Modi is at an advantage, but can he cross 400?

The Indian Lok Sabha elections start today, 19 April. It is generally felt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will easily sweep the polls. But BJP aims at grabbing more than 400 seats this time. Will that be possible or not? Saumya Bandyapadhyay writes on the issue

Narendra Modi holds up the BJP election manifestoReuters

India has never seen such a listless Lok Sabha election before. And never before in the past has the prime minister made an advance announcement of victory in parliament. Not only that, but he has even declared that the alliance, NDA, will come to power, winning over 400 seats. And he reminds the people of this every day. Never before in this largest democracy of the world has anyone faced the tough and diverse election with such panache. Even after 10 consecutive years on power, Narendra Modi is totally unconcerned.

Modi has managed to take himself to such a height due to a number of reasons. No one in BJP has ever earned such unquestioned allegiance. No one is near him in popularity and image. That is one side of the coin. On the flip side, there is the lack of leaders who can challenge him. Alongside spreading the reach of his power, he also deftly has the state machinery in his hand. Neither has anyone before been able to control the 'fourth pillar' of democracy, the media, in such a manner.

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The constitutional autonomous institutions too also look towards Modi. Mixing Hindutva with his unprecedented administrative competence, he has created a religious political narrative in front of which the opposition is helpless. This time the election is so one-sided that the prime minister himself said, "Even abroad it is being said that Modi will come to power for sure. That is why they are so eager to draw up my tour schedule."    

One-sided political picture

Narendra Modi has carried out two tasks with diligence. Firstly, he has taken himself out of anyone's reach. He has one by one neutralised any possible challengers within the party. He did not allow cronyism to grow. Secondly, he has kept the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in control and established his authority. This is rare in the history of BJP and the Sangh. Thirdly, he did not let the oppositions unite.

Experts are showing how rigging is possible by EVM. This suspicion is so strong that there is even a case filed regarding EVM and the matter is undergoing hearing in the Supreme Court at present

He has done this by the skillful use of the state machinery. Alongside the ED, CBI, NIA and such investigative agencies, he has also used the Diligence Commission and the income tax department to keep the opposition apart, to keep them on their toes. As a result, for the first time in the Uttar Pradesh polls has the Bahujan Samaj Party been in such disorder. Mayawati's political career is on the wane. Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jaganmohan has lost his clout. BRS in Telangana remains silent.

Though part of the INDIA alliance, Trinamool Congress remains busy with itself. They are busy trying to keep their top leaders out of jail. In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena and NCP are in tatters. Aam Aadmi Party and Jharkand Mukti Morcha are not focussed on the election, but on bail for Aravind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren. Congress is like a ship without captain. It is like an old family of aristocratic lineage, financially weak and a social has-been. So BJP has an empty field before it. That is why the election scenario is so dull.

Unspoken anxiety

So even before the voting begins, can one blindly echo Modi's slogan that BJP will clinch 370 seats and the alliance 400 in all? Rajiv Gandhi had that honour back in 1984 after the death of Indira Gandhi!

Therein lies the nagging doubt. Despite scaling heights in the election arena, the continuous obeisance of the media and campaigning reaching the skies, it still cannot be said that even if Modi carries off a Nehru hat-trick, whether he will be able to cross the 400 mark.

The doubts persist because the elastic of the 2019 public referendum is pulled so tight, it cannot be stretched any further. BJP's achievements are full to the brim in north, central and west India. Even if this Hindi belt teeming with Hindutva sentiment yields a couple of extra votes, it will still be difficult for Modi to cross 400. Will the impossible be possible? That is possibly the biggest attraction of the election this time. It is important to delve into that picture of the election ambience.

In the Ayavarta, there is Gujarat (26), Rajasthan (25), Delhi (7), Himachal Pradesh (4), Uttarkhand (5) and Haryana (10) -- BJP won in each and every one of these 77 seats. So the election elastic can be stretched no further in these six states.

Outside of that, BJP and allies won 28 of 20 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 9 of 11 in Chhattisgarh, 12 of 14 in Jharkhand, 39 of 40 in Bihar and 64 of 80 in Uttar Pradesh. So in this Hindi belt, they won 152 of the 174 seats. Doing the math, of the 251 seats in 11 states, BJP achieved 229. That means, if they are to win all the seats in the Hindi belt, there are only 22 areas for increase.

Modi is confident, unruffled, unconcerned, unperturbed. Is the EVM behind this apparent complacence? The opposition is strongly suspicious

BJP fared well in other states too. Take Maharashtra for instance. BJP and Shiv Sena won 41 of the 48 seats there. In Karnataka, they won 25 out of 28. Things have paled in these two states. Campaigning is strong in West Bengal. BJP won 18 seats there last time and hope to win another 4 to 5 this time.

If Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal are added to the 11 states where their results were good, then the total seats are 367. Of these, BJP won 313 with their partners. If they are to cross 400, they need another 87. If they get 25 seats in the northeast including Assam, they will still need another 60 to 62 eats to cross 400. Where will that come from?

