Despite war rhetoric, the BJP’s tally is likely to take a hit in the Lok Sabha polls
However, Congress has to be careful in direct contests with the ruling party
Months before the Lok Sabha polls, the political discourse has undergone a shift. From questions on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies, the farm crisis gripping parts of India, irregularities in the Rafale deal and unemployment, the focus has shifted to national security.
But does this change in the dominant theme – one will have to see how long it lasts, as border tensions have eased after the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan by Pakistan despite residual war rhetoric – entail a change in voting patterns of people?
Prolonged field trips alone can answer this question, but there are certain preliminary observations that can be made.
The BJP may cut some of its losses, but is still likely to fall way short of its 2014 Lok Sabha tally.
The reason: political arithmetic in some large, key states is against a repeat of 2014.
Let us first consider Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India sending 80 members to the Lok Sabha. It is this state that single-handedly gave the BJP its majority in 2014, with the party in alliance with the Apna Dal winning 73 of the 80 seats.
The Modi wave of 2014 – which was still going strong in 2017, when assembly elections were held – saw the BJP just breach the 40 per cent mark in terms of votes polled in the state.
This gave it a decisive edge in a triangular contest.
However, with the Samajwadi Party and BSP closing ranks this time around, the challenge for the BJP is steep, irrespective of the salience of a hyper-nationalist rhetoric that the party is attempting to ride on.
Let us add just the core votes of the SP, BSP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has a Jat base in western parts of the state.
As per the 1931 census – the last caste census held – the upper castes are just above 20 per cent of UP’s population. Brahmins crossed 9 per cent, Rajputs stood at 7.9 per cent, and there was a sprinkling of Baniyas and Kayasths.
If we look at the core constituencies of the grand alliance, Dalits constitute 21 per cent of UP’s population, with the Jatavs, the leather-working caste that Mayawati comes from, numbering 56 per cent of all Dalits in the state. Yadavs constituted 8.7 per cent of UP’s population in 1931. Muslims constitute 19 per cent of the state in the 2011 census.
Thus, the core of the grand alliance alone – if we add the 1.5 per cent Jats who are believed to constitute 7 per cent of the population of the western districts alone – adds up to 41-42 per cent votes. Here, only the leather working Dalits are counted and not all Dalits.
It is, thus, clear that the committed core base of the grand alliance is about double that of the BJP.
However, the BJP has since 2014 added a large chunk of the amorphous lower OBC category – often called non-Yadav OBC by observers. However, this category is not as coherently knit as Yadavs, Dalits or Muslims as a political constituency and may split to some extent.
Even if it does not split, the grand alliance is easily an equal of what the BJP was at the height of the Modi wave, if not more powerful than it. This can in itself cut down half the seats of the BJP in the state in the best of circumstances, meaning a loss of 35-40 seats. If the dent is deeper, the BJP may well stare at a loss of 50 or more seats from UP alone. It is to be noted that Muslims and Dalits are evenly distributed across the state, giving the grand alliance a presence throughout UP.
Can these core votes of the grand alliance split in the present “nationalist” wave? This is unlikely. For, Muslims read the present wave of hyper-nationalism as ranged more against them than against Pakistan. The BSP’s core base is Ambedkarite by training and sees representation as very important. The only irritant for Mayawati can be the Bhim Army, which may slice off some of its votes, mainly in some districts of west UP. However, the Bhim Army is too new an outfit to really damage the grand alliance in more than a handful of seats. Mayawati would, however, have to be wary of Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan’s future political trajectory, as she has not groomed a successor yet. If the Bhim Army chief – who comes from not just the Scheduled Caste category but her own caste – joins the Congress at a later date, the party could in future split the BSP’s committed base.
As for the Yadavs, they seem strongly behind the SP. And the wave of hyper-nationalism does not matter much for Yadavs and Jats. For, they have a powerful representation in the army and paramilitary forces and feel a sense of ownership over the discourse of national security, unlike the BJP’s core support base of commercial castes, at best distant admirers of a muscular nationalism without being soldiers themselves.
It is unlikely that the shift towards national security can hit entrenched regional parties hard. The BJP is still far behind Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, though it may be able to register a slightly better tally. Its victories can only come in places where there is a marked Hindu-Muslim polarisation or where its candidate is powerful. It can dent the TMC in just a handful of seats, in other words. And since the party does not have really well-known faces in Bengal, the gains in terms of seats may be modest, at best.
Even as the BJP seeks to cut losses in the north-east, where it has to deal with the unease over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, it has failed to expand in South India, despite its efforts to dent the left’s support base in Kerala over the women’s temple entry issue in Sabarimala. Vote percentage gains translate into seat gains only when a critical mass is breached.
So, if the BJP is set to encounter losses in UP and perhaps the north-east with no commensurate gains in South India, Bengal or Odisha, where can it cut its electoral losses from?
The answer, clearly, is the states where the party is pitted directly against the Congress.
And here lies the challenge for the Congress, which had been able to employ rural distress as a powerful issue to beat the BJP in states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, apart from almost scrapping through in the Gujarat assembly polls.
The Congress has lost the winning narrative of farm woes that it had assiduously built in the last one year – lending its voice to farmers’ anger – to the new tide of hyper-nationalism post-Pulwama. It remains to be seen if it can reclaim it or the discourse around Rafale irregularities before May.
But, what the party really needs is to be able to match up to the BJP where rhetoric on nationalism is concerned. Else, the BJP may cut its losses in direct fights with the Congress, and the grand old party’s individual tally may get hit.
Till now, any questions on the Balakot air strike – the global media have largely bought the theory of the Pakistani establishment that the bombs fell at a vacant spot -- have been answered by the government with a counter-question: are you questioning the armed forces?
The Congress is wary of this question, party leaders admit in private. For, it has not devised a way of separating the criticism of the government from criticism of the armed forces.
It is BJP president Amit Shah and unnamed government sources that have put the Balakot casualty figure at 250-300, not the armed forces. The Indian Air Force made it clear it does not count casualties.
Besides, number of casualties apart, while it is the armed forces’ duty to strike at terror targets, it is the government’s responsibility to convince the world – including the global media – that its version is correct and that of Pakistan is propaganda.
This, however, the Congress has hitherto been unable to argue convincingly.
Powerful regional parties with local issues and constituencies may not be impacted much by this wave of hyper-nationalism.
However, it is the Congress – the party of the freedom struggle and one that can take credit for India’s past war successes against Pakistan – that has to find ways to take on the BJP on the issue of nationalism.