The battle has well and truly begun, the election commission has sounded the bugle for elections 2019. Elections are both a marathon cum steeplechase with many crazy jumps and hurdles along the way so making predictions at the start of the arduous race is hazardous. And yet, let me place 10 reasons why I believe Narendra Modi is the clear front runner as of now.
1) if modern day elections are about money, 'machine' and media, Team Modi has the huge advantage. Never before in the history of Indian elections has the media narrative been so cravenly one sided, the war chest available to the ruling party so massive and the party machine to connect with voters across platforms been so finely tuned. Where the BJP has the look of a glitzy, well oiled Ferrari, the Congress resembles a second hand, ancien regime Ambassador (the joke in political circles is the Congress is a 'poor' party with wealthy leaders!). Not surprisingly, the BJP has already outspent its rivals several times over and will continue to enjoy a distinct resource edge in an extended campaign.
2) Mr Modi remains India's neta number one by some distance. On the campaign trail, a pugnacious Modi has demonstrated indefatigable energy, sharp communication skills and the ability to punch above his party's weight. The Modi hai to Mumkin hai is a tag line that has made the BJP and the government indistinguishable from and subservient to the charismatic individual at the top: a constant stereophonic sound of applause is amplified by the vast army of cheerleaders thereby ensuring that the hype is sustained on social media and beyond. This is a bit like the Bachchan movies of the late 70s where even the occasional bad script did not stop the film from getting a bumper opening: in a personality cult driven political milieu, Mr Modi's 70 mm larger than life presence continues to give the BJP a crucial 2 to 3 per cent boost. He has already done more poll-related rallies and events than all his principal rivals put together. Yes, there could be creeping disenchantment with the populist rhetoric and incessant event marketing that isn't always matched by the reality on the ground but there is little sign yet of voter anger : the Modi balloon hasn't burst just yet. Not even the terribly ill-conceived and ruinous DeMo has grounded NaMo: the carefully constructed image of the hard-working 'karma yogi' with the political will and daring to take risks is relatively intact, Balakote being seen as the latest example of his decisive leadership.
3) Amit Shah's election 'engineering': in 2014, Amit Shah was in charge of UP, a state he delivered to the BJP with spectacular results. In 2019, he is as party president, in charge of the BJP across the country. There is no 'one formula fits all' model that works in Indian politics: the BJP under Shah suffered big defeats in Bihar and Delhi in 2015. But a resourceful and ruthless Shah personifies a 'saam, daam, dand, bhed', 'ends matter more than means' political philosophy: notice how smaller parties like Shivpal Yadav's breakaway group in UP are being propped up to split the opposition vote or a pesky Shiv Sena has been accommodated despite the public warring. Moreover, with a committed sangh parivar cadre base and a well-entrenched booth worker set-up, the BJP organisation has a last mile connectivity advantage with its potential voters.
4) The inert state of the Congress: In the three months since its victories in the assembly elections in three important Hindi heartland states, the Congress has been unable to build on the momentum. While the Modi government has moved quickly to overcome its weaknesses and announced sops to farmers, upper castes, and small and micro enterprises , it's been business as usual in the Congress: familiar stories of factionalism, intrigue and tardy decision making have prevented the grand old party from seizing the opportunity. Maybe the assembly victories bred complacency or the verdict was misread as an anti Modi mandate. In states like Maharashtra for example, which is key to a deeper Congress revival, there are few signs that the party has truly got its act together. Truth is, a patient called Indian National Congress has crept out of ICU but is still in need of urgent rehab. As a result, in the direct BJP vs Congress state battles the former still could edge it.
