12 Mar 2019 21:01 IST

Sounding the poll bugle

Will the Modi-led NDA be voted back to power or will a coalition spring a surprise?

So on May 23, India will get a new government. On Sunday the Election Commission made the long-awaited announcement that India will go through a seven-phase election for the Lok Sabha, starting on April 11 and ending on May 19. In Tamil Nadu the polls for 18 Assembly seats will be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls. The term for the present Lok Sabha ends on June 3, so the elections had to be held before that.

Also, it makes sense for the elections to be held before the South-West monsoon begins, which usually hits the Kerala coast May end.

The million-dollar question now is: will the Modi-led NDA return to power? Or will the Opposition — a rather disparate bunch of national and regional parties coalescing around the Congress — spring a surprise?

Difficult to predict

Elections in India are notoriously hard to call, as history shows. In 2004 the BJP-led NDA had advanced the general elections on the back of the recent string of Assembly poll successes. Growth was looking up and the government had banked on an ‘India Shining’ campaign to return to power. But, to everyone’s surprise, the UPA stormed to power with outside support from the Left parties.

Then, in 2009, after the Left ditched the UPA following disagreement over the nuclear deal with the US, not many gave the UPA a chance. Most predictions pointed towards a hung Parliament. In fact BSP supremo Mayawati, who had won the UP Assembly election with a huge majority in 2007, was expected to play the role of ‘king-maker’.

But the Indian voter confounded the poll pundits by voting the UPA back to power! And, what’s more, the Congress registered its best performance in recent times, bagging 206 Lok Sabha seats. The UPA had then comfortably crossed the 272 mark.

Five years later, though the UPA’s defeat was widely expected, as the UPA-II reign was wracked by massive corruption scandals, no one could quite predict the ‘Modi wave’ and that the BJP would be the first party in more than three decades to have an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha.

Roadbumps and course correction

The BJP in its initial years after the 2014 elections won every election in sight and its promise of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ did not seem hollow. But it was in the Bihar Assembly polls of December 2015, where a Nitish Kumar-led ‘Mahagathbandhan’, which included Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress, that the BJP juggernaut hit its first road-bump.

Though the BJP then went on to win major Assembly elections, especially in the North-East and the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, by end-2017 the Congress and other Opposition parties started getting their act together. In late 2017, the Assembly election in Gujarat, a state which has been a BJP bastion for long, was touch-and-go for the ruling party. The Congress ran a spirited campaign, but the BJP managed to pip it, thanks to Modi’s hectic campaigning, which was often vituperative and divisive in its content. But it was in Gujarat that the Congress’ ‘soft Hindutva’ model, where it tried its best to shed its ‘pro-minority’ image, paid rich dividends.

Against all odds, the Congress and the JD(S) managed to form a coalition government in Karnataka, successfully keeping out the BJP, which was within sniffing distance of forming a government with a not a little help from the State Governor.

It was in the Assembly elections held in the Hindi heartland in late 2018 that the Congress managed to wrest power from the BJP. Victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand put the wind back in the Grand Old Party’s sails. There is a new-found confidence in Congress President Rahul Gandhi, long derided as ‘Pappu’ by his critics and a ‘reluctant prince’ by his own supporters.

Changed narrative

The BJP was clearly rattled by the results, which is why it quickly adopted more ‘welfarist’ policies — 10 per cent reservations for the economically backward, income support scheme for farmers, and a pension for unorganised sector workers. Its earlier rhetoric of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ was given a quiet burial.

But despite these recent reverses, the BJP is still a formidable party with a huge army of workers and massive financial resources. Prime Minister Narendra Modi still has a connect with a large swathe of the electorate. His ‘chaiwala’ narrative, of having risen from humble origins and not banking on family/dynasty politics, has a huge resonance among the people.

It also remains to be seen whether the Pulwama attack and the subsequent air-strikes make an impact on the electorate. Though this issue has, not surprisingly, attracted a lot of media attention and analysis by the commentariat, whether the BJP can bank on its ‘tough-on-terror’ image to garner votes remains to be seen.

Now all eyes will be on the parties’ manifestos and what promises have been made to the electorate.