Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at a public rally in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, on March 3, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Elections 2019 Still In Play, Despite Modi’s Balakot Boost

BloombergQuintOpinion

After much anticipation, the Election Commission of India set the ball rolling on the festival of democracy which in recent years has turned increasingly rancorous. Although Indians are rarely objective when it comes to politics, they would concur that the election for the seventeenth Lok Sabha is a make or break moment for the two leading players – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi.

Modi often told me from when he was an aspiring satrap, to when I was researching for his biography, that “in politics, there are no full stops except those ordained by destiny.” Despite apparent triteness of the statement, there was an element of profundity in his observation. It is therefore evident that a defeat for either would not permanently halt their careers.

Yet, there is no denying that it would nonetheless put a long pause on their onward march. But, while Gandhi has the benefit of age to come out of the setback, Modi has a greater struggle on his hands to make a comeback. This will stem from two reasons.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi at Parliament House, in New Delhi, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi at Parliament House, in New Delhi, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

First, he is not, temperamentally, a Leader of Opposition the way several previous BJP stalwarts were. Modi is an archetypal control-freak and revels in setting the political discourse. This is not possible from the opposition benches except when the incumbent is on terminal decline. Such occurrences happen only in the later part of the tenure of the governments and not immediately after assuming office.

Second, despite his present iron grip on the Sangh Parivar and its leadership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates are multi-layered and more prone to internal dissent and hierarchical upheavals when compared with the Congress party.

It may therefore be difficult for Modi and the present RSS leaders to remain pivotal players, in their organisations in the long-run, in the event of a defeat.

The chances of a loss for the Bharatiya Janata Party have, however, greatly receded after the inter-related Pulwama terror attack, the air strikes on the terrorist facility in Balakot, and release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. These developments have acted like god-sent opportunities for Modi and benefited his fortunes in two ways.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally, in Churu, Rajasthan, On Feb. 26, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally, in Churu, Rajasthan, On Feb. 26, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Who Has An Edge In 2019 Elections? 

Bread-And-Butter: On The Back-Burner

It has enabled him to shift the electoral narrative completely from livelihood and social security concerns of the people. The dominance of these basic bread-and-butter issues triggered deliberations on ‘if not Modi who’ scenarios which were addressed in previous articles in this series. But, Modi’s decision to strike a posture of retaliatory nationalism and launch air strikes against Pakistan has put a temporary halt to those scenarios.

Then, the retributive action of the government against Pakistan-based terrorists has enhanced Modi’s personal popularity and image as a macho leader. Even if sceptics prefer reserving judgment on this, there is no denying that Modi’s decisions have halted a slide in his popularity.

A resulting impact of these twin developments is that the opposition’s pre-Pulwama high octane campaign has lost its sting for the time being.

In the first fortnight of February, Congress workers were visibly enthused by the entry of Priyanka Gandhi. This is now an almost forgotten chapter in this age of shifting public attention.
Rahul Gandhi with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia during a roadshow, in Lucknow, on Feb. 11, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Rahul Gandhi with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia during a roadshow, in Lucknow, on Feb. 11, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Hereafter, it will take an extraordinary effort on the part of opposition leaders to regroup and revive their electoral campaign. More than the effort, they will be required to once again find belief in the probability of defeating Modi and not slip back to Omar Abdullah’s March 2017 sentiment.

Mapping The Shift, Via Surveys

Despite the boost Modi has received, 2019 is still not a ‘settled affair’. This is best evident in two surveys - by CVoter on ABP News and VMR on Times Now. Of the two polls, the former was based on responses after the Balakot offensive while the findings of the latter are based on a survey between February 5-21. The ABP News-CVoter poll predicts seats BJP is likely to win while the other survey provides generic data.

ABP-CVoter forecasts the National Democratic Alliance winning 264 seats, eight short of a majority. While the breakup of the seats that ruling coalition partners are likely to win have not been provided, if this poll is the final verdict, the BJP own tally could range between 200-220. This is the numerical band in which we argued that Modi will eventually become prime minister once again although there will be impediments and hiccups in this process.

The Times Now-VMR poll also substantiates the contention that there is yet no certainty of a BJP victory. This poll surveys views on “defining issues”. The results offer worrying data for the BJP.

