Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure, and that of the 16th Lok Sabha, formally ends in May 2019, but there is a growing belief that he could cut it short sooner than that. What began as a rumour in 2017 has gathered momentum in the last few months, in particular after the election verdict in Gujarat revealed that the Opposition has begun to find its electoral feet. Although no one can tell you what Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah are thinking, enough commentators have voiced support for the idea that Lok Sabha elections will be called by the end of 2018 rather than waiting for April-May 2019.
The most recent public speculation comes from Rajesh Jain, an entrepreneur who set up a website called Niti Digital that was actively involved in Modi’s 2014 electoral campaign. In his post, Jain goes a little further and offers up reasons that the elections should actually take place over the next 100 days – meaning by April 2018. Among the points laid out in Jain’s piece is this tidbit:
“Surprise is half the battle won in a war. No one expects elections in March-April of 2018 even though they may believe elections could be held anytime between November this year and May next year. So, BJP could use the surprise element and stun the Opposition.”
Not a new idea
As Jain suggests, it is now conventional wisdom that elections could be held as early as November this year, so much that it would not be a surprise to most. He is not the first one to say it.
People have been contemplating the idea from as far back as May of last year, and many have made the case for the BJP to go ahead with it. A Samajwadi Party spokesperson officially said it had begun preparing for Lok Sabha polls presuming they might happen in 2018, and leaders in other states have said they expect the same.
“The belief seemingly is that it will be better for the Bharatiya Janata Party to cash in on whatever gains it has made in the last three-and-a-half-years rather than wait for another 20 months or so when its inadequacies on the employment front and in relieving the distress of farmers may become more apparent,” wrote political analyst Amulya Ganguli in August 2017.
This broad acceptance that it could easily happen in 2018 is one reason Jain suggests elections should take place even quicker, because there is no element of surprise for the end of the year anymore. But getting party machinery in place for a general election is no small task, and so even if they are worried about losing the initiative, the BJP will find it hard to move into action that quickly.
That said, concerns about anti-incumbency are evident and Modi even made the uncharacteristic move to admit, in an interview to TimesNow over the weekend, that criticism of his government on the agricultural front may not be misplaced. This is expected to be addressed in announcements made in the upcoming budget, the last full budget this government will introduce in its tenure.
If sops or major announcements are indeed made in the budget speech, which comes up at the start of February, the effect of such a move is unlikely to sustain itself through May of the following year. Moreover, Gujarat has proven that the Opposition can find a way to undercut the Modi-Shah approach, in part by combining leaders of various communities – an approach that has the BJP arguing that everyone else is being casteist.
The move would also have an additional benefit. Three other states are also expected to have elections by the end of the year: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. If Lok Sabha polls were called around that time, they would be held simultaneously, a move that fits in with Modi’s call for all Centre and states’ elections to take place at the same time.
Modi and the BJP have been attempting to drum up support for this idea, which would need Constitutional amendments to implement and is generally believed will be beneficial for national parties at the cost of regional ones. The prime minister made a point of making an elaborate argument for simultaneous polls in both the TV interviews he gave over the past weekend. Having the Lok Sabha polls coincide with the other three would help begin a cycle that could end with the subsequent elections, which would then be slated for 2023, to feature even more states going to the polls simultaneously.
One precedent stares everyone in their faces: Lal Krishna Advani, a senior BJP leader and former home minister, is said to have pushed former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee into calling elections early in 2004, in the belief that their re-election was a certain thing. In the event, the Congress stunned political analysts and politicians alike and came to power, and remained there for two terms. Modi and Shah have proven to be extremely astute election strategists, but in their time Vajpayee’s team was similarly expected to romp home. Will 2018 end up delivering a surprise?