A general election political parties symbol sand sculpture is seen at the Bay of Bengal Sea's Puri beach by sand artist Manas Sahoo Photo: STR/NurPhoto

Predicting elections is especially difficult in India with its size and diversity. In 2014, when Indians last went to the polls, analysts and journalists traveling across the country failed to spot a “wave.” Most missed calling a poll verdict that ushered in Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as India’s first majority government since 1984.

Modi arrived as the new prime-ministerial candidate riding on a much-touted track record of development in his home state, Gujarat. He also rode on a wave of aspirations, promising “achche din” (Good Days), a slogan that held out the promise of a “new India.” In 2019, he remains India’s most popular leader, with no challengers polling remotely in his range. And according to the polls his party remains poised to return to power.

In the world’s largest democracy, though, opinion polls rarely work. Sample sizes fall woefully short of the 830 million out of 1.3 billion citizens who are eligible to cast votes. Polls serve at best as educated guesses.

Modi cannot be completely confident that emerging economic doubts and some surprisingly muscular opposition in the largest state, Uttar Pradesh, won’t stop his bandwagon. To be on the safe side, he has junked his “good-days” platform of 2014 and is now offering deliverance from largely imagined fears. If 2014 was about aspirations, then 2019 is about insecurities.

The economy

For 30 years before Modi, India was led by coalition governments, navigating through an unprecedented economic crisis in 1990, a war in 1999 and hundreds of terror attacks and global economic challenges.

The country has moved from a phase when it was left with only two weeks’ worth of payments for importing crude oil to a present in which it boasts a US$3 trillion economy. While coalition governments typically are viewed as “unstable” or “weak,” India’s rapid growth came largely under such governments.

Naturally, there was impatience, among growing numbers of people, for faster growth and greater national glory. In 2014, the Congress party-led coalition in power was looking jaded and corrupt, despite the fact that under its leadership economic numbers had soared between 2004 and 2014.

In the elections that began April 11, Modi is finding that he faces new challenges different from those of 2014. For one thing, uncomfortable questions on what Modi had achieved had begun to surface. The biggest questions were around the economy and rising unemployment.

While Modi had promised 20 million jobs every year in 2014, instead, jobs began to shrink. In December 2018, India’s unemployment rose to its highest in 15 months, 7.4%. As the Centre for Monitoring of the Indian Economy reported, India lost 11 million jobs, rather than generating the 20 million a year that Modi had promised.  As vehicle sales data, a key indicator of the Indian economy’s health, came in, Vivek Kaul pointed out some stark numbers in his analysis. From cars to trucks to tractors and two-wheelers, sales had gone down in every category this year.

This meant that either people did not have the money, or they weren’t keen to splurge any, a clear sign that the economy was shrinking. Tractor sales are an indication of the state of the rural economy. And as other reports indicated, agriculture continues to remain stressed for a variety of reasons. The slow down in truck sales indicates that the real estate and infrastructure sectors were also in stasis, and there were fewer goods to transport across the country.

Ideally, this would have been very bad news for an incumbent government seeking re-election. And there were other unwelcome developments for Modi to take into account.

A complex election

Take the situation in the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh (UP), which sends 80 members to Parliament every general election, the highest number in the country which elects 543 MPs. In 2014, the BJP swept through the state, picking up 71 seats, while its ally picked up two. This gave them 73 seats. It engineered similar sweeps across several other northern and western Indian states so that, with its pre-election allies it could establish a full majority government that wouldn’t have to contend with ambitious and opportunistic newcomers to the alliance.

But today, three key opposition parties in UP have formed a formidable alliance to take on Modi. In western UP, which went to the polls on April 11 in the first phase, the three alliance partners seem to have a formidable caste and community arithmetic on their side.

The Samajwadi Party (SP) controls the votes of Muslims and Yadavs – non-elite peasant-pastoral castes.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has a large following among the Dalit castes, who were oppressed for centuries and treated as “untouchables.” The BSP’s leader, Mayawati, is a Dalit and a formidable woman who steadied the party after its founder,  her mentor Kanshiram, passed away. She has been the chief minister of UP several times and is known to run a tight administration.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) is a smaller party, but has influence among the upper caste, traditionally agricultural Jats, who dominate western UP politically and economically.

On paper, the BSP-SP-RLD combine is against what seems to be an unstoppable Modi. As an insightful analysis by journalist Ravish Tiwari recently pointed out, the caste identity is being subsumed in the larger identity of religion. Now, caste identity, which forms the basis of the SP, BSP and RLD, is moving toward a pan-Hindutva identity that has been the BJP’s mainstay.

As Tiwari pointed out, the last time traditional rivals like the SP and BSP came together was in 1993. The BJP’s key leaders had taken a large mob that pulled down the historic Babri Mosque. The BJP’s political fortunes were ascending in the state and the BSP-SP alliance of 1993 stopped it in its tracks. But Tiwari points out that Modi seems to be transcending these traditional vote banks. How far the caste bases will remain loyal to the parties associated with them remains to be seen.

The same story will play out across the rest of UP, but whoever wins the state is likeliest to form the next government in India. Modi knows that. He’s taking no chances.

Politics of fear

Soon after a car bomb driven by a Kashmiri terrorist killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force troopers on February 14, there was an anticipation that it would impact the general elections. On February 26, Indian fighter jets crossed into Pakistan and dropped several bombs on Balakot, a town known to house one of the biggest camps of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The JeM had claimed responsibility for the attack.

This was the political narrative that Modi was waiting for. In rally after rally, he now invokes Pakistan while his key lieutenants drop hints that Hindus, the majority in India at nearly 76%, are in danger of being overwhelmed by the minorities.

This is a theme that continues to be repeated, with Modi even stating in some rallies that a vote for his principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress is a “vote for Pakistan.” The fears being stoked, in the name of either the minorities threatening the Hindu majority or Pakistan as the “enemy,” form the dominant platform for Modi and the BJP. Ironically, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan issued a statement endorsing Modi a week ago.

This seems to have more resonance than the lack of jobs and the economic stress, and ironically, seems to have fueled even greater support for Modi.

As people grow more insecure, Modi has christened himself as the “chowkidar”  (security guard). On cue, all his ministers and key leaders have prefixed their names with the “chowkidar” honorific. His promise to the electorate is that he is their sole guardian and will protect them from their fears and insecurities. On the basis of this message, he hopes to get another five years as India’s next prime minister.

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