BJP is hopeful of bettering its 2014 Lok Sabha performance in 2019. It has formed governments in 13 states which have held elections after May 2014 and retained 2 states. It along with its allies now rule 20 states which send 63% of total MPs to Lower House. Narendra Modi’s approval ratings remain high and he enjoys a lead of over 30% versus Rahul Gandhi in India Today Mood of the Nation Survey. However, all is not hunky dory for the party. BJP has lost 4 Lok Sabha by-polls held in 2018, all in the Hindi heartland. Opposition has smelled blood and Congress is leading discussions to form a Grand Alliance. Regional parties like TMC and TRS have initiated discussion to form a Federal Front. Amidst this background, number of commentators have started questioning the ability of BJP to repeat its historic performance in 2019. These alliances being formed purely on anti-Modi plank may not worry him at this stage too much.
While it is no mean feat to lead a majority government at the centre, have Chief Ministers in two-third of states and 274 MPs in Lok Sabha (the highest tally of any party since 1984), this could act as a double edged sword. In addition to this, BJP now has 35% of all India MLAs and controls many municipalities across the country. This heightens the risk of BJP facing triple anti-incumbency in 2019. It is the biggest threat to Modi making a comeback in 2019 in my opinion. People feel Modi factor was the only reason BJP won in 2014. However his popularity alone doesn’t explain the full story of BJP’s historic mandate. CSDS carried out a National Election Study 2014 and asked respondents the following question:
“While voting some people give importance to the local candidate, others to the state level leadership of the party and some others to the Prime Ministerial candidate. How would you describe yourself?”
28% voters gave importance to PM candidate, 26% to the local candidate and 18% to state level leadership. Herein lies the biggest headache for BJP. A good 44% of people gave due consideration to local candidate and top leadership of the state of parties in contention while casting their vote. One of the primary reasons for UPA loss in 2014 was that it suffered from similar triple anti-incumbency. UPA was in power for 10 years at the center, UPA had Chief Ministers in 16 states and Congress had 206 MPs. A section of people were fed up with corruption scandals under Manmohan Singh’s government and falling economy, some were unhappy with performance of state governments of UPA and others with the non-performance of its MPs. All this led to a significant built up of anger among public resulting in a humiliating loss for Congress, down from 206 to historic low of 44 MPs and less than 20% vote share.
Source: All India Post Poll Survey Findings
Politicians are adept at shifting blame. In state elections wherein opposition rules at the centre, ruling party pins blame on central government for non-cooperation and non-release of funds. This strategy has been effectively utilized by Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat BJP governments over the decades. We are now witnessing similar strategy being employed by Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra. In state elections after 2014, BJP blamed opposition governments for not utilizing funds released by Modi government and won many states. However, now the states were BJP is in power cannot shift blame to centre for not fulfilling their manifesto promises. Similarly during campaign in 2019, Modi cannot shift blame on state governments for not delivering on his pet projects. This puts BJP campaign strategists in a quandary.
BJP will likely deny tickets to many sitting MPs like in MCD polls where it replaced all corporators. As per my sources this number could range from 50-80. This way BJP hopes to negate the local candidate level anti-incumbency, entire blaming him for being lazy. This way BJP will try to sell that is being proactive and will not tolerate non-performance. BJP hopes that since many MPs are lightweights, replacing them will not give rise to any big rebellion. But as we have seen above, local candidates played almost similar role as Modi factor in 2014. Additionally, national elections are not corporation elections. Federal Front / Third Front which may not have candidates in many seats can give tickets to some of these candidates. BJP also may not be able to hold on to declaring the names of candidate till the last moment, especially if Grand Alliance and / or Third Front announces candidates early to exploit the three levels of anti-incumbency.
To conclude, BJP may not have a smooth sailing in 2019 as now it controls almost two-thirds of India and cannot pass blame for not fulfilling its promises onto others. People have started questioning the achievements of Modi government, its failures on the job front and agrarian crisis, Rahul Gandhi is seen closing the gap on leadership ratings front. Moreover, anti-incumbency against state governments and its MPs may complicate matters for Modi’s return to power in 2019.