Lok Sabha polls: Is the BJP struggling to defend the seats it won in 2019?

Of the 93 constituencies polling today, 80 were won by the NDA in 2019, 12 by parties now in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. In other words, the NDA has much to lose

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on one of his BJP campaign rallies (photo: @BJP4India/X)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on one of his BJP campaign rallies (photo: @BJP4India/X)

A.J. Prabal

The stakes are high for both the NDA and the INDIA bloc in the third phase of polling today, 7 May, across 93 Lok Sabha constituencies.

Surat, where polling was due today, has already been won 'uncontested' by the BJP, since the Congress candidate was disqualified and all the other candidates withdrew from the fray.

Yes, it certainly seems the NDA is going all-out to retain the 80 constituencies it had won in 2019, of which 72 seats are held by the BJP.

Eight of the 10 states that are polling today are known to be BJP strongholds and have BJP governments. On paper, therefore, the BJP and the NDA look well-placed to win big today—don't they?

However, 2024 does not seem to have the same factors in play that favoured the BJP in 2019.

The ‘Modi wave’ that led to the 2014 and 2019 victories has given way to bread-and-butter considerations with rising inflation and unemployment, and several local factors are gaining ascendancy too.

There is strong anti-incumbency against sitting MPs.

The prime minister’s erratic speeches, which seem to refuse to acknowledge ground realities (or any reality, in fact) have added to the BJP's woes.

Add to that the relatively weakened NDA allies this time—often by the BJP's own divisive doing—and the saffron party has problems.

The JD(U) in Bihar and the Shiv Sena (Shinde faction) and NCP (Ajit Pawar faction) in Maharashtra are not only weaker now than in 2019; but are also fighting for their own survival. BJP workers have been reluctant to work for the allies and BJP supporters are reluctant to vote for candidates put up by them.

Notably, both the Shiv Sena and NCP have split since the last general elections—ostensibly to the BJP's advantage in the state, but now causing more problems for it than the split likely solved.

Barring Gujarat—where the BJP won all 26 seats last time and is confident of repeating the feat, not the least because both prime minister Modi and home minister Amit Shah hail from the state—the BJP and the NDA are finding the going tough this time.

Even in Gujarat, the Congress–AAP alliance, anti-incumbency against sitting BJP MPs and the state government, besides the month-long agitation against the BJP by Kshatriyas (Rajputs), could spring one or two surprises, observers maintain.

More than Gujarat, however, it is in Karnataka and Maharashtra that the NDA is in troubled waters.

The alliance must win all 41 (out of 48) seats it holds in Maharashtra and all 26 seats it holds (from a total 28) in Karnataka to return to power at the centre.

On the other hand, losses in these two states could be a knockout blow to the BJP, with recovery difficult in the remaining four phases, when the focus shifts to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Bihar (besides Punjab and Delhi).

Most observers and opinion polls think that the NDA could lose 10 seats each, by a conservative estimate, in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

The third phase today, 7 May, will determine if the losses might be even more severe in Karnataka.

In 2019, the NDA had won all the 14 Karnataka constituencies that are polling today. The alliance (read: the BJP) did exceptionally well in 2009 too, when it won 12 of the seats, and in 2014, when it had won 11.

But after these three successive showings, the BJP is feeling the heat in Karnataka this time, because of the five guarantees of the Congress government in the state having gained traction and garnered confidence.

The perception that the centre has been meting out stepmotherly treatment to Karnataka ever since the Congress won the assembly has been cemented as New Delhi has reneged on the state’s due share of taxes, denied grants for drought relief and rice for the state’s Anna Bhagya scheme.

And now there's the snowballing sex-tape controversy swirling around the BJP’s ally in the state, the JD(S), courtesy one Prajwal Revanna.

Women in Karnataka had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Congress in the assembly election last year.

This makes sense, since they are the main beneficiaries of the five guarantees—especially the free rides on state transport buses and Rs 2,000 transferred monthly to women heading poorer households.

The Congress' selection of Lok Sabha candidates has also given it an edge, as has the engagement and morale of party cadre.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge is leading the charge and all state leaders of the party appear to be fighting on the ground.

As Yogendra Yadav et al point out in an analysis in the Print, half the Congress candidates fielded are close relatives of state ministers, ensuring that the party stalwarts have skin in the game.

The BJP, in contrast, is a house divided, with a Lingayat seer voicing his disappointment with the BJP and a former deputy chief minister, K.S. Eashwarappa, rebelling against the party.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did break his silence on Prajwal Revanna’s alleged sexual assault on scores of women finally. He has said, in an interview to Times Now, that he should be brought back to the country and punished.

The damage, however, has been done.

The prime minister and the home ministry, besides the top brass of the BJP, clearly knew of the existence of the explicit sex videos shot by the JD(S) MP as far back as in December 2023, when a BJP leader brought it to their notice.

Modi and the BJP, however, chose to skirt that little issue and blame the Congress state government for allowing Revanna to fly out of the country. Law and order, the prime minister solemnly told Times Now, is a state subject.

But it is too little, too late and too transparent. It is not cutting much ice with the people.

The BJP’s desperate attempt to polarise Hindu voters, by whipping up a false narrative around reservation for Muslims in the state, also failed. After all, BJP governments in the past had themselves implemented this reservation, which has been in existence for several decades.

In Maharashtra too, the NDA finds itself fighting with its back to the wall.

Ajit Pawar has barricaded himself in Baramati, where he is engaged in an existential contest with cousin Supriya Sule. While Ajit Dada Pawar is micro-managing his wife’s election from Baramati, though, he is unable to campaign elsewhere, even for his own party's candidates.

The BJP and the state government have done their bit for Sunetra Pawar's cause, however. Indeed, the Election Commission was forced to issue a notice to BJP state president Chandrashekhar Bawankule for telling voters in Baramati that grants and financial assistance would be released to the constituency only if they vote for Ajit Pawar’s wife.

The Shiv Sena (Shinde) is also fighting a grim battle, as a surge of sympathy for Uddhav Thackeray is discernible on the ground—all thanks to the Shinde–BJP's own machinations.

So, the question is, can the NDA salvage a victory out of the 10 seats each in Karnataka and Maharashtra that it looks likely to lose? And what if they lose 2–3 seats in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh meanwhile?

The third phase of polling today should provide some indication of which way the election is drifting.

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