The upcoming Lok Sabha elections have been changing gears really fast.
At a macro level, nothing has changed; the UPA still evokes scorn and the BJP has a clear winner when its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is contrasted with Rahul Gandhi. At a micro level, however, multiple independent incidents are delivering the proverbial thousand cuts to the BJP’s lead, which in real numbers translates to a tally dipping from over 220 to less than 190. A lead that was seemingly unassailable until a month ago has suddenly been reduced to a discomforting level. The Congress, meanwhile, is inching beyond 115 from the embarrassing double digit figure it was staring at.
While some media reports believe the election is between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the BJP, in reality it is still the BJP vs the Congress. The AAP’s success could change the way politics is done in this country, but doesn’t make it a stakeholder in the central government. It has made many of the contests triangular, but will only end up influencing other winners by adding some unpredictability. If Delhi is any gauge, the AAP has hurt the Congress more than the BJP. Hence, the recent decline from the AAP’s initial peak euphoria may also give the Congress more respite than the BJP in this game of relative trade-offs.
The biggest opponent the BJP is fighting in these elections is the BJP itself. While Narendra Modi’s leadership of the party is not a matter of debate now, the old guard will not go down without a fight. The likes of Jaswant Singh and Lalmuni Chaubey may not swing votes outside of their constituencies in Rajasthan and Bihar, but when every seat counts, such strong rebels chip away at the final tally. The other problem is Modi’s direct command and control strategy. It has been a big strength in the high-voltage campaign for the last one year, but is now rubbing local cadres the wrong way, with many candidate selections gone wrong. The Mysore seat, for instance, where the candidate’s only credential seems to be that he wrote a glowing biography for Modi. This seat was for the BJP to take, but has now become a real contest. A similar story is repeated in roughly 30 seats all over the country.
In contrast, the Congress seems to be fighting like a mouse cornered. The first pull back for the party came from the Telangana issue. It has come back from an assured rout in united Andhra Pradesh to salvaging its reputation. Luck has also favoured it. The news of the TDP and the BJP failing to agree on a seat-sharing formula would come as an added boost. Similarly, the MNS-Shiv Sena rivalry in Maharashtra will help the Congress bag some more seats.
The Congress leadership also seems to have found some of its lost chutzpah by getting strong candidates like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Amarinder Singh to fight from seats like Udhampur and Amritsar respectively, seats that the BJP had counted in its kitty as given. Where Azad is almost certain to sail through in his own seat and even influence the neighbouring Jammu seat, Amarinder Singh must be giving Arun Jaitley nightmares in a constituency where Navjot Singh Siddhu won by a margin of less than 7,000 votes in 2009.
While the new BJP election ads are leaving rivals behind in the race to produce the worst jingle, the only thing still working for the party is its star campaigner: Narendra Modi. His gruelling 185-rally schedule in this last stretch of campaigning should hopefully help the BJP bounce back a little. But this over-reliance on a single asset could also become the BJP’s Achilles’ heel, since the opposition will now focus all its energies on a single target. The remaining few weeks will tell whether the trend of this reducing lead will strengthen, or whether the BJP will be able to stem it.
Let us think of the BJP as the hare and Congress as the tortoise. If Modi’s rally schedule, named ‘Bharat Vijay’, is what it sounds like – a victory lap – then the prognosis seems weak. It could be the hare’s hubris allowing the tortoise to catch up in the last mile. Unlike the fable, the tortoise will not get ahead in this race though.
But what would happen if the BJP does fall below some threshold, say 185 or 160? There are murmurs on social media about a 160 club – a group inside the BJP that wants a low total so that a non-Modi-led NDA comes to power. That seems like utter nonsense. Modi’s leadership is now so well entrenched that he will surely be the leader if a BJP-led alliance comes to power (as seems most likely). The only difference, though, will be in the characteristic of the government. With a smaller number of seats and reliance on multiple partners, Modi will need to evolve a whole new style of working to succeed. A strong individualistic style that was his strength in the past will not help with future successes in such a scenario. As one of the most talented politicians of his generation, he should be up to that task.
If the current trend continues though, what would happen if the BJP lands at 170 and Congress at 125? We would find that President Pranab Mukherjee becomes the most important person in the country. With the kind of rapport he shares across parties, he might be in the perfect place to play the kingmaker. There is still time left in this last lap. Will the hare scrape through, or will the tortoise, even after losing the race, trump the hare on the podium?
Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore-based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra.