Election 2019 is, in many ways, quite uncomplicated. There’s a clear central political force in Narendra Modi, around whom the battle lines have been drawn, be it BJP or the Opposition. Bitter enemies have set their differences aside to fight him, just as BJP stalwarts have either had to fall in line or quit the party to contest elections on another ticket. Yet, there’s more than what meets the eye.
Beneath this apparently well-arraigned battlefield is a set of old-new complex sub-narratives contesting for an opening to influence the campaign and, if possible, even topple the dominant Modi dynamic. But this depends on the extent to which Modi is able to capture the imagination of the electorate like he did in 2014.
In 2014, Modi was a popular leader from Gujarat who had to establish himself as a leader of the Hindi heartland. From the day he was chosen BJP’s PM candidate, the key question was: will he be able to defeat the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati to win Uttar Pradesh, the heartland’s political epicentre? Not only did he win big in 2014, he managed to put his stamp of authority by scoring a second massive victory in the 2017 UP assembly polls.
There’s no doubt that Modi is today a ‘UP ka neta’ with a huge appeal in the Hindi heartland – largely in northern, central and western India. But that was five years ago. 2019 will require him to demonstrate nationwide appeal – one which extends beyond the heartland, especially to the east and south. This is unchartered territory for BJP.
The likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani had tasted success in the cow-belt states before Modi came into the scene. But there’s no such precedent at the national level for BJP. That has historically been a Congress strength. Which is why it could emerge the single largest party in 2004 even though it just got nine seats in UP.
Can Modi break the glass ceiling and emerge as a BJP leader with a nationwide appeal?
Language Barrier Language seems to have emerged as a barrier for the PM. The impact of Modi’s Hindi oratorical skills, one of his principal strengths as a political leader, gets diluted in non-Hindi speaking regions. And that levels out the field for the competition to some extent. This also explains why Congress has drawn its last line of defence once again in the south.
In 1991 and 2004, united Andhra Pradesh was the bastion from where Congress fought back. This time it’s Kerala. Rahul Gandhi himself is fighting from Wayanad, symbolically a confluence between Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
The Congress president, alongside DMK’s MK Stalin, the one ally who has stoutly backed Gandhi, is aiming to launch his counter-attack on BJP from this clutch of 86 seats. As an aside, it’s interesting that both BJP and Congress are eyeing their principal gains this election at the expense of the Left – one in West Bengal and the other in Kerala.
Regional Khichdi As in 2014, the threat is highest on regional parties. Almost all key regional leaders, barring Stalin, K Chandrashekhar Rao and YS Jaganmohan Reddy, are in a fight against BJP. While Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik are engaged in a dogged battle not to cede space to BJP in West Bengal and Orissa, others are in a fight for survival.
If in UP, SP and BSP have been forced to come together to take on BJP, the opposite has happened in Bihar where chief minister Nitish Kumar has made peace with BJP and broken the 2015 JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance to extend his run in the state.
BJP has also calculated that it cannot possibly win 2019 by making it a Modi vs The Rest affair. Which is why it has kept its pre-poll allies together. As the conversations with JD(U) and Shiv Sena show, BJP was willing to accommodate only to ensure that the latter don’t add to the strength of the anti-Modi alliance.
In both cases, there was a strong suggestion from within the party to go it alone. But what’s clear in the big picture is that national parties like BJP and Congress have a larger catchment today when it comes to the general elections.
This was visible in 2009, when Congress got more than 200 seats against all expectations. And then in 2014, BJP secured 280 seats. This is a trend which shows that voters are willing to look at Lok Sabha elections differently, provided there’s an appealing narrative.
It’s no longer a simple sum of state elections where regional satraps could dictate how the Centre behaves.
Does that mean there may not be akingmaker in 2019?
Of course, there could be one, but it’s unlikely that the larger quest for a strong Centre will suddenly reverse. At the same time, BJP won’t be able to replicate the 2014 success without the Modi narrative breaching new territory in the east and the south. And somewhere in that challenge lies the main fault line for the 2019 electoral battle.