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EFSAS Commentary

With 6 rounds of voting out of 7 concluded, the electoral battle in India appears much tighter than was originally predicted


India’s 2024 general elections had started off in April as a completely one-sided election, with opinion polls predicting that the incumbent (and highly popular) Prime Minister Narendra Modi would lead his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to another landslide victory. India’s opposition parties led by the Congress, which over the past ten years have been ending second best to the BJP at successive national and state elections, have, meanwhile, projected 2024 as a make-or-break year for democracy in India. The opposition’s predicament was that it found itself looking straight into an existential crossroads, and this meant that it had no option but to unite and double down. Having done that over the past weeks, by most accounts the opposition has succeeded in slowly but surely turning the ongoing elections into an interesting, closely fought, exercise with all options still appearing possible.

As the long-drawn-out Lok Sabha elections trundle towards the seventh and final phase on 1 June, the BJP continues to insist that it is headed for a party tally of 370 seats or more out of the total of 543, and a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tally of ‘400 paar’ (above 400). The BJP is at the helm of the NDA. On the other hand, a growing crescendo of opposition voices are predicting that the BJP will fail to get a majority (273), let alone win nearly 100 seats more than that. The opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) coalition of over two dozen political parties is insisting that it will gain a thumping majority of its own, and it has labeled the BJP’s increasingly divisive rhetoric after the first two phases of the elections as proof of the saffron party’s anxiety and desperation in the face of a decisive debacle.

PM Modi's predecessor and senior Congress leader Manmohan Singh on 30 May accused Modi of lowering the dignity of public discourse and the gravity of the office of the Prime Minister by giving “hateful speeches” during the poll campaign. As The Times of India observed, “Modi’s election speeches saw fierce attacks on the opposition, especially the Congress. From accusing the grand old party of planning to steal the Mangalsutras of women to charging the opposition of doing Mujra, one of the key themes of PM's attack was the policy of alleged appeasement by opposition parties”. The Congress and the INDIA bloc, too, launched scathing attacks on Modi and the BJP, asserting that they planned to change the Constitution and end reservations. The opposition based this on the ruling alliance’s claim of needing 400 seats, saying that this number of seats was only needed in the case of changing the Constitution. The statements by some BJP leaders like Anant Hegde were also cited by the opposition.

The drop in the standards of public discourse at these elections was noted by the Election Commission of India too, and BJP chief J.P. Nadda and Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge were both warned and told by the poll body to rein in their star campaigners, which included PM Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, among others. It said in a statement that “The Commission expects top leaders of political parties, especially of the major national parties, most of whom are star campaigners, to set good examples of campaign discourse expected of them in the current elections. It is primarily the leaders’ responsibility to correct the course of their statements to avoid any permanent dent on the delicately balanced social fabric of the country”.

At the start of the campaign, Modi had targeted more than 400 seats for his NDA coalition at this election, a goal emblazoned on campaign posters and one the Prime Minister had frequently plugged in his campaign speeches. However, Bloomberg noted in ‘Modi’s 400-Seat Dream In Doubt as Opposition Gains Steam’ on 24 May that “a notable shift in Modi’s tone after the first phase of voting — where he began using divisive, anti-Muslim language and ramped up attacks against the main opposition group’s welfare policies — fueled speculation the BJP may have been spooked by early voting trends and needed to fire up its support base”.

The Week magazine similarly pointed out that “Modi began on a strong footing showcasing his 10 year tenure of ‘corruption free and terror attacks free’ governance focussed on building infrastructure. After the two phases polling showed the dip in voting percentage, Modi increased his attacks on the Congress and the opposition highlighting the latter’s ‘divisive’ agenda favoring the minorities. The prime minister accused the Congress of Muslim appeasement and said if the INDIA bloc was voted to power, it would redistribute wealth to intruders and those producing more children”.

Bloomberg recalled that before the election kicked off in April, Modi was promising to come back to power with an even bigger majority than he won five years ago. However, with just a week to go before election results are announced, the picture is looking less certain for the popular leader. Sudhi Ranjan Sen and Swati Gupta wrote, “Party insiders, opposition members and analysts who have traveled across the country to speak to voters say there’s little evidence of a ‘Modi wave’ that allowed his Bharatiya Janata Party to sweep the polls in 2019. Then, the BJP won 303 of the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. Along with its allies, the BJP-led coalition had about 351 seats… Muddying the waters even further is the fact that both the ruling party and opposition are claiming publicly they have the upper hand. Modi himself told The Economic Times this week that the BJP has already won a majority of the seats in the parliament based on voting in the first five phases of elections so far. However, behind closed doors a picture is emerging of an opposition alliance that’s slightly more optimistic about their likely gains, and a ruling party that appears to be bracing for some losses. The Indian National Congress, the main opposition group, expects to win between 90-110 seats in total, up from 52 in 2019, according to a senior party leader, who asked not to be identified as the discussions are private. The estimates were based on internal polling, the person said”.

