Momentum with NDA as nation goes to the polls

Prime Minister Naredra Modi. PTI file photo

As the first phase of voting to elect the new Lok Sabha is underway, there is both excitement and uncertainty as to which direction this election is heading. 

As the rest of the nation votes in the next five weeks, a lot could change in the public mood and voter sentiment, as the campaign is yet to pick up in many parts of India.

A few trends seem to be clearly discernible at the moment. Firstly, in terms of momentum, the advantage today seems to be in favour of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Yet, one must hasten to add that this slight edge is not uniform across the country. Thus, secondly, the mood and trend in each region and state of India appears to be distinctly unique and reflects the very localised flavour of politics. Thirdly, this election is also about the stability and effectiveness of alliances at the ground level that have been stitched together by the NDA, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and state-based parties.

Crucial will be whether the leadership of the parties is able to convince the party cadres and supporters of the need to support and vote for allies. Finally, this election is very much about a perception battle – convincing voters about the narrative that the party has built up as part of its election campaign. 

Both national parties to gain vote share?

A very recent pre-poll survey undertaken by Lokniti-CSDS, that was widely reported in the print, electronic and social media, drew attention to the emerging electoral trends across the country. A few finding of this survey merit detailed attention. This survey indicated that as of the end of March 2019, the NDA was ahead of its rivals and was close to achieving the majority mark. 

As compared to 2014, the survey found that both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress had gained four percentage points in terms of vote share. This the survey felt, may actually lead to an increase in the Congress tally but would leave the BJP well short of its 2014 numbers. 

Given the dismal performance of the Congress the last time around, any vote share increase would definitely add to its tally. For the BJP, even an increase in vote share would not help in garnering more seats because, last time around, the BJP had a phenomenally high strike rate of over 90% in many states of North, West and Central India. 

This time around that high strike rate may be a challenge in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In UP, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance appears to be posing a stiff challenge to the BJP and would make it difficult for the ruling party at the Centre to come anywhere close to its 2014 tally in UP.

While the BJP is expected to do well in Rajasthan, it may not achieve the total sweep of 2014. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh (where the BJP won all but two seats last time) and Chhattisgarh (where the BJP won all but one seat in 2014), the Congress is likely to mop up a few seats. 

The only regions where the BJP is hoping to make up its Northern-Central-Western deficit is the East, North East and the South. Save Karnataka, the BJP has a limited presence in the Southern states. While it may improve its seat tally in the East and North East, it may not be enough to wipe out the Hindi heartland deficit.

What is working to BJP's advantage

In the last few months, one notices that the BJP has set aside the strong anti-incumbency that appeared to increasingly become visible after it completed four years in office. Three developments seem to have worked to its advantage. First, the 10% reservation for economically backward seems to have had an impact in the Hindi heartland. Secondly, the Balakot strikes have also found approval among the people. Finally,  the cash transfers to farmers has also had a positive impact and helped arrest the creeping anti-incumbency. 

Two factors must be budgeted into the analysis at this stage. Firstly, the increase in the projected vote share of the BJP is not at the cost of the Congress/UPA but is on account of the drop of the non-UPA Opposition vote share. Secondly, the anti-incumbency vote is being split between the UPA and the non-UPA Opposition, working thus to the advantage of the BJP. 

A linked factor is the visible popularity of Prime Minister Modi as the prime ministerial choice. Across regions, save in the South, his popularity is way ahead of his key rival Rahul Gandhi. Even in states where state-based parties have an important role to play (except Tamil Nadu) Narendra Modi appears to be a popular choice. The reason appears to be that in those states, with prominent state-based parties, the leaders are not in serious reckoning for prime ministership.

Thus while the supporters of these parties would want to vote for their state-based party, they would still endorse Modi as the prime minister. Tamil Nadu is an important exception. In this state, given the open endorsement of Rahul Gandhi as prime minister by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)  chief Stalin, the Congress president is ahead of the Narendra Modi in preferred choices. 

The BJP has been able to garner support from across caste groups and both urban as well as rural locales and also has a decisive advantage among the younger voters. 

However, the party’s attempt at `inclusiveness` (Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas) does not seem to be working on the ground. If close to half the Hindu respondents in the CSDS-Lokniti Pre Poll Survey wanted to give the BJP government a second chance, half the Muslim respondents, six of every ten Christian respondents and seven of ten Sikh respondents did not favour a second chance to the Modi government. Religious polarisation appears to be clearly visible. 

A final factor that is going to be closely watched will be the voter turnout. The CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey provided some important leads. There was much greater enthusiasm among BJP voters to cast their vote as compared to those opposed to the party. Three-fourths of the BJP voters were sure that they would go out and vote. 

In case of supporters of the non-BJP Opposition, four of every 10 said that they were unsure whether they would actually cast their vote. This factor could be decisive. During the campaign, if the non-BJP parties are able to convince their supporters to go out on polling day and exercise their vote, there could well be a difference.  

(Sandeep Shastri is a political/election analyst. He is Pro Vice Chancellor, Jain University and National Coordinator, Lokniti Network)

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Momentum with NDA as nation goes to the polls

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