BJP sees voter fatigue, Congress gains confidence

A long and arduous seven-phase electoral process of India has covered more than half the stretch. The key questions are whether BJP would be able to defend itself and whether the Modi wave, so omnipresent in 2019, is as strong? There are questions about the opposition as well – are they close to dislodging BJP? There is no way to definitively answer the questions before 4 June when results of 543 Lok Sabha constituencies will be declared. Yet the voters and the media are engaged in discussing the polls. So are we. In an effort to make sense of Indian polls with about one billion voters, Prothom Alo asked a few questions to Debasish Roy Chowdhury, Hong Kong-based journalist, editor and researcher. His book on India under BJP – To Kill A Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism – co-authored with John Keane, became an international bestseller. He spoke to Suvojit Bagchi about various aspects of present-day India and the ongoing elections.

Prothom Alo :

After the first three rounds of polling there's a buzz that both Narendra Modi and the BJP are in trouble. However, in 2019 there was a similar buzz – at least before the Pulwama incident when Indian soldiers were ambushed. Do you get a sense that this buzz has any merit or is it based on the usual optimism of a section of social media users who are traditionally anti-Modi?

Debasish Roy Chowdhury: The year 2019 (when last national poll took place) and 2024 are vastly different. In 2019 the election was of course fought on Pulwama, so we had war hysteria replacing the usual logic of voting. That is not the case in 2024. But also, there was an overall feeling that Modi deserves more time – a line that Modi sold very well, that how can he undo the misrule of 70 years in 5 years. That does not sell anymore. If you haven’t managed to change anything in 10 years, you never will. Two additional factors that you also have to bear in mind is that 1) There is a general fatigue over communalism – the BJP has maxed it out; 2) The economy isn’t getting better – the jobs crisis hasn’t eased, savings are at a historic low, inflation is unchecked etc. All this means the overall mood is quite different from 2019.


(In the article 'How India's Economy Has Really Faired Under Modi' published in Time magazine on 24 April, Debashish Roy Chowdhury highlighted the state of India's economy under Modi's leadership. He claimed in the article that Modi’s second term has “seen the lowest period of GDP growth since India liberalized its markets in the early 1990s. Per capita income over the past 10 years grew half as fast as the decade under Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh”, recent growth rate of 8% as "mystifying." while foreign direct investment is “sluggish”, private capital expenditure low and consumer good market “continues to be sluggish, with people cutting down on staples,” Unemployment is “endemic”, manufacturing slowed). 

The Congress could have done a lot better. But communication-wise, they have done well. They have managed to control the narrative – which is a huge thing. They have been giving messages, talking about livelihood issues, which the BJP is not touching at all

Prothom Alo :

I do not see Modi repeating 400 for NDA and 370 for BJP too often. Rather, it appears. he has almost entirely focused on aggressive communal rhetoric after the first phases. Do you feel that this (1) claim to score 370 of 543 seats is baseless or had some merit initially but faded as the poll started? (2) What does this communal campaigning tell us?

Debasish Roy Chowdhury: The thing that has been noticed about Indian voters is that they are mostly uncommitted voters, and they tend to vote for candidates and parties they think have a good chance of winning – as opposed to candidates and parties they think should win. It’s because they say they don’t want to “waste” their vote. You see Indians treat their vote as their only weapon against the high and the mighty. It’s the great leveller, and they do not like to throw it at a lost cause. So, more a party/candidate manages to project victory, the better chance they have at actually attracting votes. You will remember that in 2021, the BJP’s election motto in West Bengal (Assembly poll) was ‘Target-200. It was ridiculous to claim that they would get 200 seats because they actually had just 3 seats at the time. But so successful was this projection that they ended up getting more than 70 seats. A lot of people thought it was a defeat for the BJP because they aimed for 200 but got more than 70, without realising what a huge victory it was to go from 3 to 70 plus. And this was possible only because they convinced people that they would sweep the polls. So here too, this “aab ki baar 400 paar” (BJP alliance will cross 400 seat mark) or “370 for BJP” etc are meant to create that environment in which they look like obvious winners so that people vote for them.


The communal campaigning mainly tells us three things: 1) The BJP doesn’t have much to showcase for its 10 years in power. 2) Forget the drifting vote, the BJP senses even its core voters are moving away, so it has to get back its communal rhetoric to retain them and, 3) It has no policy vision for India that it can talk about. The next logical step for BJP is of course Hindu Rashtra, which will require a wholesale transformation of the constitution. But that’s not something it can talk about, and apart from that it simply has nothing else as its priority. So, we have not heard much on what it actually wants to do in its third term.

Prothom Alo :

How do you read this dip in polling percentage in the first phases?

Debasish Roy Chowdhury: Voter apathy – deep disappointment with the BJP but no overwhelming enthusiasm for the opposition either.

 The big question is how angry are the people? It’s always difficult to tell, and it varies regionally. Are they angry enough to vote against the BJP? A high turnout could have indicated that. A low turnout does not point to an overwhelming desire to vote out the BJP even if there is disenchantment. That is to say, the discontent with BJP – if any – may not be translating into votes. But as I said, it’s always difficult to tell, and there are multiple local factors also at play even if it is a national election. A voter in a state not ruled by the BJP, for example, has much less reason to be disenchanted with the BJP and less reason to blame the BJP for her troubles.   

Prothom Alo :

Do you think Congress has been able to shed its usual confusion and is behaving way more confidently over the last few weeks? Or is it still as confused?

Debasish Roy Chowdhury: I think organisationally speaking, the Congress could have done a lot better. But communication-wise, they have done well. They have managed to control the narrative – which is a huge thing. They have been giving messages, talking about livelihood issues, which the BJP is not touching at all. Pre-election surveys showed that job and inflation are the main concerns for voters. Despite all efforts to drag them into sensitive and communal debates, the Congress has focused to stay on the economy and its programs if it comes to power. And I see more and more confidence after every phase of election as it becomes increasingly clear that there is no Modi wave. 

Prothom Alo :

Modi still is the biggest show stopping performer in India. But is the party – in this poll – almost entirely dependent on him?

Debasish Roy Chowdhury: Yes, if you look at BJP’s manifesto, you will see that every chapter is about his dream. The 76-page document has his name 65 times and his photo 53 times. I don’t think his party entirely depends on him, but he definitely wants people to think so. 

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