Sen and Gupta informed that three BJP officials from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana states had privately admitted to them that the party was unlikely to match its 2019 figures, although they still expect to win a majority of seats in parliament. Further, uncertainty about the poll outcome has also seeped into financial markets, with volatility rising in recent weeks. The India VIX Index — a gauge of likely market swings over the next 30 days — more than doubled from a low in April.

These elections, once considered a foregone conclusion, have intrigued analysts and experts, who are loath to decisively call the results. Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, expects the BJP to stay in power, while winning anywhere between 282 to 310 seats nationally. Shumita Deveshwar, chief India economist at TS Lombard, was more bearish, saying anecdotal evidence during her recent travels from India’s east to west coast suggests the BJP could possibly fall below the majority mark of 272 seats. With the help of its allies, though, the party may still be able to form the government, she said in a report on 16 May.

Reasons for the BJP’s slide in support are varied, according to party officials and analysts. Modi has been in power for a decade and has delivered on several of the BJP’s key pledges, an important one being the building of a temple in honor of the Hindu God Ram on a site where a mosque once stood. The inauguration of the temple in Ayodhya in January fulfilled a key promise made to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist base for decades. But, as Deveshwar observed, “Anecdotal evidence from our travels on the election trail from India’s east coast to its west suggests that Modi’s popularity has waned somewhat since the Ram temple inauguration in January, when a BJP wave seemed to have swept across India. Although multiple factors at play in a country as vast as India make the national mood difficult to read, common themes we picked up on the road include the lack of job creation and rising demand for welfare schemes. Beyond those, voters’ concerns have been dominated by the high cost of living and caste identity, observers say. The opposition’s heavy focus on improving the welfare of the poor, especially those who belong to the lowest social groups, have resonated with voters, they say”.

Modi’s 400-seat target may have been counter-productive, too, since it might have led to complacency in the BJP’s ranks while fueling a belief among lower-caste voters that the BJP will use its parliamentary super-majority to push through changes that reduce affirmative action policies for lower socio-economic groups. Home Minister and close Modi aide Amit Shah has consistently denied the party has any such plan, although that hasn’t stopped the opposition from exploiting voters’ anxiety around this.

Bloomberg, notably, also observed that “The shift in momentum was in some evidence in the electorally important state of Uttar Pradesh, considered a stronghold for the BJP after it swept the region with 71 out of 80 seats in 2014 and won 62 in the 2019 elections”. Uttar Pradesh was once again seen as a walkover for the BJP when the election began, but Sunita Aron, who was an executive editor for The Hindustan Times in the state for more than two decades and has authored three books on Indian politics, believes that there are now at least 25-30 seats in contention for the opposition in Uttar Pradesh. “The BJP has an edge, but the alliance is giving it a good fight”, she said.

The statements emanating from INDIA coalition constituents over the past three days seem to have drawn inspiration and confidence from this fight. In a recent post on X, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said that it had “become clear in the first four phases that the people have stood up to protect the constitution and democracy”. He added, “This country, bored with the politics of hatred, is now voting on its issues. Youth for jobs, farmers for Minimum Support Price and freedom from debt, women for economic independence and security and labourers for fair wages”. Another Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said, “I have visited many states for the party’s election campaign, and I can say that the people of India want a change in the government. The story is same be it the North India or the South India. The spirit of democracy has been violated by the ruling party in the last 10 years. The bigger question currently is whether BJP will be able to cross the 200 seats mark or not”.

After the sixth round of voting, the Congress party’s media head Jairam Ramesh too claimed a clear victory for the INDIA coalition. He said, “He (PM Modi) is an outgoing prime minister and there is an outgoing Home Minister with him. The election has been completed on 486 seats but just after the first 2 phases, it was clear that INDIA Alliance is going to get a clear and decisive mandate. The 7th phase is pending. There is no doubt that on June 4 the outgoing Prime Minister will go out. INDIA Alliance will form the government and for 5 years, a stable, sensitive and responsible government will be formed. There are no doubts regarding this...”.

The BJP expressed similar confidence of a victory for the NDA. Home Minister Amit Shah asserted that the NDA had already crossed 310 seats in first five phases of polling. He said, “I have the details of the first five phases. In five phases of the Lok Sabha polls, PM Modi has crossed 310 seats. On 4 June, the victory of Modiji, BJP and NDA is certain. You will see that on the afternoon of 4th June, Rahul baba's people will hold a press conference and say that they have lost because of EVMs”. Shah also predicted that the blame for the loss will be put on Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, who would “lose his job after the Lok Sabha results”.

Another senior party leader and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, addressing a public meeting in Patna Sahib this week, said, “Post-Independence, Narendra Modi government has been successful in bringing 25 crore people out of poverty. The entire world acknowledges that India is the country with the fastest-growing economy. India’s stature on the international stage has increased. The leaders in Opposition are misleading the nation. They don’t have any real issues. They want to win the support of the public by misleading them”.

Which version – the BJP’s, or the INDIA coalition’s – of the projected results will actually play out will only be known on 4 June, when the fate of India’s 2024 general elections that presently remains ‘locked’ in ‘sealed’ Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), kept in tightly-guarded strong-rooms by the Election Commission of India, would be opened and counting of votes of all 7 phases will be done.