What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the BJP-led NDA and Congress-led UPA? Here is a quick SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. First, consider the NDA.
STRENGTHS: 1. Modi is easily India’s most popular politician. Opinion polls suggest that his following is especially strong among the young, and this election has 130 million first-time voters.
2. The BJP beats the nationalist drum, boasting it had the guts to retaliate against the Uri terrorist attack in 2016 with its surgical strikes, and against the Pulwama attack by bombing Balakot. By contrast, it says, Congress is a wimp that did not retaliate after the attack on Mumbai. Some voters hate such jingoism, but on balance it helps the NDA.
3. It has the biggest election war-chest.
4. BJP cadre are in millions and keep growing.
5. Modi’s anti-corruption image remains strong despite accusations on the Rafale deal.
6. The masses have benefited through Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala (rural cooking gas) and Saubhagya (electricity for every house).
7. Major reforms like GST and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code have been applauded by all serious analysts.
8. Inflation is under 4%, a major achievement.
WEAKNESSES: 1. GDP growth has been tepid (the data is disputed). Lack of jobs and rural distress makes the economy a weak point.
2. ‘Make in India’ has failed to produce an industrial surge.
3. In 2014, NDA converted a popular vote share of 38.5% into 60% of seats. This high conversion rate is hard to repeat.
4. Demonetisation and GST seriously hit small businessmen, farmers and casual labour.
5. Despite claims to curb big corruption, no major crook has been convicted. Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi are still abroad.
OPPORTUNITIES: 1. Opinion polls suggest the BJP may for the first time become a strong force in the east (West Bengal and Odisha).
2. It did well in the northeast state elections by allying with regional parties. The strategy could help it sweep the region.
3. Rebel candidates can grievously split votes of official party candidates. The BJP’s ample finances will enable it to fund a plethora of rebels of UPA and regional parties.
THREATS: 1. Anti-incumbency. In state polls, BJP gained ground when anti-incumbent (UP, Tripura, Karnataka) but lost ground when incumbent (MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat).
2. The slowing world economy will slow India too.
3. Higher opposition unity is a threat in states like UP.
Next, consider the UPA
STRENGTHS: 1. Incumbents have fared poorly in all recent state elections. The anti-incumbent mood is the biggest UPA strength today.
2. Victories in central Indian states in December have given the Congress fresh political momentum.
3. NYAY, promising Rs 72,000/year to the 50 million poorest families, has become a hot election topic. Caveat: voters are cynical about election promises.
4. Despite some erosion, UPA still gets most votes of minorities like Muslims.
WEAKNESSES: 1. Rahul is improving but still an uninspiring campaigner.
2. The Congress has few cadres, and its hired agents are expensive and less motivated than BJP cadres.
3. It has often bounced back when beaten, but when it slips to third position in a state, it typically becomes irrelevant. This has happened in UP, Bihar, Bengal and Tamil Nadu, and may now happen in Odisha, Andhra and Haryana.
4. It’s still tainted with corruption scandals of past decades.
OPPORTUNITIES: 1. Good alliances win elections. Even where opposition parties are not formally united, Congress can aim for informal arrangements at the constituency level.
2. Focusing on tepid economic performance can undercut BJP’s Hindu nationalist campaign.
3. By campaigning against BJP’s unpopular citizenship bill, the UPA can thwart an NDA sweep of the northeast.
THREATS: 1. Congress is using soft Hindutva but this may lose more Muslim and Christian votes than the Hindu votes it gains.
2. Rebel candidates are a threat, and will get ample funding from NDA.
I leave it to readers to judge where this leaves the two sides. The NDA looks well ahead, yet a UPA victory is not impossible.