new voters — 70 million men and 63 million women will be queueing up at poll booths this time as well.
With an eye on these voters — 73% of whom live in India’s villages — Modi has urged BJP to create a campaign to win their support. The BJP’s national council is looking at promoting the ‘pehla vote Modi ko’ campaign in the coming days. According to Sanjay Kumar, Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the youth vote had contributed substantially to the BJP’s victory in 2014. “The vote share of the BJP among young voters stood at 37%, higher than its average vote share of 31.1%. In the past six general elections, never had young voters shown such a clear political choice,” says Kumar. But with jobs hard to come by, whether the momentum will continue is in question.
The PM’s Economic Advisory Council has stated that between FY13 and FY17, over 22 million jobs were created, much higher than the 15 million jobs created over FY05-12. In April 2018, the government said 3.11 million jobs were added between September 2017 and February 2018, based on employee payroll data. However, critics argue that the government’s findings take into account only jobs created in the organised sector and, hence, isn’t accurate. Kohli though differs. “Look at the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation data, look at the manufacturing data, what does the startup scene portray, and what about the informal sector? A lot is happening. Just because the opposition has put blinders on, doesn’t mean nothing is happening.” According to CMIE, the formal sector accounts for just 15% of the total jobs in the country. As per the agency, the number of persons employed in FY18 was 406.2 million, 0.1% lower than the 406.7 million employed in FY17. While there is no comprehensive data that tracks employment in the country, the FY19 economic survey has now put the onus on NITI Aayog to lay the guidelines for a comprehensive employment survey.
Not surprising, that to stub out the growing unemployment narrative, the government moved a constitutional amendment Bill in the LS to enable 10% reservation in education and government jobs for economically weaker sections of the general category. This reservation, which is over and above the current 50% existing quota for backward castes, is aimed at placating the forward castes such as the Jats, Marathas, Gujjars and Patels who had turned restive over the past couple of years. But given that the government, per se, is not the biggest job creator, Kumar feels that there could be a noticeable fall in the turnout of young voters. “We could either see a poor turnout, or votes getting distributed across political parties.”
On the other side
While the BJP is still in power in 17 states along with its partners, it has had a rather fractious relationship with its allies. Early this year, TDP’s N Chandrababu Naidu quit the NDA and the Shiv Sena, which has a lone minister in the Modi cabinet, has been constantly at loggerheads. After an impressive performance in the northeast, the BJP has now stirred up a hornet’s nest with its Citizenship Bill. Following on the footsteps of Asom Gana Parishad, three more regional parties (in Tripura, Nagaland and Mizoram) in the BJP’s 11-party North-East Democratic Alliance have raised concerns over certain provisions in the Bill that pose a threat to indigenous communities.
Sensing the growing unrest, the opposition is trying its best to put up a united front with the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) creating a Mahagatbandhan. However, the alliance is still nebulous. The KC Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Naveen Patnaik of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) are still not part of the alliance. TRS’ spokesperson Bhanu Prasad, too, rules out any LS alliance for now. “We are going to fight all the 16 LS seats in the state independently and don’t want any tie-ups,” says Prasad. Though the BJP has made overtures to the party, Prasad is categorical that any support for an alliance would depend on the outcome of the polls. “If any party needs our support we will consider, provided they accept a common agenda,” reveals Prasad, adding that the party was in touch with similar-minded regional parties such as BJD to create an issue-based agenda.
Tewari, however, points out that efforts are on to bring everyone on board. “Look, those who are not there are not there. It all depends on how much space you are willing to concede and how much are the others. But this battle is for the very soul of India and if you believe in the Constitution then you have to stand on the right side of history.”
But the big alliance that has taken shape is in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where veteran BJP leader and former Union Minister Sangh Priya Gautam has written an open letter to senior functionaries of the party stating that ‘Modi’s mantra’ may not be effective in the upcoming elections. He has also demanded that party president Amit Shah be replaced with former MP Chief Minister (CM) Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari be appointed as Deputy PM and UP CM Yogi Adityanath be replaced with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. In UP, where the BJP won 71 seats in 2014, the SP and BSP have come together with a seat-sharing formula that entails each party contesting 38 seats. Ghanshyam Tiwari, spokesperson for SP, believes the alliance has a strong chance of ousting the BJP. “Yogi is the only BJP CM in the Hindi heartland and he does not communicate development or governance…sabka saath sabka vikas has been defeated.”
Of the 141.2 million voters, which includes 76.8 million men and 64.4 million women, 2.45 million were first-time voters in the 2017 UP elections, and they will be casting their LS vote for the first time. Though under Akhilesh Yadav, the SP government had initiated some strong development work, it lost out in the 2014 BJP wave and a repeat followed in 2017. Tiwari explains, “When the BJP fights a state election it gets its cadres from across the country, and for one CM to take on such a force, you sometimes fall short.” However, after the BJP lost three LS bypolls in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana, the opposition believes the fight is wide open. “If they can lose Gorakhpur (a well-known BJP citadel), then anything can happen,” says Tiwari.
Though there has been a media frenzy over the elevation of Priyanka Gandhi as Congress general secretary for UP (east), terming it a “master-stroke,” “game changer,” the fact remains that Congress has virtually zilch presence in the country’s biggest MP factory. While the party has decided to contest all the 80 LS seats, it has no local leader with mass appeal. Against such a backdrop, the jury is still out on what Priyanka can deliver for the Congress. “Priyanka will give the Congress a telegenic appeal, especially among youth and women. She is an untested X factor and the Congress still has a mountain to climb in UP… whose vote will she take, BJP or SP-BSP is tough to say at this stage,” opines Sardesai. Tewari, however, is confident: “People tend to forget that in 2009, the Congress had won 22 seats. In the coming months, a lot of things will fall in place.”
