It will be an arithmetic vs chemistry battle in 2019
In 2013, as Narendra Modi emerged as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial face, Delhi was abuzz with calculations of how the party would fare. Political observers went state-by-state, seat-by-seat, often caste-by-caste, and concluded that the BJP would at best become the single largest force. And then it would come down to regional forces, who would not accept Modi as the face.
Arun Jaitley, then a key campaign strategist, was often known to remark that the 2014 elections would prove all these permutations and combinations wrong. His argument was simple: this election was not about arithmetic but about chemistry. The old calculations and categories had collapsed; the Modi hawa, wave, would blow every opposition away.
He was correct.
The 2014 election was about Modi chemistry, which challenged many known assumptions about Indian politics. The chemistry was backed by careful arithmetic: weaving together wide social coalitions of upper castes, backwards and sections of Dalits in key Gangetic belt states like UP and Bihar; smart alliances with smaller parties; a massive, unprecedented, organisational and public relations offensive. But it was the direct connect above all which defined the poll.
As Thursday’s bypolls deliver a blow to the BJP, Jaitley’s formulation has become even more central in determining how the BJP will fare in 2019.
If the next general election becomes about local arithmetic, the party will find it incredibly challenging to retain its dominance and could well be in trouble. If it remains about national chemistry, the BJP has a much higher chance of success, with the opposition having to confront a major challenge.
Here is why.
The opposition, in north India in particular, has learnt three basic lessons from its series of losses in the past few years and worked on it.
One, it recognised that the fragmentation of anti-BJP votes in the first-past-the-post system enabled the saffron juggernaut to win. The solution thus rested in uniting and having a single formidable challenger to the BJP in each constituency, in each state. This is what happened in Kairana with a common opposition candidate of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).
Two, the opposition recognised that they had to get local caste equations right. This would involve consolidating their core vote, going beyond it with smarter ticket selection, and leaving the BJP with a narrower social coalition. This was the model in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana again. Samajwadi Party, in the first two seats, went beyond its core vote to give tickets to non Yadav OBCs, a constituency the BJP had successfully won over. Bringing the Jat-dominated RLD to the opposition fold and letting it fight the election helped veer Jats away from the BJP.
The third was relentlessly focusing on local issues and local leaders even as the BJP took the discourse to national issues and national leaders. The subtext here is avoiding the Hindu-Muslim polarisation trap. In all three UP by-elections so far, the opposition has been careful not to let any issue ‘polarise’ the election, thus preventing Hindu consolidation, while quietly consolidating the Muslim vote.
In 2019, if, in this vein, instead of one national election, there are 543 local elections or even 29 state elections — with local candidates, issues, leaders, and arithmetic — then the opposition has an advantage.
And this is why the BJP will try to make 2019, once again, a larger national election riding on chemistry.
For one, where the party continues to score above the opposition is in the presence of Modi. Modi’s rally in Bagphat may not have turned Kairana and the chemistry may have ebbed, but the fact that he remains the most popular national leader is beyond doubt. The BJP will ask a simple question to the opposition next year: we have Modi; who do you have?
The opposition’s argument that India remains a parliamentary and not a presidential system and that the leadership question can be resolved later may not be enough to assure citizens. This puts the non-BJP camp in a dilemma. The absence of a common PM face, coupled with the sense that there are clashes among different leaders for the position, could work against the opposition in public perception. But having a pre-poll PM face could narrow the size of the coalition itself, for many aspirants would then stay out.
The other advantage of a ‘national’ election for the BJP would be the plank of stability. The party’s platform would be simple: a credible face, providing coherent government, for five full years, thinking ‘national’, as opposed to a group torn by contradictions and riddled with diversity, thinking only of ‘regional’ concerns. The Indian electorate is changing. It thinks local and votes on caste; but it also thinks national, is connected to each other and larger events through technology, and does not like constant disruption.
But just as the opposition will have to think chemistry along with working on the advantage of local arithmetic, the BJP will have to work on its local arithmetic while capitalising on the advantage of national-level chemistry. The side which gets the balance right will win 2019.