'Gains in Bengal, Odisha not enough for BJP'

'Gains in Bengal, Odisha not enough for BJP'

Sanjay Kumar

India is now in election mode and lakhs of voters in 186 out of 543 Lok Sabha constituencies have exercised their franchise so far. The turnout and voter preferences have given the political players indications about which way the wind is blowing. BJP appears losing a bit but the question is whether Opposition can latch on to it to unseat the ruling coalition. DH's Shemin Joy spoke to Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Director Sanjay Kumar on the emerging political scenario.

Two phases of polling to Lok Sabha elections are over. How do you see political atmosphere evolving for the next phases of polling?

Looking at the voter turnout and the mood of the people, there is a chatter that this is a wave-less election. There is no wave. We are not missing a wave because BJP had very little to defend in the first two phases. The reason why we don't see a wave at the moment is that most of the states – Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Telangana – which went to polls are non-BJP, non-Congress states. We are not seeing any wave in favour of or against BJP in these states.

There are three other kind of states – Maharashtra, Bihar and UP – where we do not see any wave in favour of or against BJP. BJP's stakes were the maximum in UP because all the 16 constituencies which went to polls were their sitting seats. In all these states, there are alliances, where Congress is an ally of a larger coalition or there is an alliance of regional parties. Also, now 14 out of 28 seats in Karnataka have also gone to polls. Here also, there is a Congress-JD(S) alliance. So what is happening in the states where BJP has performed well in 2014, especially Maharashtra and UP, and also to a great extent in Karnataka, the alliances have been formed and these are reasonably good alliances. So these alliances are posing a challenge to BJP. However, BJP's popularity remains where it was. Opposition would be able to defeat BJP in the constituencies where their vote share would be higher compared to the BJP. It can only be with arithmetic.

You tend to witness a wave only if there is a kind of a euphoric voter. That is why we don't see a wave in these states. If you look at the turnout also, it has not gone up in any state. Either it has dipped by a couple of percentage points or in many states it has been more or less the same compared to 2014. That is also an indication that you don't see a very euphoric voter. There is no euphoria in favour of BJP and clearly there is no euphoria in favour of regional parties. I think the real test whether this election is a wave election or not would come when voting in states where bipolar contest between Congress and BJP takes place. Overall BJP is slightly on the backfoot. That is my reading of round one and round two. Because it cannot improve on its tally of 16 out of 16 in two rounds in UP. They have to go down in UP.

In Maharashtra, they had performed extremely well in 2014, (but) they have to go down. In Karnataka, they had performed very well last time. They may not be losing large number of seats, but it is very difficult to imagine that BJP can improve upon its performance in 2014 in Karnataka. I won't say BJP is on backfoot. I won't say a huge challenge but I would say BJP has faced a challenge.

After the first two phases, the perception is that UP is turning out to be tough for BJP. Overall, will this affect BJP's prospects?

The performance in the first rounds affects. It is very difficult to predict whether it affects positively or negatively. I would like to compare what is happening in UP with a marathon race. This election is a marathon. UP is going to polling in all the seven phases. In a marathon, you have to run a long distance and you have to keep your energy intact. A start becomes very important. Every runner wants a good start. It is not that if you had a bad start, you will lose the race. Sometimes you have a bad start and the runner makes up in the last leg. Sometimes you have a very good start and then you lose momentum at the end. I think a good beginning always encourages the runner and it does not demoralise him. So a good beginning helps the party cadre and voters. If you get a positive signal that it has been a good beginning, it helps. If you get a signal that, things have not gone well then it demoralises the cadre. You might put in more effort but it has a demoralising effect on the party.

There is some conversation that BJP could cover up the losses in UP with its gains in West Bengal and Odisha. What is your take?

BJP will definitely improve in Odisha and Bengal. The only question is whether they will improve significantly or not. That is the only significant question. There is no doubt that the BJP is emerging as the second largest party in these states. Congress will be number 3 on Odisha and number 3 or 4 in West Bengal. Now that BJP has achieved to become the principle opponent to Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik but I would hesitate to say that BJP's tally would reach double-digit in West Bengal and in Odisha. Maybe a wild guess is that BJP may get 5-6 seats each in West Bengal and Odisha.

So the gains may not be sufficient for the BJP?

Not sufficient to make up for the losses it would suffer in UP, Bihar Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

You referred to the states where there is a bipolar contest like in Hindi heartland. How do you see the electoral scene shaping up?

We have to see it in a comparative frame. I have no doubt that BJP will lose in Hindi heartland. Congress only stand to gain from these states compared to 2014. The losses for BJP may not be very big. It may not be as big as Congress wants to or is expecting. The losses may be in the range of, say, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, BJP might lose 5-6 seats each compared to its tally in 2014. Same in Chhattisgarh. In Gujarat, I doubt Congress will be able to pick up a substantial number of seats. I think even if Congress manages to win one or two seats in Gujarat, it would be a great achievement for Congress.

BJP has now fielded Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal. Do you foresee a change in campaign strategy by the BJP following feedback from the first two phases?

My own sense is that we didn't see the BJP campaigning on a high pitch in the initial phases as regional parties had an upper hand in states that went to polls. Even in Bihar, the campaign was not on a high pitch because in the second phase there was no seat for the BJP to defend and its ally JD(U) was defending these seats. The main challenge for BJP in the first two phases was in UP. On the eve of campaigning and on the day of voting, the leaders in UP came up with statements which were not very healthy. They were trying to charge voters of one particular community of voting, again and again, wearing burkha etc. So the effort has been, in a sense, in a subtle way to give out a message to the majority community. I am not saying the effort is to communalise but small signals were given to polarise the voters on religious lines to remind voters of majority-minority communities. In the coming weeks, when they move into the third and fourth phase, when we really enter into the Hindi heartland, the campaign is going to witness a higher pitch compared to what we have seen in the first two phases.

What about the campaign of Congress and other Opposition parties?

Congress is trying hard to shift the narrative of the elections to the performance of the NDA regime, reminding people to ask hard questions to the government. But I don't think Congress has been very very successful in that. It is not any big narrative which Congress was able to build that it will be able to push the BJP. It will be majorly due to local factors, and local candidates they have put up, they are challenging the BJP. I don't see Congress being able to build a narrative against BJP across the states, leave aside nationally

Do you think a Grand Alliance at least at the state level could have given a different scenario?

Yes to some extent, I would say, in order to prevent BJP from gaining the seats it expects to win. Alliance of AAP and Congress would have been useful in Delhi. I think that is a miss by the Opposition. Also, an alliance between Congress and the 'Mahagadbandhan' in UP would have helped the prospects of the Opposition much more than what we see now. I think these are the only couple of states where the Opposition could have done better, which would help the Opposition to push the BJP a little further.