6) Rahul Gandhi's uneven leadership: Rahul Gandhi remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery. The 2017 Gujarat fight and the 2018 December assembly wins earned him new found respect as a combative campaigner. But he still hasn't shown the organisational or man management skills, or the sharp political instincts to be seen as a natural contender for power, or indeed, a magnet for the entire opposition. Why, for example, he hasn't made a greater attempt to reach out to a Mayawati or Mamata at a personal level is mystifying or why he hasn't sought to project a Team Rahul brand of dynamic younger leaders around him. His Rafale-centric campaign is a double edged sword: while it has given him a political saliency and removed the fear of Modi in the minds of an average Congress worker, the excessive focus at times detracts from core issues like agrarian distress and job creation where the Modi government seems far more vulnerable
7) The 'maha-gatbandhan' conundrum: the opposition has still not been able to hit upon a common minimum agenda or a cohesive platform that goes beyond anti-Modisim or identify a collective leadership that can challenge the 'Modi versus who' 'maha-milawat' narrative in the election run up rather than simply rely on post poll alignments. By not implementing its original plan of fighting 543 'localised' elections as a common front, the opposition now has risked a divided vote, especially in crucial states like UP. That even in the seven seats of Delhi, the AAP and Congress could not come to an agreement mirrors the opposition predicament of internal contradictions and past animosities leading to bitter turf wars. The Congress in particular needs to decide now: is this election about its own revival or about minimising the BJP numbers across India at all costs. Regional bosses too, like a Mayawati for example , need to be clear which side of the battle they are actually on rather than keeping all options open.
8) the BJP's psephological advantage. Yes, the BJP maxed out in north and western India in 2014, winning almost 90 per cent of the seats across this part of the country. That kind of strike rate is unlikely to be replicated but the BJP could still end up atleast 75-100 seats ahead of its closest rivals because of an expanded footprint. Don't forget that the BJP won 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 by more than 3 lakh votes, 75 seats by more than 2 Lakhs and 38 by more than 1.5 lakhs. Net-net: it will require a huge swing away from the BJP for it to be prevented from emerging the single largest party. And once the BJP crosses a 200 seat threshold, they will be within striking distance of power.
9) The key state of Uttar Pradesh is still for the BJP to lose: the announcement of the BSP-SP alliance was greeted with much enthusiasm by the opposition as was the arrival of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into 'formal' politics. But the Bua-Bhatija alliance still lacks the on ground chemistry to match the arithmetic (will, for example, Yadav voters readily switch to the BSP candidates) and Priyanka's rather tentative entry has failed to shake the political box office. The BJP, by contrast, has invested a large share of its political capital in UP, hoping to ride on the prime minister's appeal and his claim to have implemented direct benefit, pro poor 'welfarist' 'vikaas' programmes that cut across the traditional caste divides. If the BJP retains even half of the 73 seats it won in UP in 2014, it is difficult to look beyond a Modi sarkar returning to power (as of now, UP and Rajasthan are the only two states where the BJP is looking at near-certain double digit losses). The road to Delhi in 2019 will almost certainly lead through Lucknow: this is the do or die battle of this election but only one side has shown the drive to conquer so far.
10) Pulwama, Pakistan, Balakote air strikes and the 'new' young Hindutva voter : from Jai Shri ram to Bharat Mata ki Jai, from Mandir to Pakistan, from saffron robe sadhu-sants to the men in military fatigues, the Modi government is banking on a shifting post Pulwama and Balakote agenda that puts national security at the centre of the political narrative. This brand of aggressive politics, with a not so subliminal anti minority dog whistle messaging, may have limited impact in remote rural areas and the BJP-phobic non Hindutva states of southern India, but it can make a key difference in urban pockets, the Hindi heartland and a younger demographic which seems most swayed by Mr Modi's 'new India' 'mazboot sarkar' macho pitch. Remember there are 8.45 crore first time voters who could be influenced by the strident anti-Pakistan, tough on terror, 'let's settle Kashmir once and for all' talk. Not to forget the BJP's core Hindu right middle class constituency for whom the spectre of 'conflict' with an Islamist Pakistan offers an emotional connect with militant Hindutva revivalism. Unless the opposition can now re-ignite a more focussed debate on the 'kisan-naujawan' economy, the Modi machine, pushing ahead on the steroid of muscular nationalism, has clearly set the 2019 agenda.
Post-script: as a caveat, I must refer to the build up to the 2004 elections. Then, as now, there appeared no one but Atalji, as the likely prime minister. His re-election was even a greater certainty than Mr Modi's appears today. And yet, he lost when the two southern states of TN and Andhra went against his allies, and UP, inexplicably, failed to reflect any pro incumbent 'Shining India' sentiment. Waves aren't built in and around the capital's echo chambers and instant studio analysis is often rejected in the heat and dust of the hinterland. Which is why watch this space: after all, in India, voter behaviour is a bit like the weather in London, ever changing!