Lok Sabha polls: Hope, hype and home truths

The first two phases of the ongoing Lok Sabha election have thrown up more questions than answers — and some unforeseen possibilities

Judging from their reaction, thin voter turnouts, as seen in this booth in Ghaziabad, worry the BJP more
Judging from their reaction, thin voter turnouts, as seen in this booth in Ghaziabad, worry the BJP more

Uttam Sengupta

The Lok Sabha elections in 1999 were held between 5 September and 3 October, a few months after the Kargil war. Results were announced on 6 October 1999. Five years later, in 2004, an NDA government buoyed by victory in Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and seduced by the ‘India Shining’ moment, chose to hold elections six months before they were due.

And that’s why the general elections are now being conducted in April-May, in sweltering heat, while people wonder why the exercise cannot be completed before summer.

Even the once salubrious southern city of Bengaluru experienced a day temperature of 38ºC on 26 April. In Kerala, as many as nine people, including a polling agent, died because of the heat. And polling percentages dropped everywhere, triggering speculation among pollsters and nervousness among political parties and candidates.

Was it the heat that kept voters away? Or was it voter apathy, their disillusionment with our ‘dance of democracy’? Or could it be an imagined certainty of victory or defeat? Although there appear to be small differences in urban/ rural areas, some observers speculate that it’s possibly the middle-class voter that didn’t step out to vote.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) added to the suspense, sitting on the data until 30 April, 11 days after the first phase of polling and four days after the second, making analysts’ lives difficult. At around 7.00 pm on both polling days, the provisional figures shared by the commission came to around 60 per cent.

On 30 April, the final figure was around 65-66 per cent. Yogendra Yadav, a former psephologist, recalled that earlier, final figures were made available the very next day.

Sitaram Yechury, the CPI(M) general-secretary, was one of the leaders who wondered aloud why absolute number of voters in each constituency weren’t put out. "Percentages are meaningless… Apprehensions of manipulation of results continue, as total voter numbers can be altered at the time of counting," he posted on X, adding that these figures were always available on the ECI website until 2014.

Turnouts in some seats in MP and Rajasthan were a whopping 8-14 per cent below the national average
Turnouts in some seats in MP and Rajasthan were a whopping 8-14 per cent below the national average
Hindustan Times

Comparing individuals states/constituencies, several seats did record 70 per cent polling or better, while some in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were a whopping 8-14 per cent below the national average. While Yogendra Yadav stuck his neck out to suggest that the decline should alarm the BJP, other psephologists were more cautious and argued that with the opposition largely invisible on the ground, they likely failed to mobilise voters.

Home minister Amit Shah, too, claims to believe opposition supporters stayed home. But the argument cuts both ways: pro-BJP voters are equally likely to have taken victory for granted. Even if 2-3 per cent of BJP voters stay away, though, it could spell a drastic decline from the BJP’s 2019 tally of 303 seats (the majority mark is 272).

Political commentator Amitabh Tiwari writes in his NDTV column: "Generally, a higher voter turnout is considered an indication of change while a low turnout suggests continuity." However, he also points out that four of the five times the BJP formed a government — in 1996 (for 13 days), 1998 (13 months), 1999, 2014 and 2019 — higher turnouts were seen (bar 1999). "Thus, 80% of the time when BJP has formed governments, it followed an increased polling percentage," he writes.

Economist Sanjaya Baru, a former media advisor to Manmohan Singh, holds that the BJP is a dispirited organisation, with power concentrated in two people. Many within the BJP and the RSS, he indicates in a column in the Indian Express, no longer want a super-powerful prime minister and would like the BJP to secure only around 270 seats, so that top leaders listen to local stalwarts more.

Significantly, Yogendra Yadav found no hostility against Prime Minister Modi. He remains popular among the people, Yadav believes, partly because of the cult around his god-like image and partly because of the absence of a comparable star campaigner in the Opposition. Rural voters were unaware of the electoral bond issue or the Congress manifesto, he found.

However, BJP candidate Tejasvi Surya in Bangalore South, deemed a BJP stronghold, betrayed nervousness and got into trouble for calling upon Hindu citizens specifically to come out and vote. In a careless post on social media on polling day, Surya reminded constituents that it would be a shame if 80 per cent of the 20 per cent Muslims cast their votes, while the 80 per cent Hindus polled only at 20 per cent strength. Other BJP leaders too have been exhorting supporters to not take a ‘saffron wave’ for granted.

