The ongoing 2019 general election is one of the most closely contested general elections in India’s parliamentary history of India. It also has one of the most widely spread election schedules of seven phases in a span of 39 days. Everyone is anxiously waiting for May 23, the day the poll results will be announced. Even the most experienced political experts are not in a position to do a precise qualified prediction of the results. But the majority of the surveys and analyses indicate a post poll scenario where the BJP and the NDA will be the largest single party and alliance, respectively, but the NDA may fall short of the majority mark.
At this point, when speculation is rife about the possible results and the post poll scenarios, it should be interesting to look back and try to see what actually was the turning point for the 2019 general election.
Was it the decision of the Narendra Modi government to conduct the air strikes on Pakistan-based terrorist camps to avenge the terrorist attack in Pulwama? Or was it the allegation of corruption made by the opposition parties against the Narendra Modi government and the "Chowkidar Chor Hai" slogan coined by Congress party president Rahul Gandhi. Or was it the response to this slogan by Narendra Modi's "Main Bhi Chowkidar" campaign? On the other hand, was it the PM Kisan scheme launched by the BJP government or was it the ‘Nyay' scheme being promised by the Congress party? Or was it the result of the assembly elections held in November 2018, which was called as the semi-final election before the 2019 general election?
In February 2019, 40 CRPF personnel were killed in a terrorist attack on a CRPF convoy in J&K. There was grief and anger throughout in the country. So, when the Indian Air Force conducted successful air strikes on Pakistan-based terrorist camps, it was applauded and the government got the credit for the political will and the way it secured the support of the international community on this issue. It generated some nationalist sentiments and created an environment which could have benefited the BJP. But over time, both the BJP and the Opposition made efforts to politicize it. With all such arguments and counter-arguments, it seems that positive sentiment got dissipated phase after phase and has not helped the BJP as was being expected. Hence, going against many political pundits who believe that this was the turning point for the 2019 elections, I beg to differ.
‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’, ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’
One major moral high ground which Narendra Modi always stakes claim to is that his government has been corruption free. He has often proclaimed himself as the ‘Chowkidar’ of the country. In the last couple of years, the opposition and especially the Congress party has attacked the BJP on this front and leveled corruption charges ranging from the Raffle deal to the Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi cases. Rahul Gandhi went further and voiced the slogan "Chowkidar Chor Hai,” which he has been raising in all of his public meetings, and this has been picked by other opposition party leaders as well.
To counter this, the BJP started its "Main Bhi Chowkidar" campaign, which actually became a big success. It looks like both the campaigns have neutralized the impact of each other. And so, none of these is the turning point for the 2019 general election.
‘Nyay’ Scheme, ‘PM Kisan’ Scheme
It's a fact that the farmers' loan waiver promise made by the Congress party helped the Congress party win last year's assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Probably after understanding the gravity of farmers' anger and its impact on the elections, the Narendra Modi government launched the Prime Minister Kisan scheme to provide Rs 6,000 per year to every marginal or small farmer in the country. There are some other schemes of the Modi government that are already in place. To counter these schemes, the Congress party has come up with the ‘Nyay' scheme in its manifesto, under which Rs 72,000 per year will be provided to the families which fall under BPL. Overall, this looks to be balancing out of the schemes launched and promises made by the party in government and the party in opposition, respectively, and this doesn't look to be the turning point for the general election.
November 2018 Assembly Elections
The November 2018 five state assembly elections were the last and major election held before the 2019 general election. They covered three important Hindi heartland states where the BJP was in power and a state each in the Southern and the North-eastern part of India. Hence, it was described as a semifinal before the 2019 general election. In these elections, the BJP had lost all states where it was in power to the Congress party and overall it could not win in any of the five states.
In my opinion, this was the turning point for the 2019 general election. Many may disagree, but in my opinion, based on facts, even though it was a major defeat for the BJP, the results actually turned out in its favor and not in favor of the Congress party and the opposition.
