Myth or reality?

During the last 50 years, we have seen three ‘wave elections’ in Uttar Pradesh: 1971, 1977 and 1984...

Ever since Narendra Modi was anointed the prime ministerial candidate of BJP, a debate has been going on about existence of a ‘Modi wave’ in the current elections. Almost all top politicians of non-BJP parties have denied its existence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also rubbished the Modi wave.

Yet, the debate continues because ground realities do not match with outright denial of the existence of such a wave. Many have charged that Modi wave is media creation, that the wave exists only in media, not on the ground. But, can media really create a wave? Isn’t that  giving media too much of a political role? And, isn’t that being a little unfair to it?

What is by the way an electoral wave and how do we measure it before the actual outcome? One must do this exercise as all over; people are obsessed with this debate. Uttar Pradesh can be a very good example to figure it out as it has become the most important state given the size of the contingent of MPs and also due to BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi seeking election from there. Obviously, the Modi wave impact must be highest there.

During the last 50 years, we have seen three ‘wave elections’ in UP: 1971, 1977 and 1984. All three were different kinds of waves, first positive, second negative and the last one sympathy wave. In 1971, there was euphoria for Indira Gandhi owing to victory in the Bangaladesh war that she could turn in her favour winning 73 out of 78 seats that the Congress contested.

The second in 1977 was a negative wave against the party owing to the Emergency excesses in respect of the ‘five point programmes.’ Congress failed to win even a single seat out of all the 85 seats that it contested. And, the third was a sympathy wave for Congress in wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in October 1984 in which her son capitalised on that winning 83 out of 85 seats. At the national level also, in both 1971 and 1984, the Congress won 80 per cent seats (1971: 352/441, 1984:415/517) whereas in 1977, its seat share was reduced to 30 per cent.

If we analyse these three wave elections, we discern two salient features of a wave election. One, the wave election centres round a charismatic leader who in all the three cases was Indira Gandhi; two, the wave election usually gives winner almost all and the loser nothing. Looking at the ‘Modi wave’ from this perspective, we find that while it centres round the charisma of Modi, it has little chance of giving ‘winner Modi all’. That is because of the fact that this wave has neither the strong positive potential akin to the one that we saw in favour of Indira Gandhi in 1971, nor negative pungency against the Congress like the one it had against Indira Gandhi in 1977; obviously, there is no issue of any sympathy wave for Modi.

A middle position

At best, we can say that the Modi wave occupies a middle position between two extremes on the positive-negative wave continuum. That is because (a) people have divided enthusiasm for Modi in contradistinction to the undivided loyalty for Indira in 1971, and (b) electors do not have so much of anger against Congress as in 1977 post-Emergency.


In the backdrop of coalition politics for a couple of decades, any single political party getting even a bare absolute majority (272) at the national level would perhaps qualify to be called riding a wave. That is more so for the BJP that has a history of rising from a meagre 2 seats in 1984 to a maximum of 182 seats in 1998 and 1999. So, if Modi manages to fetch 272 seats, it could be considered almost a wave.

So, there are two possibilities. One, BJP can do better in some north-Indian states; two, it can also get some seats in those states where it had not been doing well or had not opened its account. But, the most important achievement of the Modi wave is that it had not only terminated the political untouchability of BJP by swelling the NDA ranks to about 28 parties, it has recorded its presence in south India notwithstanding its alliance with seemingly small and marginal parties.

The Modi wave experiment of BJP has the flavour of erstwhile Congress when votes were asked in the name of a person, be it Nehru, Indira Gandhi or Rajeev Gandhi. Through this strategy, Modi has mainly achieved three objectives. One, he took an early lead by starting the electoral race earlier, created his rival in Rahul Gandhi, and not only exposed his immaturity before people but also decisively defeated him in electoral battle.

Two, he allowed the opponents to team-up against him and in the process exposed their ideological and political incongruity creating doubt in public mind about their capability to provide an effective leadership at national level. Three, he demonstrated that collective leadership does not mean that party campaigns cannot be run single handedly.

One very significant achievement of the Modi wave is that it has taken BJP out of communal polarisation efforts and catapulted it towards inclusive politics – a sign that augurs well with the democratic ethos of the country. It appears that due to this, it can replicate its 1990s’ performance in UP when it won 52 seats each in 1991 and 1996 and 57 seats in 1998. And, though many may not believe, we may still witness a silent, though mild, Modi wave on May 16 when the EVMs speak!

The writer is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, Christ Church College, Kanpur

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