View: The long wait for May 23 may end in a surprise verdict
This election is genuinely tough to call. 2014 was an easy bet that Narendra Modi and BJP would win.
Wherever I go, the same question is asked — what’s going to happen on May 23? India’s choice is currently stored as digital data in those EVM machines. So the honest answer is, we have no idea. However, where is the fun in that answer? So one tries to speculate, analyse opinion polls and past data, sense the public mood, look at recent state election results and do some poll arithmetic based on opposition alliances. Of course, none of it will tell you what will happen on May 23.
This election is genuinely tough to call. In 2014, it was an easy bet that Narendra Modi and BJP would win. The only question was to what extent. Most predictions turned out right, at least in predicting the winner. This time, things are much harder to predict. No matter how confident the forecasters sound, there are so many contradictory forces at play that one really doesn’t know where the final tally will end up. Let’s look at the various data points and factors at work.
The opinion polls predict an NDA government, though with a reduced overall tally. The average of the last few recent opinion polls suggests an NDA final count of around 275; while that may be lower than its tally of 336 in 2014, it is still a solid score and will enable another round of a stable NDA government.
However, there are contradicting factors at play. In the recent state elections, the BJP lost significant ground in its bastions of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The same states had gone to polls before LS2014, and the BJP had posted huge wins — which was reflected in the LS results as well. If assembly election results are mirrored in LS2019, the BJP will lose a significant number of seats — hence that majority number for the NDA may not be that simple to get to. Again, will people in these states view state and LS elections differently this time? We just don’t know.
The kind of Modi wave we had in 2014 is also absent. This doesn’t mean that the PM’s popularity has waned significantly, but it does mean a decline in his novelty value. This was expected; from his oratory to his policies, people know him well by now. In the last election, BJP won a 31% vote share riding this wave (and the anti-Congress wave), compared to its average vote share of 21% in three prior elections (1999, 2004, 2009). This 10 percentage point increase in vote share (or a swing of around 50 million votes) worked wonders for the BJP last time. Will these voters stick to their earlier choice? Or will some slide back to the opposition’s side? Even if half of that swing (25 million votes) shifts back, there could be a big difference in the number of seats. Again, predicting the behaviour of 25 million votes in a 900-million voter base is an impossible exercise.
Looking at issues, some work against the BJP while others are in its favour. There is a lot of talk of slower economy, rural distress and unemployment. It is not clear how many people vote on the basis of GDP growth rate. Or if those not directly affected by unemployment see it as the main issue. We have seen the effect of rural distress in state elections and it may well impact the general elections, we just won’t know to what extent until May
23. However, the one issue that has really worked for the BJP are the air strikes after the Pulwama attacks. A lot of Indians liked this aggressive response to Pakistan; if we are talking of 25 million votes swinging the odds, the issue is big enough to have that kind of impact.
The Congress’s NYAY (Nyuntam Aay Yojana) scheme may help the party, but its leadership choice lacks freshness. If Modi doesn’t have as much novelty now, neither does Rahul. In that sense, this election is not only hard to predict, it is somewhat duller than the previous one.
The BJP’s renewed Hindutva push may have some takers (though not as many as one might think) while opposition alliances may hurt the party in some seats, particularly in UP.
With no wave, no clear direction and opposing factors at play on both sides, counting day may hold more surprises than people think. But for now, we simply have to wait and wait for May 23.