Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Bareilly
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Bareilly, Saturday, April 20, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

Dubai: After the first two phases of elections covering 186 out of 543 seats in Parliament, it is increasingly becoming tough to predict the final outcome of the bitterly-fought national elections. A lot is at stake for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking a second term in office after his spectacular mandate in 2014. In several states, including Gujarat and Rajasthan, Modi had won 100 per cent seats and in others his party had walked away with up to 90 per cent of seats.

Today, there is a consensus that Modi will not be able to repeat or come close to his 2014 performance. Since then, his constituency has shrunk and his popularity has taken a hit due to his failure to deliver on governance. Two, the opposition parties, including Congress have gained ground after its embarrassingly low performance in 2014.

What will happen on May 23?

Before we attempt to answer this question, let us see what has happened in the last four weeks. On April 6, less than a week before the elections began on April 11, pollsters CSDS-Lokniti found Modi government’s rating to be a record high at 59 per cent. According to their survey, almost 49 per cent of people said Modi should get another chance. It predicted that the BJP and allies will be the leading coalition and may be just below the majority mark of 272 seats, the magical figure required to form the government. This was the best news for Modi’s party since December when it had faced setbacks in several Hindi heartland states. Other surveys also indicated that Modi would return to power comfortably.

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Number crunching

After the first two rounds of elections on April 11 and April 18, the same pollsters began to revisit the numbers. The CSDS, for example, now appears unsure of the predictions it had made just two weeks ago.

In an article in The Quint, Dr Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS was quoting as saying: “My earlier piece (on April 6) was mostly based on the data from the CSDS survey, in which I had said that BJP is at an advantage. The observations in my second article (on April 13) are based on the turnout figures for the first phase.”

He believes that the voter turnout remaining flat or dipping in some regions indicate that the BJP’s core supporters are not enthusiastic. “BJP supporters tend to be more enthusiastic than others about voting... So if the turnout has fallen, it could mean that BJP isn’t doing as well as expected in Uttar Pradesh,” he added.

Voters walk to cast their vote
Voters walk to cast their vote at a polling station during the second phase of India's general election in Rayat village near Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh on April 18, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Kumar’s assessment is not off the mark. A large chunk of the BJP’s seats came from Uttar Pradesh in 2014. It won 73 out of the state’s total 80 seats and any setback here will be devastating for the party, potentially shattering Modi’s dream of a second run. The turnout in the first two rounds either remained flat or dipped in some constituencies of the Uttar Pradesh, a trend Kumar thinks is harming the BJP. For example, out of eight seats in the first round in UP, Kumar says the BJP would win only two.

Close contest

Maintaining a dominant position in UP is critical for the BJP but reports from the ground paint a dim picture. “Except Varanasi, Lucknow and Pillibhit, the BJP is not sure of winning any constituency,” says Sanjay Sharma, a senior journalist based in Lucknow. Two, he adds, the BJP is facing tough challenge from the alliance of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. “There is a contest taking place on every seat,” he added.

I asked four journalists about their assessment of the BJP’s tally in UP and most agree that it will be around 30-35 seats. “Generously speaking, it could be 30 odd seats for the BJP and the rest to other parties,” says another journalist from Lucknow. That means a loss of up to 40 seats.

Shopkeepers prepare election campaign materials
Shopkeepers prepare election campaign materials for sale ahead of the third phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Lucknow, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

Other Hindi states

The BJP’s performance had peaked in five Hindi heartland states in 2014 – Gujarat (26/26); Rajasthan (25/25); Madhya Pradesh (27/29); Chattisgarh (10/11) and Uttar Pradesh (73/80). These states send a total of 171 elected lawmakers and the BJP had won a whopping 161, a strike rate not seen in several decades.

There is a widespread consensus that the BJP is unlikely to repeat the success of 2014 in 2019 due to the following reasons...

Economy and governance: Despite a high GDP growth rate, several sectors have taken a hit due to cash flow disruptions and botched tax reforms resulting in huge job losses. A leaked government report showed unemployment at 45-year high at 6.1 per cent. On governance, Modi government’s trophy projects, including Make in India, Swachh Bharat (clean India), and Smart Cities failed to make any impact on the ground despite high profile launches.

A subdued voter: Unlike 2014, when Modi rode on a huge popularity wave (remember Abki Baar Modi Sarkar?), this election is largely subdued. “Although Modi remains popular, his supporters have no talking point,” says a journalist based in Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state where the BJP lost power to Congress in December after a gap of 15 years.

Race to Raisina Hill

Beginning Tuesday, five more phases of polling will take place we find out who will rule Raisina Hill, New Delhi’s symbolic seat of power where most ministries are located. The BJP is looking at eastern India to make up for the losses it is likely to suffer in Hindi states. It has gone all out in West Bengal and Odisha and north-eastern states.

Electoral staff members dispatches Electronic Voting Machines
Electoral staff members dispatches Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) at a distribution centre in Ahmedabad on April 22, 2019, the day before the third phase of India's general election. Image Credit: AFP

Here, it is expected to do better than 2014 but gains in these two states are not likely to compensate the huge losses in the Hindi heartland. In the two remaining big states of Maharashtra and Bihar with a combined tally of 88 seats, the BJP is locked in a close fight with Congress and allies. Here too, the contest is tough and no one has predicted a cake walk for the BJP. In Jharkhand too, the BJP is facing a formidable coalition led by the Congress whereas in north-eastern states, including Assam, the BJP may suffer losses due to a controversial law on migrants.

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As far as south is concerned, Tamil Nadu and Kerala may go with the opposition and in Karnataka, the BJP’s tally is expected to go down over 2014. Most importantly, in all states, the BJP is fighting close battles with the Congress or regional parties on most if not all seats across the country.

The big picture

The election of 2014 was decided by the anger against Congress, anti-corruption movement and a massive campaign launched by Modi and his party. This year, if we take the pan-India picture, the following will decide the outcome – the undecided voter, regional alliances and the anti-Modi voter, a section that has remained off the radar of pollsters. On May 23, India is most likely to face a hung Parliament with the BJP and its allies ending well short of the half-way mark. Who will then be the next prime minister of India is a big question. As things stand today, ground realities and electoral arithmetic are stacked against Modi and his dream of a second run may remain unfulfilled.