Trends in the first two phases indicate that there is no great wave of support for either the ruling party or the Opposition. There is apparently no national narrative, unlike in the last two elections of 2014 and 2019; local issues and local favourites seem to lead the discourse. This may place the BJP at a disadvantage, for two reasons.

Regional parties are better equipped to address regional sentiments. This can be seen in the campaigns of Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.

Desperate attempts by the BJP to pitch it as a war between Modi and Rahul Gandhi seem to have flopped. The BJP is also feeling the heat of anti-incumbency against renominated MPs who have been in Parliament for 10 years with little to show for it — which is at least partly because of the centralisation of power.

Both political commentators and psephologists like Pradeep Gupta note that the BJP and its allies must repeat their 2019 performance in the northern and western states to win — all 26 seats in Gujarat, all 25 in Rajasthan, all 10 in Haryana, all 5 seats in Uttarakhand, 62 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 41 of 48 in Maharashtra, 28 of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 25 of 28 in Karnataka, 39 of 40 in Bihar and 13 of 17 in Telangana.

This looks like a tall order now. In several of these states, the BJP and its allies in fact seem set to lose seats simply because they cannot possibly gain more, having reached a saturation point. The JD(U) in Bihar and the Shiv Sena (Shinde faction) in Maharashtra are weaker than in 2019 and likely to drag the NDA tally down.

The BJP does tend to win close contests, as a research paper by Sabyasachi Das, assistant professor at Ashoka University, University, revealed. A disproportionate number of close contests, he concluded, were won by the BJP in 2019, hinting at possible manipulation. The public uproar that followed forced Das’ resignation. And the contests look closer and tighter in 2024 than in 2019.

While the picture is unlikely to be clearer until the fifth phase at least, a return to coalition politics is looking increasingly likely.

The 1999 general election saw the BJP-led NDA win a majority, the first time for any party/coalition since 1984 (the second time since 1977 for a non-Congress coalition). It was also the third consecutive election in which the single largest party failed to secure a majority alone.

This trend continued in 2004 and 2009, with the Congress-led UPA , and then Narendra Modi won two decisive back-to-back elections in 2014 and 2019, the BJP becoming the first party since 1984 to secure an absolute majority.

Until March 2024, the BJP did seem to be on course to win a third decisive mandate. PM Modi in February asked party workers to ensure 370 seats for the BJP, and 400-plus for the NDA in the 543-member Lok Sabha. He said numbers were necessary for a strong government to usher in reforms.

Sanjaya Baru noted in his column that all three ‘reformist’ prime ministers— Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh — led ‘weak’ coalition governments. But the rousing ‘ab ki baar chaar sau paar’ was discreetly discarded by mid-April.

The goal looks unachievable, but worse was the taint of BJP candidates explaining it needed a two-thirds majority to rewrite the Constitution. Leaders like Anant Hegde in Karnataka, Jyoti Mirdha in Rajasthan, Arun Govil in Meerut and Lallu Singh in Ayodhya ended up vindicating the Opposition’s call to save the Constitution from the BJP.

Kirori Lal Meena, a formidable BJP leader in Rajasthan, explicitly said the Constitution must be changed to end reservation. While home minister Amit Shah rushed to the police and the Election Commission to complain of fake videos showing him pleading for an end to reservation, the statements of fellow partymen could hardly be denied.

It seems unlikely that so many saffron voices across states called to ‘end reservation’ without explicit instructions from a central node — but it has left the BJP scrambling for damage control.

Even Dr Ambedkar, the prime minister said, could not change the Constitution now. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat declared that the Sangh supported reservation, that messages to the contrary were fake propaganda. He could not, however, deny that he himself said in 2015 that reservation needed a ‘review’.

Reservation is too hot a potato. The BJP cannot afford to alienate the OBCs. The CSDS survey revealed that the BJP had secured 17 per cent of the OBC votes in 2009 and a whopping 47 per cent in 2019. Dropping the 400-plus slogan was meant to take the edge off the reservation question.

Economists and political scientists have pointed out that India has done better under coalition governments. Economic and agricultural growth and employment were higher in the UPA years than in the Modi years.

Concentration of power in the prime minister’s office, the steady decimation of checks and balances, deteriorating Centre-state relations and fiscal profligacy show a need for distributed leadership, they argue.

Baru suggests that not just politicians, even business and industry leaders now feel they would be better off with a weaker government and less arm-twisting. Many are possibly praying for the BJP to fall short of 272. What they discount, however, is the ruthless streak of the Modi-Shah duo.

What happened in Surat and in Indore even before polling shows what the ‘new BJP’ is capable of.

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Published: 05 May 2024, 1:47 PM