A united and prepared opposition, unease over Hindutva philosophy, rising inflation, and likely suboptimal economic performance are among the reasons why Modi is unlikely to get a second term, though it is a bit too early to arrive a definitive conclusion.
For the first time in three decades a party – the BJP under Narendra Modi — won a majority on its own in 2014 general elections. When Modi won such a massive mandate, even his critics momentarily felt that the next general elections in 2019 was a done deal.
Buoyed by a historic landslide win, Modi too believed and behaved like someone who is sure to remain PM, at least till 2024. But 19 months down the line, with struggling economy, a mini revolt by intelligentsia, widespread rural distress, perception of breakdown in social harmony, and a combative opposition breathing down government’s throat and stalling its agenda combines to make it appear that, after all, the 2019 dream looks hazy.
But I would argue due to multiple factors enumerated below Modi is not just uncertain but unlikely to get another term.
United and prepared opposition
In 2014, Modi was an enigma who took Indian political scenario by storm with his shock-and-awe technique. A campaign so intensive, extensive and innovative had rarely been seen before. Rivals of Modi were caught off-guard, not knowing how to respond. Before they could comprehend, Modi had sailed to shores of victory.
But 2019 will be a different story altogether. Modi will no longer be the unknown, underestimated force. Already his rivals have started to match his rhetoric, mobilisation, use of technology (as seen in results of assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar).
So what was one of his biggest advantages in 2014 is unlikely to be so in 2019.
Moreover, the momentous victory of 2014 led to the BJP replacing the Congress as the central axis of Indian politics. Being the central axis is more a liability than asset as then all opposition politics necessarily involves opposition to the central party. Also, socialist liberal parties (naturally anti-BJP) who had difficulty aligning with the Congress due to anti-Congressism arising due to the Congress being the central pole would no longer have the dilemma.
This was seen in JD (U) dropping its anti-Congress position while aligning with it. Traditional Congress allies who deserted the party to avoid anti-incumbency of the UPA too would be more willing to align with it in 2019 when no such anti-incumbency against the UPA would be there.
Modi’s dominating tendency and his hold-no-hostage politics is also seeing more parties make the defeat of BJP as their prime objective. A good case in point is AAP. All these factors taken together will see a more coordinated and united opposition with higher index of opposition unity. This will mean even if the BJP manages to hold on to its vote share (unlikely due to other discussed factors) it seats tally will reduce significantly.
Double anti-incumbency in strongholds
Among the major factors behind Modi’s victory was unprecedented anti-incumbency against the highly unpopular and scam-ridden UPA government. In 2019, not only would Modi be denied that benefit, he will also have to deal with anti-incumbency of his own.
In 2014, BJP won 206 seats out of 282 seats from nine Hindi heartland states and Gujarat. Such historic strike rate was possible also because many of these states had BJP governments, which were popular (MP, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan) or anti-BJP governments which were unpopular (SP in UP, Cong-NCP in Maharashtra). But in the short time from then BJP has been rocked by troubles in its strongholds: Vyapam scam in MP, Patel agitation in Gujarat, Lalitgate in Rajasthan, and PDS scam in Chattisgarh, rendering its governments tainted and vulnerable.
The effect of such setbacks has also started manifesting electorally with the Congress wresting a Lok Sabha seat from the BJP in Ratlam-Jhabua bypoll in MP, BJP doing badly in local polls in Gujarat and Rajasthan and the Congress gaining a seat in Jharkhand assembly bypolls.
Thus, in 2019, BJP will have to fight against anti anti-incumbency of its state governments and central government.
Under such circumstances it seems implausible that the BJP will be able to perform robustly in these 282 where it swept in 2014. And since the BJP is basically a Hindi heartland party with limited presence in southern and eastern states this would mean BJP will find hard to win a mandate again.
Opposition to Hindutva
BJP always has a delicate job of managing its hardcore supporters expectations without antagonising liberal Hindus who are repulsed at the politics of Hindutva. But this act of running-with-the-hare-hunting-with-the-hound becomes impossible when the BJP is in power.
The spotlight that comes due to being in power reveals this contradiction glaringly when the mindset of Shakshi Maharaj of the world can then no longer be pushed under the carpet. Inevitably, by end of the BJP rule at centre, liberals may become desperate to vote out the government.
Already, the discontent and discomfort among liberal Indians with retrograde elements of the government is perceptible when its only 19 months. By 2019 the patience of liberal Indians would have been so tested by the RSS’s social, cultural agenda the government is pursuing that one finds it hard to imagine them voting for Modi. Also, the sense of insecurity among minorities would also lead to greater consolidation against Modi. The constitutional safeguards would also mean that Modi cannot please his hardcore supporters enough even if he wants to. So, even when Modi looks set to lose the liberal voters, who anyway voted for him in 2014 more out of disgust with the Congress than affection for the BJP, he will find it hard to win more orthodox Hindus. Thus opposition to Hindutva is going to be another major factor for loss of votes in 2019.
The crude prices are expected to start rising again from late 2017. This would mean inflation would become a trouble at the most inopportune time for Modi government when it would only be a year away from elections.Also given the rural distress sooner or later modi government will have to start raising MSP’s again further fuelling inflation. The government already has signalled reviving NREGA to counter rural distress. This will raise farm wages and further escalate inflation. Like many governments before it, Modi government too will have to face an electorate angry with inflation. Given Modi’s economic track record was most important reason for his mandate this can hurt him where it hurts most.
Likely suboptimal economic performance
More than any other thing, Modi’s 2014 mandate was one for growth. He held out a promise of economic miracle and people bought it. All the above cited adverse factors can still be negated if that promise of economic miracle is realised. But unfortunately for Modi ,the prospect of stellar growth performance too looks a distant prospect for variety of reasons.
First, the golden days of exporting ones ways to prosperity are over. With persistent depression in global demand India can no longer rely on global demand to lift its growth. It is being globally recognised that growth will not be back to the historic level of the last decade.
Second, the Indian economy is plagued by structural issues like low private investment due to stressed corporate balance sheet, poor credit availability due to banks reeling under high NPA’s.etc . These structural issues are holding down our growth and they are unlikely to go away so quickly. Even if they are addressed ,the clean-up will require economic pain and not gain in the short to medium term.
Third, in absence of a majority in Rajya Sabha, Modi’s ability to carry out significant economic reforms — be it labour reforms, land reforms or tax reform — is severely constrained. His combative attitude and the acrimony between the government and opposition makes any improvement unlikely. So, the possibility of drastic reforms compensating for the depressed global environment and domestic issues too is remote.
In any case, the dreams that Modi sold in 2014 were too unrealistic to be achieved in a favourable environment also. Promising the moon is easy, delivering it is tough. By 2019, as jobs and growth remain distant, more and more voters will realise that the magician with a magic wind was no magician, after all. Therefore, on the front of economy too Modi is more likely to lose votes than gain.
Historically, great hopes are soon followed by greater disappointments. Modi’s political rise and his likely fall in 2019 will be one more instance of hope turned into disappointment.
The author has studied IIT Roorkee