No wave in sight, big surprises are unlikely in the offing - Hindustan Times
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No wave in sight, big surprises are unlikely in the offing

Apr 19, 2024 11:52 PM IST

State-level and local factors may acquire more salience in the 2024 polls in comparison to the two previous elections

Polling for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections began on Friday, involving 102 parliamentary constituencies or nearly one-fifth of the country. Pre-poll surveys by several agencies have indicated a comfortable victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), without any significant change in the strength of the Opposition parties.

Gaya, Bihar, India -Apri .19, 2024: Voters in queue for casting their votes at a polling booth during Lok Sabha election in Gaya, Bihar, India, Friday,19, 2024. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Gaya, Bihar, India -Apri .19, 2024: Voters in queue for casting their votes at a polling booth during Lok Sabha election in Gaya, Bihar, India, Friday,19, 2024. (HT Photo)

What are the risk factors associated with these estimates? And, what do they indicate about the emerging nature of politics in India?

First, while the BJP’s campaign narrative focuses on national resurgence under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there are no big emotive issues that could rile up sentiments nationally.

However, the BJP has made every effort to link the redrawing of the ideological arc of India’s political mosaic to rising global prestige and the dream of a developed nation status for India by 2047, linking it to the idea of civilisational assertion. The Congress and other Opposition parties have stressed economic issues (price rise and unemployment), independence of institutions, political corruption (electoral bonds), and targeting of the Opposition and civil society institutions, and have termed this election as a battle to save India’s democratic soul.

The pre-poll surveys have recorded significant anxiety over economic issues, but there is also support for the BJP’s ideological projects. It remains to be seen which electoral narrative would voters repose their faith in, but this faultline is likely to get shriller, and the gap between the two camps will get wider.

Second, there is a general refrain that despite these narratives, the campaign in this election is rather muted. Party workers are not running around with enthusiasm and voters are not showing signs of any great excitement. While the big rallies by the top leadership on both sides are happening, street-level mobilisation is missing. The lengthy campaign period owing to seven-phased elections and heat cannot explain this as the last three elections too happened under similar conditions.

Is the campaign muted this time because there is no big emotive issue or no new leadership on the campaign trail nationally? Or is it because of the inevitability of the outcome, in which the BJP is largely expected to retain power? It seems that muted election campaigns are likely to be the new norm as campaigning has become personalised, with the massive penetration of smartphones and access to social media platforms.

Third, while Modi enjoys considerable popularity in public opinion polls, there is no big pro-incumbency mood outside the party’s core base. The proportion of respondents in the Lokniti pre-poll surveys who said that the government should get another chance was lower than the PM’s popularity rating and the NDA’s projected vote share.

Will this muted campaign and the high probability of the incumbent’s return as projected by the surveys, impact the intensity of political mobilisation, and therefore, result in lower turnout? In 2019, the turnout in these 102 constituencies stood at 70%, two percentage points higher than the national average. The provisional figures from phase 1 indicate that we might have a lower-than-average turnout this election.

Did Modi anticipate this when he gave the call for 370 seats for the BJP to enthuse party mobilisers? Indeed, there is a symbolic message behind the “abki baar 400 paar” pitch — keeping the organisational machinery agile and not letting it fall into complacency.

Fourth, while the aggregate turnout picture may still hide the variation within groups, the final seat tallies of parties may also be reflective of whether they managed to get their prospective voters to the polling booth or not. For example, the 2019 elections indicated a rise in turnout among women, while the turnout among Muslims was lower than the average. The BJP had another advantage in the pre-poll surveys: Those who preferred the BJP were more likely to come out and vote for it, while the Opposition voters in the survey were less sure of turning out to vote for the party of their choice. The analysis of the 2014 and 2019 elections also indicates that the BJP had a higher probability of winning a seat where the turnout rise was higher. The pattern for the Congress party in these elections was the opposite, indicating the very different mobilisational capabilities of the two parties.

Generally, a lower turnout is not a cause of worry for cadre-based parties like the BJP as it is expected that with their organisational machinery, they may still be able to get their own voters out. Will this hypothesis hold out in states and constituencies where the party’s organisational machinery is weaker or facing internal strifes?

Fifth, all indications suggest that 2024 has characteristics of a normal election. Political scientists distinguish a normal election from a critical one. In critical elections, the social base of power is completely realigned, and the incumbent is much more likely to lose. In a normal election, the social basis of power remains unchanged and incumbent, by and large, is retained. The 2014 Lok Sabha election was a critical election in that sense, and 2019 consolidated the patterns of the BJP’s national dominance. Such levels of political dominance require extraordinary mobilisation to challenge the incumbent. Everyday issues do not provide sufficient ammunition to break through the walls of systemic dominance.

However, it is indeed possible that the state-level and local factors may acquire more salience in the 2024 elections in comparison to the last two. And, given that the BJP has not re-nominated more than 100 incumbent MPs and a similar number of party candidates are defectors from other parties, there is going to be a lot of friction within the BJP internally. This may increase the uncertainty around the final outcome in several constituencies. Such cases would also get cited in political discussions as the election progresses to make several types of claims and counter-claims.

Does this mean that the outcome of the 2024 elections is a toss-up? Is it possible that we may see a repeat of 2004 in 2024? The BJP was expected to be the single-largest party in 2004, but eventually, the Congress emerged as the largest player. However, these two elections are poles apart in a number of ways. The Congress was a bigger party in terms of voter share then, and the gap between the seats was marginal. In this decade, the BJP is twice the size of the Congress in terms of vote share and five to six times bigger in seats. The BJP’s national footprint today is larger than the Congress, both socially and geographically.

The Congress would need a double-digit swing in its vote share to be able to reach a three-digit seat total. Such swings are rare in normal elections. So while it is highly likely that the BJP may not achieve its target of 370 seats, the base effect of 2019 would be in play.

Rahul Verma is fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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