In his victory speech to party workers at the BJP headquarters on May 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a Hindi phrase – ‘Do Se Dobara’ – to describe the emphatic mandate his party got in the Lok Sabha elections. ‘Do Se Dobara’ means ‘from two to second consecutive time’, which aptly describes the trajectory of BJP’s electoral performance since 1980s: from two seats in the eight general elections in 1984 to second and bigger mandate in 2019. It’s little more than three weeks since the election results came in, but the debate over an emphatic victory for the BJP is not over yet. While election analysts and political pundits are still trying to decode the reasons for such a significant mandate for an incumbent government since 1971, there are no clear answers about why people voted overwhelmingly for the BJP.
After the prime minister and his council of ministers were sworn-in at a grand ceremony on May 30, the provisional GDP estimates released on May 31 showed the economy grew at 5.8 per cent in the fourth quarter of FY 2018-19, the lowest in 20 quarters. The slower than expected growth in the January to March quarter dragged the overall growth in FY-19 to a five-year low of 6.8 per cent, thus presenting the big challenge for the second Modi government. The bad news on the state of economy did not stop there. The cat was finally out of the bag when figures released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation on May 31, showed joblessness at 6.1 per cent, a 45-year high. Incidentally, the report was released after a long delay. It may be recalled that before elections, the government kept denying that unemployment scenario was precarious and the economy was on downward spiral.
While the worst fears about the slowing economy and high unemployment came true when the GDP and unemployment data came into public domain a week after the election results, the government, after months of denials, also admitted that unemployment is higher than it has been for four decades. During his election campaign, the prime minister did not speak about sputtering economy, joblessness and rural distress. Instead, the focus of his campaign revolved around national security, nationalism, terrorism, Balakot airstrikes and polarisation of the electorate on communal lines. Thus the question: when the Modi government’s economic performance was patchy, unemployment was at over four-decade high, rural economy was marred by agrarian crisis and consumption has been weak, what made people give a bigger mandate to the BJP?
Supporters of the saffron party are of the view that the emphatic mandate is a result of the Modi government’s performance which helped the party overcome the challenges of identity politics. On the other hand, BJP’s opponents maintain that the narrative of nationalism, national security and religious polarisation worked well for the BJP. While there is substance in the latter, it is important to go beyond the binary to decode the 2019 verdict for a layered understanding. Post-poll data and the RBI’s consumer confidence survey of May 2019 provide clues to the question as to how the government was able to shrug off economic woes to return to power. According to the RBI survey, consumers are fully aware that the economy is struggling, their incomes are stagnating and unemployment is increasing. However, they are still hopeful that things will improve.
Let’s take the unemployment data: 44.2 per cent of those who were surveyed felt that job prospects were worse than a year ago. However, 59.3 per cent feel that their employment prospects will improve a year from now. Five years ago, in June 2014, when the Modi government came to power, 65.1 per cent had said that the employment would get better within a year. Though optimism then was higher than now, it remains to be seen whether the current optimism will peter out, as it happened the last time in September 2015 when less than half believed that their job prospects will improve. As regards perceptions on incomes, only 29 per cent said incomes are higher than a year ago, while a fifth of those surveyed are of the view that income has decreased from a year ago. Five years ago, perceptions about income were much better.
When it comes to perceptions about the general economic situation, 38.8 per cent of those surveyed said the economic situation is better than a year ago, while 37.7 per cent said it is worse. However, 61.4 per cent said it will get better in a year, while 20.9 per cent said it will worsen. This means that despite showdown in consumption, stagnant incomes and dismal job prospects, the government did a remarkable job of keeping people’s confidence and hope alive. This could be one of the reasons for an unambiguous verdict in favour of the prime minister and his party, but not the sole reason because election is a complex sum of several factors that influence voter’s behaviour. A combination of factors was responsible for the BJP’s victory, which include polarisation of the electorate, the government’s response to the terrorist attack in Pulwama, the aggressive narrative of national security and Hindutva nationalism, the disunity among opposition parties and the impact of social welfare schemes.
It is difficult to slice these factors in terms of their contribution in percentage terms to BJP’s victory, but one factor that may have played a key role is consolidation of the Hindu vote in the saffron party’s favour. Consider this: according to a NDTV report quoting CSDS post-poll survey, despite rural distress 38 per cent of rural voters voted for the BJP against 30 percent in 2014; 36 percent of the poor voted for BJP versus 24 percent in 2014; despite Dalit anger, the scheduled caste vote stood at 33 percent against 24 per cent for the BJP in 2014. However, out of the total 37 per cent votes the BJP got in 2019, the survey puts the Hindu vote for the BJP at 44 per cent against 36 per cent in 2014, while the minorities like the Muslims (8 per cent vote for BJP), Christians and Sikhs largely stayed away from the saffron party. This massive consolidation of the Hindu vote around BJP is said to be the major reason for the renewed and a bigger mandate for the BJP as also the decimation of the Opposition.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.