Sunday, Feb 25, 2018 | Last Update : 03:21 PM IST
While some saffron strategists believe that advancing elections will neutralise anti-incumbency, others can’t forget the 2004 ‘blunder’.
The game of political chess is reaching its endgame. The saffron generals led by Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi are carefully moving the pawns for the final kill. However, the master strategists are believed to be caught in a Hamletian dilemma — to advance the 2019 Lok Sabha polls or not.
While the top three leaders — Mr Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah and finance Minister Arun Jaitley — are expected to take the crucial call on the issue, with some assistance from NSA adviser Ajit Doval, the party appears divided on the issue.
At present, the general election is slated to be held in 2019 summer. But considering the relatively poor performance of the BJP in Prime Minister’s home state Gujarat last year, where the party virtually crawled to victory, there is a growing support in the saffron party for the idea of advancing the Lok Sabha polls and holding them along with the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assembly elections around November-December.
Rajesh Jain, founder of Niti Digital, a media firm which was actively involved in Mr Modi’s 2014 electoral campaign, in a recent article had hinted that elections could be held in the “next few months itself”.
Mr Jain pointed out, “If one goes by the ground reports, the BJP is expected to lose 40-50 LS seats in the five states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. It will also be hard to repeat the 71 (with two additional seats from allies) in Uttar Pradesh.”
In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, the BJP had bagged virtually all the Lok Sabha seats in 2014. Of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 27. In Rajasthan, it won all the 24 seats, in Chhattisgarh it bagged 10 out of the 11 seats and in Jharkhand it won 12 out of the 14 seats. Electoral arithmetic suggests that the BJP can only go down from here.
If trends are anything to go by, the BJP is slipping. The below-expectation performance of the BJP in Gujarat elections has put a question mark on Mr Modi’s charisma and the invincibility of the party’s poll machinery.
Even before it could recover from the Gujarat shock, the bypoll results in Rajasthan delivered another blow to the BJP. In Rajasthan bypolls, the BJP lost both the Lok Sabha seats (Ajmer and Alwar) and the Assembly seat (Mandalgarh) to the Congress.
In poll-bound Karnataka, where elections are slated for May this year, the going is likely to get tough for the BJP. A member of the BJP’s think-tank said, “It’s touch and go for both us and the Congress.”
Hindutva, the BJP’s ultimate weapon to woo voters, has lost its exclusivity with even the Congress managing to add it to its arsenal.
In Gujarat, Congress president Rahul Gandhi gave the BJP a run for its money on the Hindutva plank and matched the saffron party’s strategy by embarking upon an equally aggressive temple run.
“In Karnataka, the Congress scion and chief minister Siddharamaiah are all set to encroach upon the BJP’s Hindutva territory, yet again. If BJP loses Karnataka, the road to 2019 would become steeper,” he added.
Not a single BJP leader is hopeful of retaining Rajasthan when the Assembly elections are held later this year. A senior member of the party’s think-tank bluntly said, “We could be losing Rajasthan.”
In Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is a worried and desperate man. If the results of the recent civic elections in the state are anything to go by, the BJP is reeling under anti-incumbency for the first time in 14 years.
Out of six municipalities (nagar palika), including the bigger towns of Dhar and Badwani, the BJP lost four to the Congress. In 13 town council (nagar parishad) polls, the BJP won seven and the Congress secured five. The only advantage Mr Chouhan has right now is the raging infighting between Congress’ Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath camps. If Congress president Mr Gandhi manages to sort out the differences and unite the top leaders, the Opposition party could transform into a powerful rival.
Anti-incumbency could also hit the BJP hard in both Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Electoral victory of the Congress in these states before the 2019 general election could weaken the BJP considerably. For Mr Modi, losing these states to the Congress can be severely damaging.
With a 53 per cent popularity rating among national leaders, Mr Modi remains the only pillar the saffron empire is leaning on.
As Mr Modi seems to be the only vote-catching machine, saffron strategists feel that advancing elections will help neutralise anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Incidentally, the BJP and the Prime Minister have been repeatedly harping on the idea of holding simultaneous polls.
According to Mr Jain, advancing Lok Sabha elections and holding them along with Assembly polls later this year will also have a “surprise element” and the Opposition, which continues to be divided at this juncture, “will have no time to regroup”.
Despite Congress’ attempts, the Trinamul Congress led by Mamata Banerjee is refusing to toe the line of Opposition unity. Similarly, in a move which could split dalit votes and hurt the Congress in poll-bound Karnataka, the Mayawati-led BSP has allied with the JD(S) in the Congress-ruled state.
Behind closed doors, saffron leaders admit; “We have nothing much to show as far as economy is concerned.” The unemployment rate is growing rapidly and agrarian distress has become a major cause of concern for the Modi government.
In Gujarat, urban voters supported Mr Modi but his charisma did not work in the rural areas.
The recent Union Budget is a clear indication that the government has gone out of its way to please rural India, at the cost of urban India.
