Tricky Days Are Here Again

Narendra Modi’s chances of returning to power in 2019 elections are 50-50

Media analysis in the first half of 2019 is going to focus on the coming general election in May, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Will Narendra Modi return to power? Will Rahul Gandhi beat expectations and win? Will a Third Front government emerge, as in 1996-98?

Predicting elections in India is a mug’s game. Opinion polls and exit polls differ widely from one another, and from reality. Voters simply do not tell the truth to pollsters. When one polling agency asked a voter whom he would vote for, he replied, “Why should I tell you? What will I get out of it?”

Goal With a Crystal Ball

So, predicting elections has become an entertainment rather than serious analysis. Earlier, I refused to predict elections, saying they were inherently unpredictable. Now that forecasts are seen not as serious tests of skill, but as fodder for everyday conversation, I have joined the crowd of quasiastrologers. Here goes.

Chances of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), that is BJP and allies, winning outright: 10%.

Chances of Modi cobbling together a coalition government post-election: 40%.

Chances of a Congress-led government: 30%.

Chances of a Third Front government with Congress participation or outside support (as in 1996-98): 20%.

In sum, Modi has a 50-50 chance of returning to power. Rahul Gandhi’s chances are somewhat less. And Third Front aspirants should not lose hope.

After sweeping the Uttar Pradesh state election in 2017, Modi was widely acclaimed as unbeatable in 2019. That was never rational. In 2014, Modi had swept the Hindi belt more completely than any party in history. He was helped by anti-incumbent sentiment — the Congress was widely seen as corrupt and incompetent. More important, Modi sold voters a fabulous dream, promising good governance and a dynamic economy that would create jobs for all.

In reality, Modi has failed to accelerate GDP growth or create the promised jobs for all. Recent state elections reveal voters in a sour anti-incumbent mood, and in 2019, the NDA will be the incumbent. It has lost two allies, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Shiv Sena, though the latter may rejoin reluctantly before the election. Many regional parties that fought on their own in 2014 are likely to form anti-BJP fronts in 2019.

So, the BJP’s vote share in 2014 — 31% for itself and 37% for the NDA — seems likely to fall in 2019, even as its rivals form an anti-BJP front in some states. The consequences for Modi could range from serious to disastrous.

After sweeping the UP state election in 2017, the BJP lost two parliamentary by-elections, the seats vacated by its chief minister and deputy chief minister. The difference this time was that the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which fought separately in the state election, got together in the by-election.

If that pattern is repeated even partly in other constituencies, the BJP faces decimation. Maybe the arithmetic of SP-BSP alliances can be overcome by Modi’s chemistry with voters. He is far more popular than his party. Yet, he faces a tough battle in India’s biggest state.

Third Affront

Losing elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last month was a blow. Yet, the BJP’s vote share in Rajasthan and MP was virtually equal to the Congress’. In the coming general election, the contest will be seen as Modi versus Rahul, not Vasundhara Raje versus Gehlot. That should mean more votes for Modi where he lost the state elections.

However, even if the NDA wins two-third of the seats in the Hind belt — a big if — that will be far less than the 85% it won in 2014, translating into a loss of 55 seats. An additional 20 seats may be lost in the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP has lost the TDP as its ally. It has no serious ally in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. Maybe it can win some additional seats in the northeast, West Bengal and Odisha. But on balance, it is headed for a big seat decline.

In 2014, the seat tally of the NDA — minus the Shiv Sena and TDP, which have exited — was 302. To win in 2019, it cannot afford to lose more than 30 seats. If it loses 50 seats, it will be within handshaking distance of a majority, and should be able to cobble together a majority coalition with minor parties. But if it loses more than 60-70 seats, other parties will have a big lead. They will either support a Congress-led government, or form a Third Front government with Congress support.

In a hung Parliament, some analysts think the regional parties will offer to support the BJP provided it ditches Modi for some other leader like Gadkari. I think the chances of the BJP ditching Modi are zero. The BJP would rather sit in the Opposition and watch an unstable Third Front coalition collapse after a year or two.

The stock markets will love a Modi victory, and live with a Congress victory, but crash if the Third Front assumes power. Tricky days lie ahead.

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