Through the new job quota for forward castes, reports suggest that the 10% formula may benefit at least a section of 2.22 million unemployed in the state. But in a state plagued by caste-based alignments, the gain from the quota is still not clear. It is against this hazy backdrop that the BJP now wants to ride on the agenda listed on page 41 of its 52-page 2014 manifesto — facilitating the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Though the case is still being heard in the SC, the buzz is that of an ordinance being brought in by the government to push through the construction. But its impact on UP and the rest of country is still subject to diverse opinions. Kumar of CSDS believes the impact will not be significant. He says, “It’s an effort by the ruling party to have a larger narrative that can subsume the bigger concern of voters as they have been unable to deliver what they had promised.” Tiwari of SP believes that for the youth in UP, the divine intervention won’t be a big influencer. “Electorally, this generation of voters between the ages of 18-35 will be roughly 60-70 million in the UP. These voters have not really seen the Ram Mandir movement. They have a sense of Godhra but not Ayodhya.”
While it’s not clear what will be the legal validity of such a move and whether the EC will take note of how the ordinance would influence elections, Sardesai believes a mere ordinance will not work in favour of the BJP. “Only if construction of temple begins can the BJP expect a boost, a mere ordinance won’t tilt the scales to the extent that the party hopes,” says Sardesai.
Hazarding a guess
Given that a week is a long time in politics, predicting an outcome three months ahead of the elections is nothing short of futile. Furthermore, the opposition itself does not seem to be on a strong wicket. For Mamata Banerjee holding her flock of MPs together is priority after her party’s No 2 Mukul Roy joined the BJP and recently two more party MPs switched sides. Besides, TDP’s Naidu, who has been on the forefront of cobbling up a united opposition, is battling his own odds. The biggest jolt was in Telangana, where the Congress-TDP alliance could not make any headway as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) retained power. TDP, which won 15 LS seats in 2014, faces a resurgent YS Jaganmohan Reddy of Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party. “Jagan will not only come to power in the state but also make his mark in LS as Naidu, in his second stint, has lost his Midas administrative touch. The masses, in general, no longer identify with his party,” explains Prasad of TRS.
While those of the likes of Bhushan and Tewari believe that it is game over for Modi, quite a few still believe the base case of Modi coming back with a depleted majority. Bhushan believes the BJP will be wiped out from the Hindi heartland and they would at best manage 160 seats. “Congress will not be the largest party but will be a dominant party with large allies. But Mayawati is unclear if BSP will go with the Congress,” he says. Since the opposition alliance is still not in place, the narrative for BJP is clear: Modi versus who? Tiwari believes that instead of portraying a face, the opposition should agree to a common agenda. “We want the mandate to guide the alliance, if the agenda is not powerful then it becomes a question of picking the best person who can lead the nation. Hence for the opposition it’s important to let people know what their plan is,” says Tiwari.
Sardesai, who has been a staunch Modi critic, believes the base case scenario of Modi coming to power with a new looking NDA. He explains, “We underestimate Modi’s capacity to retain power and if it requires him to change his personality he will change it. Contrary to popular perception, Modi has an enormous capacity to reinvent himself and if there is a coalition, he will make a genuine attempt to reach out to partners.”
Given the current scenario, the base case for Modi to become the PM has to be 200-plus seats. While the BJP’s count in LS is down to 271 from 282 seats because of the by-poll losses, any count below 200 could mean that Modi won’t be able to call the shots and the buzz in the capital is that this could see Gadkari in the reckoning. In fact, of late, the Union Minister has been making sarcastic comments aimed at the party leadership. At a recent function in Mumbai, he remarked in chaste Hindi: “Sapne dikhane waale neta logon ko ache lagte hain, par dikhaye hue sapne agar pure nahi kiye to janta unki pitayi bhi karti hai. Isliye sapne wahi dikhao jo pure ho sakein (Political leaders are fond of spinning dreams, but if they cannot deliver it, they may take a beating from the people. So promise only what is possible).” In fact, his bonhomie with Congress President Rahul at this year’s Republic Day function also created a flutter.
However, Sardesai believes Gadkari’s elevation will be easier said than done. “RSS is waiting and watching and there is a Plan B which has Gadkari…but I don’t think Modi is going to easily accept that kind of a change. At the moment, it’s just a hypothetical situation.” What makes the task of easing out Modi is challenging for the RSS; which candidates get LS tickets would be dictated by the Modi-Shah combine. “If things come to pass, Modi won’t mind sitting in the opposition with the bigger objective of bringing down the government in one or two years and then coming back with a majority,” feels Sardesai.
For now, the Modi government seems to be doing all the right things to keep the narrative in its favour, what with GST cuts, higher exemption limit for MSMEs and sops in the Budget for the middle-class and farmers. While Kohli believes Modi will indeed win a second term, Tewari feels there is a groundswell of anger against the government. Kumar makes a pertinent point though. “Verdict 2014 was driven by anger against the UPA, while 2019 is more about disappointment. While anger results in a huge turnout, it’s vice versa with disappointment.” Whether that indeed will be the case hinges a lot on the narrative that gains credence closer to the election, but what is clear, for now, is that Cult Modi is not fading anytime soon.