India goes to polls for its lower house (Lok Sabha) in April and May 2019 to elect its new government: the choice is not easy. Well, the choice is in fact scary. Between a party that is bent on damaging India’s social fabric and its Hindu basis in the name, ironically, of Hinduism – the Bharatiya Janata Party (‘BJP’); a party that is typified by ineptness and corruption and, to top it all, has been exploiting India’s community differences to rule the country – the Indian National Congress (‘INC’); and a hodge-podge of parties, the grand majority of which simply exists to take advantage of both greed- and fearmongering by way of exploiting finegrained community divisions (‘Others’). (For coarser-grained community divisions, the BJP and the INC already do a good job.) It is very probable that no party, or no pre-poll alliance of these parties, will win a majority in the Parliament: they will be forced to post-poll coalitions, which will lead to shaky governments and weak economic promise at a time when the world is moving fast. Our own analysis suggests the following in the 543-seat parliament:
BJP + pre-poll allies (often called as NDA): 155-263
INC + pre-poll allies (often called as UPA): 138-227
(Most of these Others could end up with the BJP or the Congress in order to share power at the centre. Or with each other, with the BJP or Congress in a supporting role, to make a government of their own. They are mere opportunists. As are also the BJP and Congress, though.)
Psephologists would like me to be more narrowly precise in the seat range, but predicting anything finer would be foolhardy, given that the polling itself is yet to begin. So what are the major regions that can flip (and are hard to predict) and what are the major factors that can change yet?
Uttar Pradesh (UP): The Gangetic plains of UP, the seat of India’s Hindu bedrock, the civilisational impetus of the Indian subcontinent, is populous and influential and often creates the national narrative. Here have come together two regional parties, SP and BSP, both strong in the region, in the ambition to play a king-maker later on, or even aspire to India’s leadership, even though almost non-existent in the other regions of India. That the Congress, typically ineptly, was unable to convince them to let it join their alliance makes the UP a three-cornered fight, which plays to the advantage of the BJP, especially once Congress made the mistake of putting Priyanka Gandhi in canvassing fray. Bringing Priyanka Gandhi in the picture may drive up Congress membership numbers but in the end result will hurt Congress badly: not only will she be able to drive up votes marginally for the Congress, thus taking away votes from the SP-BSP combine and thereby strengthening BJP’s prospects in a first-past-the-post electoral system, but she also confuses the voter and again reminds them of the ineptness, whether perceived or real, of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. If Rahul was able, why did he need his sister (herself inept) to bail him out? BJP plus allies will definitely lose 25-30 seats from their 2014 win of 73 seats (out of 80 in total) because of the SP-BSP arithmetic, but SP-BSP would hope that BJP lose at least 50 seats. If the BJP does lose 50 in UP, chances of it doing well elsewhere will already have been poorer: if the war-fed nationalism drive doesn’t work in UP, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, then where else can it work? (I expect, however, that the BJP will do well in Rajasthan and even Uttarakhand in spite of some party defections.) A BJP government at the centre, even with post-poll allies, can be ruled out if the BJP manages to lose 50 in UP. I expect that even in the worst-case scenario, BJP plus allies will lose 45 in UP (which already will make a BJP government at the centre difficult). If BJP manages to lose not more than 35, the game is on, and any loss less than 25 makes BJP a very strong probability to lead the next Indian government.
Maharashtra: The state, another one full of seats and a region brimming over with not only nationalism but also exaggerated regional pride, looks a stronghold this time of the BJP and its ally Shiv Sena. Helping them is the eating away of votes by a small party, BVA, which holds sway among farmers in some sub-regions and whose voters are shared with the Congress. The Congress and its partner NCP look disheartened and in disarray. Why I talk about Maharashtra is that the BJP and allies expect around 40 seats from the state (out of 48). Anything less than 35 will hurt them to some extent, given that the BJP certainly stands to lose some in UP. But things look rosy for the BJP and allies here. What could then hurt the BJP? For one, climate. Summer has already begun in most of India before its time, and any drought-like conditions will exacerbate anger among farmers. Maharashtra suffers traditionally from water scarcity. Many Indian voters decide at the last moment whom to vote for (especially as many are often bribed or terrorised by all major parties at the last moment), but any lingering anger will be enough to flip the vote. Another interesting factor in the state could be Aramco’s refinery project in the Konkan region: yet another thoughtless project of the BJP, which has been ruining India’s precious biodiversity (and diversity!) at full speed. Shiv Sena had opposed the Aramco project but at that time it was projecting itself against the BJP; now that it is with the BJP, will the farmers, many quite rich, reject both? Congress could have hoped, but BVA could play spoilsport.
