Saturday, April 13, 2019

General Elections 2019

As around most other elections these last few years, the election campaigns have begun with shrill accusations and far fetched promises. The incumbent NDA government is facing a combined opposition, with many regional parties suggested to give a stiff fight in the elections for the 17th Lok Sabha.

In this post, I will try to analyze the major trends that in my opinion will be witnessed in these elections:

1. Election promises and cash freebies

Farmer distress is real, and the message was delivered to BJP and Congress alike by the verdict of the Vidhan Sabha election results of 2018 in 5 key states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh. This resulted in formation of the PM-KISAN scheme (6000 per annum basic income to farmers), farm loan waiver across 17 states since 2017 (estimated at ~50 billion dollars), and now promises of a basic income support (NYAY) of Rs. 6000 per month to poor families by Congress.

Even for the unorganized workers, the pension scheme (PMSYM) promising pension of Rs.3000 per month is a step in same direction, since workers of age < 40 years are eligible and thus can reap benefits after 20 years only.

2. Dusk of Rahul Gandhi’s and Dawn of Priyanka Gandhi’s political career

Junior Gandhi has been heavily trolled for years now. A section of Congress had always yearned for Priyanka Gandhi to take command of the party, given her organizational and oratorial commands, and her uncanny resemblance to Indira Gandhi. With the election results win in 3 key states in 2018 assembly elections and with the general expectation that from the previous tally of 44, Congress tally is expected to go up to 70-80, Rahul Gandhi will get an opportunity to take a reduced role in a resurgent Congress and leave command in the hands of a more capable Priyanka Gandhi.

3. Nationalistic fervor and comatose rafale scam

The BJP has well capitalized on the surgical strikes in Balakot in a response to Pulwama suicide attack masterminded by Jaish terrorists based out of Pakistan. The narrative that Indian air force bombed terrorist camps in Pakistan territory (going beyond PoK) and in the dogfight managed to shoot down a 5th generation F16 with a 3.5th generation Mig21 has been bought by Indians. The opposition has been mostly rendered toothless now on the rafale scam with no incriminating documents brought on record so far, other than alleged parallel negotiations which could’ve made the deal costlier. In a way, Modi Shah duo has managed to take complete steam out of the Rafale scam narrative that was a major agenda item for Congress for past 1 year, for the purpose of these elections. The law will continue taking its own course on finding if there were any actual irregularities, but for the purpose of these elections there should not be much spillover effect now.

4. Modi vs Combined opposition

During the state elections in 2018, one of the interesting election slogans in Rajasthan was “Modi Tujhse Bair nahi, Rani teri Khair nahi” (Modi we have no problem with you, but the queen Vasundhara will not be spared). The slogan is an interesting insight on how the average voter might vote - many see the humbling defeat of BJP in the recent assembly elections as enough of a punishment/lesson, and may vote for the incumbent. The fact that direct benefit schemes like PM-KISAN was launched also helps BJP in an image makeover vis a vis farmers. Even though demonetization failed in its stated objective of bringing black money to surface (while having some other unstated benefits), many voters still consider Modi to be a better leader than the projected/absent alternatives for a better development of India. This sentiment is going to hurt the opposition in its final tally.

5. Transition of Congress party from a national party to the national glue

The Congress of today is not even a shadow of its formal self of the 1950’s, when towering leaders of Indian independence movement were all part of it. So, many regional parties (like AIADMK, DMK, JDU, JDS, Trinamool, BSP, SP, BJD, AGP, NCP, TDP, Shiv Sena etc), and a national party (BJP) have now taken over the space vacated by it over the past 70 years. However, being the oldest party, Congress still has a large recall value for the lay Indians. Thus, the party is today acting more like a glue holding the other regional parties together in a combined opposition, rather than being the challenger in its own right.

6. The downfall of AAP

Aam Aadmi party has a sub altern core base that will continue supporting it in the next few elections to come. However, with the antics of incessant Dharnas and honesty certificates in the first half of its tenure, with an insistence on a Congress alliance for Lok Sabha election, and reports of cash hoarding by one of its MLAs, the party is steadily moving away from its core ideology of clean politics on which it was founded during the Anna Hazare movement. With exit of intellectual political brains like Yogendra Yadav, and Bhushans, AAP is slowly becoming a shadow of its former self, and will continue disenchanting its urban supporters.

Given the party largely uses clean donations to function, it is going to be squeezed further in the future for its party funding. Even otherwise, with its stellar performance in 2014 Delhi elections where it won 67/70 seats, its tally is bound to come down, which will strengthen the narrative that the party is on a downward trend.

7. NDA vs Mahagathbandan?

BJP has managed to swallow its (IMO vainful) pride and has accommodated key allies in Bihar(JDU, LJP), UP(Apna Dal, Nishad Party), Maharashtra(Shiv Sena), Punjab(Akali Dal), Tamil Nadu(AIADMK) and north east (North East Democratic Alliance with AGP and others).

Given that 1) TDP is not contesting in Telangana 2) YSRCP may gain some seats in Andhra, and 3) BJD has stayed away from both BJP and Congress, there is further room for NDA to cobble up post election allies amongst Jagan Mohan, KCR, and Naveen patnaik. There is a definite appearance of NDA coming back to power, though for BJP to get a majority if its own seems almost a miracle at this point (But then, so was it the last time in 2014).

On the other hand, Congress has been hit by its inability to have seat sharing arrangements in UP, and Delhi/Punjab. Even in other states such as Maharashtra (NCP), Bihar(RJD, RLD), Karnataka(JDS) and West Bengal(CPI), its partners have driven hard bargains, thus Congress having to surrender 2-3 extra seats in every state. Thus in terms of political arrangement, BJP appears to be on a much stronger footing than Congress.

8. The social media effect

Social media is an echo chamber, and once a high decibel argument enters inside, it gets reverberated incessantly. BJP realized it early on, Congress and other parties have caught on well to it now. However, with the Cambridge Analytica and US election meddling by Russia already disclosed in 2016, most of the social media companies are going to be extra vigilant about avoiding another PR nightmare created by a non state actor again. Thus while the ability to influence will hopefully be limited, the basic echo chamber character of the social media sites is bound to produce hyper amplification of opinions. With the Jio launched price wars having brought 4g internet in power of many lay Indians, social media effect is here to stay, and election campaigns in future will continue to get shriller and more divisive.

9. Fake news

There is a popular meme: “On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog”. Similarly, on the internet, nobody knows if the news is authenticated or validated or not. Thus in an environment of social media supported echo chambers, fake news gets propagated unchecked. One just needs to view one such post, before the automated algorithms start showing similar news posts with higher frequency, since most social media sites are algorithmically designed to grab more eyeballs.

10. Right is the new centre

With its successful election wins from 2014 to 2017 in the national elections as well as in many state elections, the BJP was able to project an aura of invincibility. This led to the Congress adopting tones of Soft Hindutva (for the first time in its history of existence in independent India?). Temple runs by Congress president, Flip flop and agitations against Sabarimala verdict of Supreme Court, Usage of NSA against Cow smugglers, schemes for temples and cows in newly won states of Rajasthan and MP in 2018 state elections seem to be a new normal. This has pushed the other right wing party further right, where many unfortunate comments can be seen in news today. However, by this step, there is also the perception of space vacated from the centre. This could explain why Congress/Rahul Gandhi may have decided to also contest from Wayanad (Kerala) against a candidate from left - to give the projection that it is still a party of centrism.