Special Report

Is India headed for a coalition government once again?

Is India headed for a coalition government once again?

With one more round of voting yet to go in the general elections, there is a sense of suspense building up before we get to know the final outcome on May 23. But with team Modi having lowered the expectation from a ‘bigger majority than 2014’ to a slightly reduced majority of 271 seats for the ruling party, there is speculation that the BJP may end up losing many more seats than what Ram Madhav has projected. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has also claimed that ‘Modi is going to lose’ Lok Sabha elections. His claim that ‘BJP is losing’ is based on the Congress party’s internal ‘assessment’ of polling so far.

There are several independent insights-cum-assessments floating around in the media. But nobody really knows for sure what the final outcome would be. However, one does get a sense of what could be the probabilities of a BJP win, Congress resurgence and the fate of others, which include the non-NDA and non-UPA regional parties. One thing there is lot of unanimity on, is that the BJP is unlikely to get majority on its own, though it will be the single largest party. In such a case, the NDA will fall short of a majority by 40 to 50 seats.

Even after taking into account Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity in the North and West, most pre-election opinion polls had predicted that NDA could fall short of majority, though, according to one poll, it will be the largest pre-poll alliance with a ‘comfortable’ margin. However, since voting began on April 11, some polling agencies have scaled down their predictions, based on ground reality and voter turnout. This indicates that most polling agencies may have ended up overestimating the BJP in their pre-poll surveys. Called the ‘playing safe’ factor, this is a fairly common occurrence in all Indian elections.

This happens because pollsters tend to play safe by overestimating the incumbent party and underestimating the Opposition and vice versa. It happened in 2004 (incumbent overestimated) and 2009 (incumbent underestimated) as also in 2014 (Opposition underestimated).

The 2004 poll outcome was a bolt from the blue for the BJP and then Prime Minister Vajpayee; 2009 was a shocker for the BJP and L K Advani, the prime ministerial aspirant then, and 2014 was an absolute blow for the Congress which lost badly because it did not defend itself with counter narrative and failed to communicate its achievements to voters, even though UPA-2 had done reasonably well.

The BJP and NDA went into this election with distinct advantage over their opponents. Opinion surveys showed that both the BJP and Congress are set to increase their vote share by 4 percentage points. However, in the case of BJP, this rise in vote share (because of its expansion in West Bengal and Odisha) will not be accompanied by a corresponding increase in its seat share, while the Congress is projected to double its seat tally.

So, what should we expect on May 23? Will the outcome be a repeat of 2004? There is evidence to suggest that the results could be a jolt for the BJP and a positive surprise for the Congress and others. That evidence is fairly visible in the prime minister’s campaign: in 2014, he grew in confidence and stature with each successive stage of the election; in the ongoing election, the reverse has happened.

He started strong in the afterglow of Balakot but later his speeches degenerated into an open display of desperation: flinging insults and accusations by the dozen at his opponents. Despite the BJP having tailored its entire campaign around the persona of Modi as an indispensible and irreplaceable leader without whom India’s security and economic growth would be imperilled, the campaign has failed to alter the electorate’s perception about the government’s failure to address issues that are of actual interest to voters.

In 2014, the ground was hospitable for a Modi wave; the voters were receptive to the promise of change and the electoral context was ideal for an almost clean sweep of seats across the north and west of India. That’s not the case in 2019. The election is highly polarised at many levels: caste, religion, region and leadership. In absence of a wave, it’s just not possible for Modi to replicate his 2014 success.

The BJP’s campaign strategy has failed to generate positive sentiment because it has had no answers to voter queries about broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. Therefore, at the very essence, the general election will be decided on the basis of the government’s achievements and failures. There is little doubt that all’s is not well with the economy, which is on the downward spiral as the rural economy and unorganised sectors have still not recovered from the shocks of demonetisation and clumsy implementation of GST.

Rising unemployment, agrarian distress, corruption, institutional independence, intolerance and chain of violence against the minority community and Dalits have been the focus of the Opposition’s election campaign, while the BJP has chosen to wrap itself in the national flag and declare itself the sole protector of national security and integrity.

This could misfire as reports of polling in six phases so far suggest that the BJP is likely to struggle to get 200 seats because the losses it will suffer in the western and northern states are unlikely to be compensated by gains in the East–West Bengal, Odisha and the North-East There is unanimity among independent analysts that the BJP may lose as many as 80 to 100 seats; in a worst case scenario, it could even end up getting 170 to 180 seats.

The Congress, on the other hand, may better its tally to 95 to 120 seats or may rise to 140-150. This gives rise to the possibility of a coalition government at the Centre, with good chances even for the Congress for steering such a government. This is more in line with outcomes of past elections which threw coalition governments. In fragmented verdicts, the total seats garnered by the two mainstream parties – the Congress and BJP – have been between 280 and 320.

This scenario may repeat in 2019. Could that be the reason why the stock market has fallen by nearly 1500 points on the Sensex over the last eight sessions? Two major factors have led to the slide: the US-China trade war and the elections.

Earlier the market was factoring in the return of BJP-led NDA with a reduced majority. Now the market seems to be worried that this may not come true. The possibility of at least four regional parties emerging kingmakers at the Centre is causing a lot of consternation among analysts, traders and investors. Hence the wild swings and negative closing on a daily basis since May 2.

A L I Chougule is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.



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