If nothing else, Swapan Dasgupta, a Bharatiya Janata Party-nominated Member of Parliament, offers a reliable indicator of what message the government would like to send, particularly to the English-speaking classes. By that measure, a Times of India column he wrote this week has caused a fair amount of buzz because of a scenario it contemplates about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political future over just a couple of lines. The piece is titled, “if Modi loses in 2019, we’re back to old unsettled politics.”
Dasgupta’s piece is not really about Modi losing – whether that means the prime minister personally losing his election or the broader sense of the BJP being defeated under him. Indeed, Dasgupta has even taken to Twitter to clarify that the headline was not his either, and so it seems a stretch to presume that the BJP has anxieties about coming in second place in Lok Sabha polls that are due by next May.
What the piece does focus on, however, does reflect something that the party does seem anxious about: What if it is not able to get a simple majority in the General Elections? Dasgupta argues that, in just three and a half years, the Modi era has made us forget what it was like to live under a coalition government, with the ruling party having to bow down to smaller ones for support.
Going by the results of opinion surveys, the noises being made by the BJP allies and the conclusions of some analysts, a return to such a time seems enough of a possibility that the party will at least have to consider the idea.
First, the surveys
The Lok Sabha has a total of 545 seats, with 272 as the halfway mark. In 2014, for the first time in 30 years, one party, the BJP, managed to cross that mark and win 282 seats.The India Today Mood of the Nation poll for January 2018 suggests that if elections were held today the BJP would win just 264 seats, compared to 305 that the same survey had found 12 months prior. The ABP-Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation poll, also conducted in January 2018, found that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would win a total of 293-309 seats, compared to the 336 it won in 2014. This loss of around 30 seats would likely mean that the BJP by itself will come in at fewer than 272 seats.
Next, the allies
Under Modi and BJP President Amit Shah, the BJP’s allies have had very little power. This is primarily because of the 282 seats the BJP was able to win in 2014, meaning it could have run the government without the need to bring any other party on board. Though it did end up sticking with its allies, primarily the Shiv Sena, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Telugu Desam Party among other smaller outfits, it has not ceded much space to them on the decision-making side.
All of those parties named above, and even some of the smaller ones, have begun to make noises demanding more power. The Shiv Sena, which has been concerned about the BJP eating from its electoral pie all along, has announced that it will contest elections by itself. The TDP has spent the last few weeks demanding more money for Andhra Pradesh, even as it has been concerned about the BJP flirting with its local rival, the YSR Congress. And a leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal recently said that the BJP should “treat allies better”. These indicators seem to suggest that the parties are also aware that the BJP might slip below the halfway mark, at least as things stand now, and so want to extract their presumptive pounds of flesh.
Finally, the analysts
Shekhar Gupta saw in the government’s budget a political message of uncertainty, particularly about winning back a majority. In another column, the aforementioned Swapan Dasgupta has also acknowledged that the chatter at least is about the BJP winning something in the 220 range, though he declares the game still “wide open”. Nilanjan Mukhopadyay says Modi will need to look for new allies if the alliance is to retain the seats it won in 2014. And Rajesh Jain, a technology entrepreneur who was part of Modi’s Mission 272 effort in 2014, has written about how the next election “is much more open than anyone thinks”.
The main takeaway is the BJP’s huge reliance on the cowbelt, from Gujarat all the way to Jharkhand, parts of which the saffron party managed a clean sweep of in 2014. Few expect this to be replicated, and the results from the Gujarat assembly polls as well as the bypolls in Rajasthan suggest that the Congress can dent the BJP’s tally there. This is also reportedly the thought behind wanting to push for some level of simultaneous polls – an idea that has settled on 12 states voting along with the Lok Sabha elections – so that Modi’s popularity can be used to paper over the anti-incumbency of local governments.
But specifics on that will only be looked at after the Karnataka election, where much of the focus of the top leaderships is now. The result from Karnataka could not only dictate whether the government wants to advance Lok Sabha elections to this year, it will also tell us who has more momentum going into the general elections.