With about a year to go before voting, the election campaign for 2019 has well and truly begun. As of today, there are three broadly distinct campaigns underway.
As the incumbent with control of the Central government and a parliamentary majority to defend, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the most at stake. The 2019 election will be preceded by state Assembly elections in four major states. There is Karnataka that votes on May 15, just about a month away. Then there are the all-important elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where the BJP is defending their majorities. Any positive outcome in the four Assembly elections will have a direct impact in setting the mood for the general election. Since the battle in the four states is a direct encounter between the BJP and the Congress, their outcomes will be crucial in determining the relative levels of self-confidence with which these parties approach the Lok Sabha polls.
Apart from the local campaigns, the BJP appears to have selected a few preliminary national themes. First, in undertaking a symbolic fast on April 12 to highlight the dysfunctionality of Parliament during the second half of the Budget session, the prime minister has signalled that he is intent on making the Congress the principal target of his attack. This may appear surprising because the Congress is not uniformly relevant all over the country. Moreover, the bulk of the parliamentary disruption was caused by the MPs from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—and to a lesser extent, West Bengal—where the Congress is a bit player.
Modi appears to have taken his cue from the election strategies of Indira Gandhi, particularly in 1971. During that election, Indira Gandhi kept up a relentless onslaught against the Jana Sangh, even though the saffron party’s influence barely extended outside the Hindi heartland. In singling out the Congress, Modi’s intention is projecting the Congress as the foremost opponent of change and the foremost champion of corrupt politics. At the social media level, the Modi loyalists have focussed on portraying Rahul Gandhi as a frivolous politician who is clueless about the complexities and culture of India.
The second theme of the BJP’s early campaigns is focussed on maintaining the Hindu consolidation that will play the principal role in determining whether the BJP sits in the treasury or opposition benches after May 2019. As of today, the Supreme Court’s modification of the Dalit Atrocities Act has affected the government adversely. An impression has been created that somehow the Modi government was responsible for this dilution. Certainly, the government’s response to the Supreme Court order was a little slow and this impasse gave the opposition parties the space to create a sense of alarmism among Dalit communities. However, what needs to be closely watched is the extent to which the resumption of the BJP’s Dalit outreach succeeds in recovering lost ground. For the past two years, ever since the Bihar elections of 2015, the Modi government has consciously tried to convey a pro-poor image of itself. Caste divisions have the potential of creating other fissures that can undermine Hindu consolidation.
As opposed to the BJP, the Congress—except perhaps in Karnataka—does not appear to have a well-tuned social strategy to recover its lost ground. As of now, the Congress is focussed on trying to capitalise on every aspect of negativism but without any determined strategy. It has deliberately tried to dispel the image that is somehow anti-Hindu by Rahul visiting temples and paying obeisance to Hindu religious figures. The calculation is that since the minorities will vote against the BJP in any case, the priority should be to secure a slice of support from the Hindus who have misgivings over the party’s pro-minorities image. Karnataka will be an important test of this strategy, although initial reports suggest that the bid to confer minority status on Lingayats and in the process undercut the Hindu basis of BJP support, may not automatically yield a rich electoral harvest.
One of the biggest shortcomings of the Congress is that it is woefully lacking in grassroots capacity to translate political intent into reality. There is something odd about the fact that the Congress is excelling in media projection and, at the same time losing local leaders, including MLAs, to the BJP. In the past, the Congress was based on a patronage network. Has the loss of patronage marred its electoral capacities?
Finally, there are the regional parties that are extremely energetic in recent days. Yet, despite the various confabulations with each other—with Mamata Banerjee playing an important role—the agitational politics of the regional politics seem centred on assertive displays of sub-nationalism. True, there is an attempt to build a thematic commonality, such as the campaign against the Finance Commission, but this is still work in progress. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the real battle is over filling the vacuum left by the death of J Jayalalithaa. The Cauvery kerfuffle is playing into that tussle for supremacy. Likewise in Andhra Pradesh, much of N Chandrababu Naidu’s grandstanding owes to his rivalry with the aggressive YSR Congress that smells an opportunity. For the moment, this intra-opposition rivalry has been averted in Uttar Pradesh due to an emerging bonhomie between Akhilish Yadav and Mayawati. This arrangement poses a real challenge to the BJP but its efficacy in terms of achieving Yadav-Muslim-Dalit unity is still untested.
As of now, the preparations for the 2019 general elections suggest possibilities, but no definite conclusions. The moves and counter-moves also don’t take into account two big imponderables. What will be the state of the economy in the next two quarters? More important, what will be the effect of the Modi factor in an election that will inevitably end up as a referendum on the prime minister.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.