Mr Jain in his article wrote, “People’s memory of political and economic news is just about 90 days, so if the post-Budget feel-good has to be exploited, now is the time. The BJP will not get another opportunity like this in this term.”
Another possible signal of advancing the elections were the Prime Minister’s interviews on television. “The Prime Minister gave two interviews in two days over the weekend. This is unusual. It raises questions, why and why now? How many interviews of the PM do we remember from the first three-and-a-half years?” asked Mr Jain.
Even though Mr Modi continues to tower over his political rivals, Mr Gandhi’s popularity ratings have shot up from four to 22 per cent. If Mr Gandhi continues to play his cards well, the ratings will only grow. The BJP and Mr Modi know it.
Mr Modi’s address during the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address in Parliament evaded crucial economic issues raised by the Opposition and focused mainly on attacking the Congress.
He delved into what the Congress did and did not do. He attacked the Gandhis and tried to undermine Jawaharlal Nehru. “It was nothing but an election speech,” a BJP leader quietly admitted.
There also is a section in the BJP which is against the idea of advancing the Lok Sabha elections. They pointed to the “blunder of advancing elections” during the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime. Mr Vajpayee-led NDA was going strong and the Congress was in shambles. Top party leaders thought that it was an opportune time to advance the polls.
BJP insiders say that the then deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and the party’s think tank virtually forced Mr Vajpayee to advance the polls. The former Prime Minister was against taking the step but was talked into it, sources said.
Mr Vajpayee was once again ignored and the BJP ditched the DMK to ally with the AIADMK. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa was routed and in Andhra Pradesh, the TDP, another strong NDA ally, was decimated.
BJP leaders wary of advancing Lok Sabha polls that if this is happens, the BJP could “suffer heavily”. They believe that the BJP needs time to regain its popularity.
The BJP’s ties with allies have also touched a nadir. One of the BJP’s oldest ally Shiv Sena has threatened to snap ties and go it alone. The TDP is up in arms and some Akali Dal leaders are breathing fire against the Modi government. “An early poll could be suicidal,” said a leader who does not favour an early reality check on the popularity of the Modi government.
The tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 16th Lok Sabha formally ends in May 2019, but there is a growing belief that the Prime Minister could call elections sooner than that. The move has gathered momentum in the last few months, particularly after the election verdict in Gujarat revealed that the Opposition has begun to find its electoral feet.
What is a snap poll?
A snap election in a parliamentary system is an election called earlier than expected. It’s usually called to gain advantage of an exclusive electoral opportunity or to decide an important issue. However, snap elections can also backfire on the incumbent and result in a decreased majority or even making the Opposition win or gain power.
History of elections
The Election Commission of India conducts elections to Lok Sabha and to all state Legislative Assemblies. The tenure of Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies is five years unless dissolved earlier. In 1951-52, the first general election to the Lok Sabha was held simultaneously with all state Assemblies. This practice continued till the general election of 1967. It got disrupted due to premature dissolution of some state Legislative Assemblies in 1968. Lok Sabha itself dissolved prematurely in 1970.
Advantage of snap polls
Concerns about anti-incumbency are evident and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an interview to a TV channel, said criticism of his government on the agricultural front is expected to be addressed in announcements made in the Budget, the last full Budget of this government. Moreover, Gujarat has proven that the Opposition can find a way to undercut the Modi-Shah approach
The move would also have an additional benefit. Three other states — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — are also expected to have elections by the end of the year. If Lok Sabha and Assembly polls are held simultaneously, it will help the exchequer save thousands of crores
Will 2018 end up delivering a surprise?
Difference between the advanced dates for the polls and the original ones for the General Elections is just five to six months. One of the reasons BJP secured a stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh because Modi took the massive risk of demonetisation. Another brave and risky decision may just help the party consolidate its slipping position.
Interestingly, the chief ministers of the BJP-ruled states – the list ranging from Vasundhara Raje Scindia of Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, to Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh – have agreed with the wishes of the Prime Minister, so has the chief minister of Telangana, K Chandrashekar Rao.
Modi is also known to be a fan of defying conventional assumptions to consolidate his power. The move, if he wins, would bring him closer to his goal of becoming a leader of historic significance.
A mixed bag for the ruling parties
Since India is a parliamentary democracy, there is always the possibility of a party, precariously in power, seeking to consolidate its position by calling a snap poll.
Indira Gandhi famously did that in 1970 when she led a minority government which was in power with the support of the Left. Her move to abolish privy purses for princes was defeated in the Rajya Sabha by one vote and she decided to take the bold step of recommending the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
One full year before elections was due and she went to the people, in early 1971, with the slogan of “Garibi Hatao (Banish Poverty)”. Gandhi returned to power with a resounding majority in Parliament. It marked the beginning of the golden period of her rule. In 1972, she was to be instrumental in the liberation of Bangladesh and the dismemberment of Pakistan.
In 2004, BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani, the then home minister, is said to have pushed former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee into calling elections early in 2004, in the belief that their re-election was a certain thing. The results were disastrous. The Congress stunned political analysts and politicians alike and came to power, and remained there for two terms.