As many as 40.2 percent of the respondents listed ‘employment’ as the most important issue and was followed by 17.7 percent for loan waivers/schemes for agriculture.
Students exit a learning center in New Delhi. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
Students exit a learning center in New Delhi. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

Also read: Elections 2019: Farm Crisis Immense, Don’t Claim To Have Fixed Everything, Says Nitin Gadkari

Backing this angst over declining work opportunities is data regarding job losses:

  • Although 39.5 percent felt job openings were more now, 36.4 percent held a contrasting view – there were “regular job losses”.
  • Another 24 percent opined that job cuts may be higher than what is claimed because “government may not have accurate data”.

While Modi has a clear lead over Rahul Gandhi in personal popularity ratings – 52 percent to the latter’s 27 percent, 43 percent still consider Gandhi a “credible alternative”. Another 39.7 percent say there has been no change in his stature since the last poll.

What will worry the BJP is that the ABP News CVoter data, collected just after Balakot, still shows the NDA likely falling short of a majority by a whisker. Logically, the political impact of Balakot offensive would be at its highest in the immediate aftermath.

Should we infer from the survey data that these events have not garnered enough support for the BJP to completely offset the losses that set in since August 2017, as was evidenced in numerous assembly polls in states and other by-elections across India?
Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia at Kamal Nath’s swearing in ceremony, in Bhopal, on Dec. 17, 2018. (Photoraph: PTI)
Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia at Kamal Nath’s swearing in ceremony, in Bhopal, on Dec. 17, 2018. (Photoraph: PTI)

Also read: Elections 2019: Congress Can Learn How BJP Used And Poached Allies

Voting, even in the early phases, is still weeks away. The recent swing in Modi’s favour could decline with time and other issues, many of which are a headache for Modi, may become dominant.

Three Worries For The Parivar

Within the present regime—not just in the BJP but also among RSS affiliates—there are three identifiable core concern areas that may stand in the way of victory.

The first worry is over the extent to which the nationalistic sentiment touches a chord in non-Hindi speaking states. Barring West Bengal, where the BJP is expecting major gains, Gujarat, Assam and a small part of Maharashtra, people in non-Hindi speaking states do not have vivid memories of the 1947 partition. As a result, they do not nurture a pathological dislike for Pakistan. Days after Wing Commander Abhinandan’s release, the prime minister in Kanyakumari mentioned the officer’s Tamilian origin. This attempt to whip up nationalistic passion cut little ice with people and has since not been mentioned by the party.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa during a public rally,  in Chennai, on March 6, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa during a public rally,  in Chennai, on March 6, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Elections 2019: A Manifesto For Political Manifestos

The second issue of concern within the saffron fraternity stems from uncertainty over sustaining the current ultra/jubilant nationalism mood. Claims of having given a ‘munh tod jawab’ (belligerent response) may work in the immediate moment but cannot be sustained for weeks. Any further security incident would be disruptive.

It’s possible that the lowering of the nationalistic tempo will be directly proportional to the re-emergence of livelihood concerns.

History offers divergent lessons:

  • In the 1999 election, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP failed to add to its previous tally.
  • But, in the March 1972 assembly elections, held three months after the 1971 war ended, Indira Gandhi was the hands-down winner.

Also read: Elections 2019: Will Modi Pull Off An Indira (1971) Or Fall Like Vajpayee (2004)?

The third anxiety is self-induced. By constantly being in the news and for choosing to be the most proactive premier India ever had, Modi's ‘novelty’ factor may have got eroded with over-exposure. While he is the BJP’s ace campaigner during elections, Modi’s incessant public presence and on direct communication platforms he created like Mann Ki Baat and MyGov, may have diminished his lustre.

During the elections in Gujarat, there were reports of people deserting the grounds the moment Modi began speaking. Similar reports have come in the wake of the recent blitzkrieg of rallies before the model code of conduct came into effect. The BJP escaped with the skin of its teeth in Gujarat because Modi was the dikhro or son of the state. This may not happen during Lok Sabha elections, fear sections within the Sangh Parivar.

After euphoria following the BJP sweep in Uttar Pradesh, this is the second instance of a premature ‘reading’ of the 2019 elections. Like in sport, the final result will not be known until the final EVM is tabulated. A week is a long time in politics.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’, ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’, and ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.