West Bengal: The BJP is playing the good old Curzon game here without any mitigation. It does not help that the ruling party in this state, called TMC, a party which is neither a Congress or BJP ally and whose shrill leader harbours ambition to become India’s leader herself, has itself been playing this game. Hooliganism rules here: it’s rough going, and polarisation has been a feature here since the British times, if not earlier. What works to the BJP’s advantage is the high Muslim population in many constituencies: anything above 15% and especially 20% (the proportion of Muslim voters) works very well for the BJP, as the Hindus think that “everyone” is Muslim and vote out of fear. The sentiment is very well stoked by not just BJP but also the TMC’s Muslim appeasement policies. This is a state where the BJP has been almost non-existent: but polarisation seems to have been successful this time and might give the BJP even 15 or more seats (out of 42). The BJP has also played the clever game of spreading the state over 7 polling phases: it helps to tie down TMC top brass to the state, and, even more, it helps to keep more security personnel for fewer booths, keeping the elections a bit less violent. The TMC needs its hooligans to win big.
The above three states are key for me: any flip in these states will have huge ramifications. The Northeast is also key this time: the BJP has been expecting to win well there, but will the Citizenship Amendment Bill hamper the BJP’s winning chances finally? It may happen that the TMC wins comfortably after all in UP, that SP-BSP also win big in UP, and a few seats are lost by the BJP in Maharashtra. A dire prospect. But all of this may not happen, too. In a first-past-the-post system, even a single vote more than the other gives you everything and the other nothing: contests like the 3-cornered ones in UP are too difficult to call. Overall, western UP/Braj looks to go the BJP way by and large, but the Awadh and Purvanchal regions are difficult to call. The game for Congress is also not over. I expect Congress to win most seats in states like the tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh. I expect an almost clean sweep of Congress and allies in Tamil Nadu. I do not expect any flip in these states. Congress may put up a good show in certain tribal pockets, even in places such as the Panchmahals district of Gujarat, a state otherwise considered a citadel of the BJP. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh would probably be tight contests: I expect the BJP to edge the former and the Congress the later. Karnataka would be another tight contest: BJP may surprise here and win up to 19 seats (out of 28). In Punjab, Congress should win mostly. Regional parties should hold sway in Odisha and Telangana. Bihar and Jharkhand should go the way of Congress and allies. Delhi, it remains to be seen whether there is any alliance as yet between Congress and AAP; if not, the BJP may sweep here. If yes, the BJP might still win, but less handsomely. It also remains to be seen if the BJP has another Balakot-like trick up its sleeve. Or if Pakistan will oblige it. Pakistan would itself want the BJP to make a government at the centre, so it itself might want to rouse up nationalist sentiment in India at this time. The BJP accelerates the weakening of India and creates the danger of fragmentation of India: north–south, upper caste–Dalit, Kashmiri–non-Kashmiri, Hindu–Muslim. Pakistan must love the BJP!
Whoever wins, the immediate future of India looks dark. Modi-led BJP has damaged India irrevocably: in fact, the damage has been such within just 5 years that no one, even the invaders and colonisers, had done damage at such a scale in centuries and millennia. The damage to an already-weak media has also been incredible. India’s institutions are in the process of becoming puppets, and the day is not far when we may have a ‘Prime Minister for life’. However, the options for the voters to the BJP are not themselves appetising: lack of (any kind of) ideology, inept, corrupt people, greedy regional satraps, and continuing loss of sense of identity. In fact, the best that India can hope for at this stage is a win of the BJP, tempered by a lot of uncomfortable coalitions. For if a Congress-led government were to come in power in 2019, the misplaced resentment against India’s Muslims, against Gandhi and Nehru, against dharma would only intensify and would bring not just Modi but the virulent Yogi to India’s reins. That is a day which India will never want to see if it values survival of itself with its Hindu values.
We will soon write on what to expect if Modi does come in power, especially if it’s not with many strings attached. In his first term, we saw de-monetisation; in his second term, we may see de-humanisation.