To understand this let’s go back to the 2014 general election results. May 16, 2014: the counting day for the 14th Lok Sabha elections. The early trends itself had made it clear that the BJP would be the largest party and the NDA would cross the magic number, and very soon it was even clear that the BJP would get a majority on its own. Finally, the BJP won 282 Lok Sabha seats and the NDA number was 336. The NDA was overwhelmed with this phenomenal win, and the opposition was shattered. None of the opposition parties could even win 10 percent of the constituencies, and as per the law, no party was eligible to be the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha.
Then onwards, the BJP has convincingly won several state assembly elections. In this process – it has demolished several strongholds of the opposition parties – be it Tripura, where the CPI(M) was in power for 27 years. Or Haryana, where the BJP had very recently only acquired some strength. Or Uttar Pradesh, where it could get a clear majority after 26 years. Or Jharkhand, where for the first time, a single party (BJP) got a clear mandate. In the North-eastern states, the BJP, which was never taken as a serious option, won state after state, from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh.
Election after election, it was getting clear to the opposition parties that they would not be able to stop the BJP unless they come together. In the 2014 general election, the NDA had won 282 (51.9 percent) seats by getting just 31.38 percent votes, which is actually the lowest percentage of votes for a party getting majority of its own in any general election in India.
Based on this data, the strategy which the opposition parties started working on to defeat the BJP was to ensure a one-on-one contest with the NDA wherever possible, and avoid division of the opposition vote. Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress took the lead in uniting the opposition parties. Later, N. Chandrababu Naidu joined her after quitting the NDA. Except for a couple of parties, every non-NDA party was convinced of this idea and had joined the discussions. Even some of the NDA partners, who looked discontented at some point of time, were approached.
This process continued well and started building momentum, resulting in understanding becoming developed at the state levels. This was in spite of no common agenda or manifesto and not even a leader; the binding force among the opposition was the common goal to defeat Narendra Modi. And then in November 2018, there were the assembly elections for five states. These were the last and major elections before the current general election. The result was 0 out of 5 for the BJP and NDA. This changed the mood of the politics in the country.
The Congress party, for the first time since 2014, became the center of opposition politics in the country. The BJP, which was looking unstoppable till now, suddenly started looking easy to win against by the opposition parties. Hence, the basic binding force for the opposition, which was to make Modi lose, started losing relevance. Therefore, the focus of the opposition parties swiftly shifted to their own numbers instead.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal created an alliance but they didn't keep the Congress party in the alliance. This, in spite of the fact that the Congress party had got 7.5 percent and 18.25 percent votes, respectively, in the 2014 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections, respectively. Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi always stood together when it was about the unity of opposition parties, but in West Bengal, no understanding could develop between the two parties and there was a quadrangular contest in the state. Against the backdrop of polarization of votes in West Bengal, a four-cornered contest looks to be helping the BJP to some extent. In Madhya Pradesh, the SP and the BSP have influence among the voters in some areas, and they did not extend support to the Congress party.
In Rajasthan, after the win in the assembly election, the confident Congress party did not try much to negotiate and convince the influential Jat leader Hanuman Beniwal to its side. He, then joined hands with the BJP. This will impact the prospects of the Congress party in a few Lok Sabha seats in the state. There are many such examples which show that the opposition focus has changed from defeating Narendra Modi to their own numbers.
On the other side, the defeat in the assembly polls provided an opportunity for the BJP to do a reality check. As per many surveys, in general there was not much anti-incumbency against the Narendra Modi government, but it was there against some of the BJP-ruled state governments and the MPs in quite a few of the Lok Sabha constituencies. The loss in the assembly election in the three states had taken the venom out of the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP in these states.
Overall the November 2018 state assembly election results helped the BJP do a reality check, come out of its over confidence, control the anti-incumbency, devise state-wise strategies in an effort to get the best possible numbers for the BJP and the NDA from every state. In short, the November 2018 assembly elections were the turning point for the 2019 general election and it was in favor of the BJP and the NDA and not the Congress party and the opposition.
(Rahul Vatsa is a researcher)