Key factors in April-May Indian parliamentary elections

Key factors in April-May Indian parliamentary elections

P K Balachandran,

Electioneering in India is in full swing with political parties feverishly sewing up alliances. The emerging political scenario in India is such that no party, including the ruling behemoth Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) riding on the crest of war hysteria, is in a position to form a government on its own.

The personality or charisma of leaders which are being built up and sustained by the electronic media, continues to be a factor. But for charisma to deliver votes, it has to be buttressed by funding, organization and intelligently crafted alliances.

According to BJP stalwart L.K. Advani, an inadequate alliance was the real reason for the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 elections even though it had run a very attractive “Shining India” media campaign and all opinion polls had reported a stunning victory for the BJP over the lackluster Congress.

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Currrently, in terms of a media blitz, the BJP headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is streets ahead of its rival Congress led by Rahul Gandhi. While Rahul is coming out as a mild-mannered person with thoughtful remarks, Modi is coming out as a knight in shining armor who had boldly carried out air strikes into enemy territory and who gives instant solutions to pressing problems through grand schemes.

To make up for the personality deficiency in the Congress, the party has inducted the glamorous Priyanka Gandhi. She is expected to match Modi’s ebullience and chutzpah to draw crowds to public meetings and families to TV sets.

Priyanka’s USP is her novelty. While Modi is over-exposed Priyanka is a fresh face. As the campaign picks up, she is expected to grab more TV time posing a serious threat to what has been Modi’s exclusive turf since 2014.

And Priyanka has been speaking a language totally at variance with Modi’s. While Modi is playing on aggressive nationalistic or jingoistic sentiments whipped up by the Pulwama suicide attack and the subsequent air strikes, Priyanka is calling for a different kind of nationalism based on mutual understanding, religious harmony and peace, a nationalism which is not against anybody but is for all.

Significantly, this was the theme of her maiden public address in Gujarat, which incidentally, is the home State of Modi and the scene of a massacre of 2000 Muslims under his watch in 2002. After coming to  powerin New Delhi, Modi had been presiding over an all-India regime under which Muslims in several States were being lynched for selling cows or eating beef.

Quoting Modi’s line that it is in his fitrat (innate nature) to take badla (revenge) Priyanka said that this does not accord with India’s fitrat which is to eschew hate and go for love and compassion.

It is yet to be seen if Priyanka’s dovish line will find favor with the voters because the atmosphere is surcharged with hate and animosity to Pakistan and the Muslims. But it is believed that in the next two months (polling is to take place from April 11 to May 19) the memory of Pulwama and the air strikes will necessarily recede, yielding place to less transient and deeper issues like rural and urban economic distress, joblessness and communal disharmony. Priyanka’s message of compassion will eventually find greater resonance.

Unconvincing Opinion Polls

Post-war surveys conducted immediately after the Pulwama incident and the retaliatory air strikes say that Modi will stage a comeback at least as leader of the single largest party in parliament. But a closer look at the surveys would show that they actually present a confused picture.

A survey by Zee Group’s Marathi news channel Zee 24 Taas, found that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) might win 264 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) might get 165 seats while other parties and independents might win 114 seats.

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The India TV-CNX poll, done in the first week of March after the Balakot airstrikes which were conducted on February 26, gives the NDA 285 seats, a thin majority of 13 seats. Of these, the BJP alone would get the lion’s share of 238 seats.

But the same India TV-CNX did a poll in December 2018, prior to Pulwama and air strikes, in which the BJP-NDA had got better results! That poll had given the BJP 247 seats! In other words, the India TV-CNX poll taken after the war, shows a drop of nine seats for the BJP despite the Balakot air strikes!

The BJP will be much happier with the ABP News-CVoter poll. This one gives the NDA 264 seats, just 8 short of a majority. The BJP is expected to win 220 seats.

This is a decent gain compared to the team’s previous opinion poll, done in January this year. That poll gave the NDA 233 seats. The NDA’s vote share has also risen from 37.6% in the January poll to 41% in the March poll.

However, given the war hysteria, the gap between the nationalistic BJP led NDA and the not so nationalistic Congress led alliance is too small. It should be much higher.

NDTV commentator had also cautioned that these opinion polls were done in the immediate aftermath of the Balakot airstrike sat the height of the nationalist frenzy whipped up by television channels. He observed that the momentum could fade over time, and basic issues like roti (food), kapda (clothing) and makaan (shelter) could return to the top of the agenda.

According to well researched piece in the Economic and Political Weekly, election surveys have become covert instruments used by media houses in collusion with political parties for falsely predicting election results.

The methodology is patently flawed and not suited to highly complex India where divisions are myriad and considerations are many and varied, depending on caste, class, region, religion and ethnicity.

“Contrary to their foreign counterparts, media opinion polls on elections in India have focused more on predicting the number of seats major political parties are going to win or lose in the elections rather than understanding the key issues facing the electorate. As a result they go horribly wrong,” the writer said. He urged the Election Commission to ban pre-poll surveys.

Alliances key to success

Many politicians argue that it is not ‘nationalism’ or any other issue that will be the big game-changer. Victory or defeat is dependent on alliances. In this department, the BJP is ahead of the Congress, as of now.

BJP leaders like Amit Shah and Ram Madhav are past masters in sewing up alliances. Ram Madhav got the estranged Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to re-join the Assam cabinet though the BJP and the AGP still have opposite views on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 which opens the floodgates to non-Muslim immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries including Bangladesh. In Maharashtra, Amit Shah has re-built the broken bridge between the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

But the Congress is not yet willing to sacrifice its individual goals for the common task of defeating Narendra Modi. It is insisting that it will have nothing to do with the anti-BJP Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the anti-BJP Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. In Kerala, it is fighting the Left Front even though it needs the two communist parties to fight BJP and Modi at the Center. It is reported that Congress has difficulty in striking a deal with the Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The grand alliance announced at a massive rally in Kolkata under the aegis of the Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee has failed to fructify. But as any seasoned politician knows, anything may happen at any time in politics to change the situation radically.

“24 hours is a long time in politics,” said the Late G.K.Moopanar who headed the Congress in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s.