South indispensable, hence 'Sengol'

BJP's election machinery works 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. Their dawn breaks while everyone is still snoozing. From the previous election results, Modi and Co realised that if they are to score a hat-trick in 2024, they have to look south of the Vindhya Range. That is why the South looms large in the Sangh-BJP plans. That is why much deliberation was given to placing the sacred 'Sengol' in the new parliament building. Before constructing the Ram Mandir, Modi had gone around the temples of the South, paying homage.

The 'Sengol' was a symbol of changeover of power and good governance in Tamil Nadu's ancient Chola empire. Made of silver and plated in gold, this Sengol is a sceptre that would be handed over to the new king of the Chola dynasty. In 1947 the Tami Nadu's priests came to Delhi and handed over the Sengol to Jawaharlal Nehru.

BJP claims that this sceptre was the symbol of the handover of power by the British. Modi has placed that that Sengol in the Lok Sabha of the new Sangsad Bhaban. He wanted to win the hearts of the Tamil people by merging national politics with Tamil heritage and culture. If he fails to clinch the lion's share of Tamil Nadu's 39 seats, the dream will remain a far cry.

Other than Tamil Nadu, there are 20 seats in the southern state Kerala. These seats remain within the Congress and Left circuit. BJP can't win votes here. After the abject defeat in the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha election, BJP and JDS joined hands for the sake of survival. BJP made a similar alliance with the Telegu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh.

Last time BJP won 4 of the 11 seats in Telangana. This time Congress shoved BRS to one side and established its stronghold there. If the 130 seats of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana turn their backs to BJP this time too, what will happen to the slogan about crossing 400?

Politics of alliance

Though he came to power by forging an alliance, NDA, Modi gradually has been brushing aside the alliance partners. The old allies have left him one by one. Old allies like Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali realised that association with BJP means losing all self-respect and simply surviving somehow.

That same BJP, seeing the opposition's flurry of alliance efforts, has once again reached out its hand. Before drawing in Nitish Kumar's JDU, they boosted their alliance by splitting Shiv Sena and NSP. They pulled old allies JDS and TDP close. They held on to Uttar Pradesh's Apna Dal and also drew in the Jat-supported Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Backward Classes' Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party. They understand that little drops of water make and ocean (400). There are 16 seats for the additional win in Uttar Pradesh.

The INDIA alliance did not really take root. One reason is that BJP applied tough pressure on shaky allies. The other reason is the reluctance to give up their own turf. That is why Mamata Banerjee may be in an alliance in West Bengal, but still stands alone.

In Maharashtra, Ambedkar's party Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi has decided to fight in the fray alone. Even as a part of the Gupkar alliance to tackle BJP, the Kashmir National Conference and PDP failed to meet a seat understanding.

While Akhilesh and Rahul may have eventually joined hands in Uttar Pradesh, there had been a long-standing bitterness between them. It is doubtful if Akhilesh would have relinquished 17 seats for Congress had Jayanta Chowdhury's LRD not joined the BJP alliance. Had the Congress relinquished two or three seats to Akhilesh's party in the Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha polls and one or two to the Left in Rajasthan, then Congress could have strong demanded that they relent. Then INDIA would have been a studier alliance.

Alliances are visible in Bihar, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. Had Kejriwal not be arrested, Aam Aadmi Party would not have given up three seats to Congress in Delhi. They are still silent over any understanding in Punjab.

Modi in advantageous position, doubts over EVM

The opposition fears Modi's crossing 400 target. While that is true, it is also true that they are not aspiring to topple Modi and ascend to power. But the manner in which the crossing 400 rhetoric is being spewed out, the opposition has doubts concerning the EVM. The doubts can't be called completely unfounded. After all, it was through EVM rigging that BJP remains in power.

Experts are showing how rigging is possible by EVM. This suspicion is so strong that there is even a case filed regarding EVM and the matter is undergoing hearing in the Supreme Court at present. From the arguments in court, it is evident that the judges are strongly against leaving the EVM and returning to the ballot. Yet they also say that there is scope in interfere in a voting machine like the EVM.

Congress hasn't been able to breakthrough this mystery of how after their ruling for 18 years, BJP managed to get 8 per cent more votes in Madhya Pradesh this time! How did they gain 4 per cent more votes in Chhattisgarh to form the government there? They defeated the hugely popular Ashok Gehlot with almost two and a half per cent more votes in Rajasthan! Congress is beset with doubts but can't say anything as it won in Telangana.

Both math and chemistry are in Modi's favour this election too.  One can say with shut eyes, "advantage Modi". But that math and chemistry is not about crossing 400. And yet Modi is confident, unruffled, unconcerned, unperturbed. Is the EVM behind this apparent complacence? The opposition is strongly suspicious.

* Saumya Bandyopadhayay is Prothom Alo's Delhi correspondent

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