In 1971, the new Congress (R) led by Indira Gandhi devastated the National Democratic Front (consisting of Morarji Desai’s Congress-O, Jan Sangh, Swatantra Party etc.) winning 352 seats (73 more than 1967) and 3% more vote share than 1967. The Opposition campaign was built and based on Indira Hatao while Indira herself ran a campaign around Garibi Hatao burnished by her credentials around banks nationalization and abolishing of Privy purses. The opposition on the other hand, did not have a leader to match Mrs Gandhi’s charisma and had no alternate agenda that would attract voters. In the end, the opposition lost more than half the seats they held before the election.
In many ways, there are striking similarities between 1971 and the 2019 election.
First, the opinion polls suggest a huge gap between the leadership credentials of Mr. Narendra Modi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi. While the gap has certainly reduced since 2014, most polls show a gap in the range of 15-30 points. The huge gap between Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Modi does not make it an attractive proposition for most opposition partners to rally behind Mr. Gandhi except where survival is involved.
Second, against the wishes of many analysts, Mr. Modi has steadfastly refused to indulge in any reforms that would see him as being pro-rich. In fact, Mr. Modi has cleverly moved the BJP further to the left with a variety of financial inclusion programmes (Jan Dhan and Insurance), focus on irrigation, retaining NREGA, scholarships for young and providing LPG to the poorest in the country. This significantly weakens the suit boot ka Sarkar Jibe on the BJP Government.
Third, the pro-poor position of the Congress party has significant credibility but in itself can deliver few votes. This is because only about 20 per cent of the population is poor. In States that are poor, the Congress has minimal presence. For example, it can play an important role only in MP, Assam, Odisha and Chhattisgarh which in total add upto just 75 seats. And in each of these States, it has severe structural and leadership issues making it difficult to challenge in the BJP in 2019, at least in its current form.
Fourth, the economy, inflation and corruption are all in good shape offering fewer options to exploit for the opposition. With monsoons (La Nina effect) also likely to be steady over the next 3 years, the BJP is looking very formidable for 2019
Are there any risks for the BJP?
First, the BJP has been moving towards the centre and slightly left. By doing so, it has opened opportunities on the right end of the spectrum. Take the example of higher taxes on middle class voters (Excise duties on Fuel, Higher service tax etc). In the 1990s, Congress moved towards the Centre losing large numbers of Left of Centre votes to the regional parties. The good news is that no party at the moment is in a position to exploit this apparent weak link
Second, the recent low hikes in minimum support prices is leading to a significant increase in the rural-urban wealth gap. This has worsened due to poor monsoons in the last two years. Given the lower education levels in rural India, even traditional rural affluent (Like Jats and Patidhars) are beginning to feel left out from the growth opportunity. This has spurred the recent anti-reservation agitations. Here again, no mainstream party is in a position to exploit these votes, atleast as far as reservation is concerned. On MSPs, it is likely the BJP will risk higher MSP growth in 2017 and 2018 depending on the overall inflation situation and keep these voters in check.
Third, is the risk of losing the women votes. Overall, female voters are less inclined towards the BJP in many States. As female education increases and number of independent women goes up, this is likely to worsen unless BJP demonstrates more female centricity in its policies. However, this is likely to be a serious problem only in the 2024 election
Fourth, is the risk of unemployment and lack of job growth. But voters will shift en masse to the Opposition only if they propose a radical job creation initiative and can sell it well. However, this looks highly unlikely at this point of time.
To conclude, the BJP is well positioned on most of the key electoral issues today. The Opposition parties have no alternate agenda that can attract potentially dissatisfied voters – middle class, rural affluent, women or unemployed. The recent losses for the Congress party mean that the party is fast losing its moral authority to remain the fulcrum of any anti Modi alliance. The Opposition in general is too steeped on the Left side that it is almost impossible for them to offer solutions to disgruntled right of centre voters without causing dissatisfaction amongst their core voters. Considering all of this, as things stand today, the 2019 election is likely to play out like the 1971 election, a bigger majority for Narendra Modi.