In the aftermath of yesterday’s election victories in Gujarat and Himachal, BJP strategists will now begin to set their eyes on doing a 2014 redux in the Lok Sabha elections slated for 2019. In spite of obvious similarities between 2014 & 2019, for instance Modi’s unwavering popularity, there are major differences between the two electoral cycles. For one, unlike 2014, BJP will be expected to protect its track record in governance and will be expected to play a more defensive role. Secondly, Congress and its allies will leave no stone unturned to bring issues of caste, regionalism and other parochial ills to the fore to outflank BJP & its agenda. Thirdly, in 2014, the momentum was with the BJP as it mopped up new allies and built a solid saffron coalition to counter the UPA, which was already in its death throes. In 2019, BJP might not have that momentum. Already, several of its allies are complaining about BJP’s high handedness. Lastly, unlike 2014, many Bhartiya Janata Party voters, who would have been disappointed with the party over various issues (for its inability to build the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir, for example) might not turn out and vote en masse as they did in 2014. In short, BJP will be battling on multiple fronts in 2019.
2014 saw Bhartiya Janata Party win an unprecedented 31% of vote share across the country, substantially more than the 23.75% vote share enjoyed by the party under Vajpayee’s leadership in 1999. In Hindi heartland of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, UP, Haryana, Uttarakhand & Himachal, the BJP won a staggering 183 of the total 218 seats up for grabs, i.e. a phenomenal 84% seat share. In Rajasthan, the BJP won all 25, in HP it won all 4, in Uttarakhand, it won all 5, in Delhi, it won all 7. In MP & Chattisgarh, it ceded only 2 & 1 seat respectively to the Congress. Such numbers are almost unheard of in Indian electoral history. The only comparison that can be drawn is with the elections in 1984, fought soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which saw Rajiv Gandhi romp home with 404 seats in the Lok Sabha.
In all probability, it will be impossible for the BJP to repeat this feat in 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. Here are the top Reasons:
1.) Hindi Heartland: Already, there are murmurs that Rajasthan will boot out the BJP in elections slated for next year. In MP & Chattisgarh, BJP governments will battle almost 3 terms of anti-incumbency. In UP, the BJP had won 71 of 80 seats and even repeated the feat by winning 300+ seats in the recently concluded legislative elections. In Bihar, it swept 22 of 40 seats in 2014 and has returned to power under Nitish’s leadership. Suffice it to say that BJP has maxed itself in the Hindi Heartland region, which has always been its bastion. Far from retaining seats here, the BJP will, in all probability lose seats here.
2.) Western India: In the Western part of the country, the BJP had swept Goa, winning both seats, and along with its ally, the Shiv Sena, won a whopping 41 of the 48 seats in Maharashtra. Soon thereafter, the allies parted ways and even though the BJP returned to power as the single largest party, it failed to win an outright majority on its own. This, in spite of the country being in the feverish grip of a Modi wave at that time. The two estranged allies, patched up and eventually a B.J.P.-S.S. government was formed. The relations between the two allies have since then, been stormy, with Shiv Sena threatening to walk out of the coalition almost every day. Thus, when Maharashtra votes in 2019, BJP will face the prospect of fighting a multi-pronged battle along with nearly 5 years of anti-incumbency against the Fadnavis government. The only hope for it here is that the vote share split between the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress might see it through in the first past the pole system. Theoretically thus, the party stands to improve its tally of 22/48 seats in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, the BJP had won all 26 seats in 2014. If the results of Gujarat elections are anything to go by, the BJP will cede some ground to a resurgent Congress in Gujarat as well.
3.) East and South India: This leaves us with the East & South of the country. These regions are green pastures for the BJP but have long shown disdain for the Saffron party. Only in recent times has the North East become more amenable to the idea of having BJP governments in place. In Assam, the BJP had won 7/14 seats in 2014. Given the high proportion of Muslim vote in the state, it is unlikely that the number can be bettered. But since then, BJP governments have been installed in Assam & Manipur. The North East has a total of 25 seats, of which BJP had won 8, 7 of them in Assam. Given PM Modi’s focus on North East, this tally is bound to go up. Obviously, much of it depends on how well the party is able to perform in Assam, a state that it governs. In Eastern part of the country, BJP had won 1/21 seats in Odisha and 2/42 seats in West Bengal. From ground reports, it seems that Odisha is warming up to the idea of having a BJP government led by Dharmendra Pradhan. The Party, thus would better its score in Odisha but West Bengal, in spite of Amit Shah’s most earnest efforts, including the injection of a dose of Hindutva in the state, remains barren land for BJP. The party has no recognizable local face in the state. In all likelihood, battleground West Bengal in 2019 will be fought between the Congress & the TMC. God forbid, in case of an alliance between the two, BJP would be forced to forgo even the paltry 2 seats it holds.
The situation in the East is mirrored in the South as well. Of the 129 seats in the five southern states, the Saffron Party holds merely 21 seats, 17 of them in Karnataka. Ample scope for better performance exists in Karnataka where the party drew 17/28 seats and Telangana where the party won merely 1 of the 17 seats. In Karnataka, legislative elections due in 2018 will define the course for 2019. As of now, it is Congress that seems to have an upper hand in the state. In Andhra, the BJP will need to continue to piggbank on N. Chandrababu Naidu, whereas chances for the party continue to look bleak in Tamilnadu & Kerala.
In all, The Saffron Party’s path to victory in 2019 is clear. It will need to make up for losses in North & West by getting the East & South to rally for it. Practically, it seems easier said than done. Lok Sabha elections, even though seemingly fought over national issues, are a complex web of local factors. In all probability, the party will end up with lesser seats than it won in 2014 but, hopefully, within striking distance of forming a government. In politics, though, a week is a long enough time. 2019, is still a good 1.5 years away.