Predicting elections in a diverse country like India, and that too almost a year in advance, is impossible. Hence, with that disclaimer, I concede that this article is not a forecast. It is an attempt to find a plausible scenario for 2019, and to quantify the two biggest factors at play at the moment — the ebbing of the Modi wave, and the attempts at opposition unity. What will these two factors cost the BJP+ in terms of seats?
The ebbing of the Modi wave has been covered in many articles. By-election results have shown the same. Various media surveys also point to a small but significant erosion in BJP’s voter base. A section of voters is disappointed over factors such as high taxes, too much polarisation, disagreement with certain policies or simply dissonance compared to very high expectations in 2014. This erosion could be anything from 5%-20% of BJP voters, depending on location, socio-economic profile and the alternative candidate.
The second big factor at play is opposition unity. Despite huge ideological differences, historical rivalry and massive egos, some opposition leaders have been able to come together. Whether in Bihar in 2015, in Karnataka recently or even in the various by-elections, opposition forces gave up individual greed for collective greed, got the poll arithmetic right, and were successful too.
To see a potential impact on seats, let us focus only on three clusters that make up a majority of the BJP’s seats won in 2014. These are…
1. UP, the one single multi-cornered contest state that matters most (BJP spectacularly won 71 of 80 seats)
2. RCMG (Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, MP and Gujarat) — the two-cornered contest states where BJP won 88 of the 91 seats
3. MKB (Maharashtra, Karnataka and Bihar), where contests are multi-cornered but the BJP did moderately well with 62 out of 111 seats.
Just these three clusters gave the BJP 221 of the total 282 seats it won in 2014 on its own. Hence, for simplicity, let’s focus on these 221 seats and what might happen here.
First, UP is where the BJP can suffer the most damage. Even at the height of the Modi wave, when BJP won 71 out of 80 seats in LS 2014, its vote share was 42%. The BSP, SP and Cong still had a combined vote share of 49%. If these three parties come together, like they did in recent by-elections, and BJP’s own vote share erodes by a mere 5% points, we would see a huge upset. The BJP could lose say 40 seats in UP alone.
In RCMG, BJP’s own vote share was 50% or more. These states are essentially two-cornered contests. Hence, opposition unity can do little to damage the BJP. What does affect the BJP is anti-incumbency. Opinion polls are showing upsets in MP and Rajasthan, at least in the assembly elections. Of course, LS elections are different but the near-perfect score from last time is tough to obtain again. Of the 88 seats it won here, it is plausible that the BJP can lose 20 seats.
The third cluster, or KMB, is a tricky one for the BJP. The opposition seems to have found a way to unite well here. The JD(S) and Congress will fight together in Karnataka, and the RJD will whip up a solid alliance in Bihar. In Maharashtra, the relationship with the Shiv Sena is tricky and if they don’t do a good seat split, their votes could be massively divided. In the KMB cluster, of the 62 seats BJP won in 2014, it could lose say 25 seats.
Add the seat loss of the above three clusters (40+20+25), and we have an 85-seat loss at the national level. Given that BJP won 282 seats and the NDA combine 336, an 85-seat loss would mean BJP at 197 and the current NDA at 251 seats (including Shiv Sena/TDP, which is not guaranteed now). Since we have 543 seats in total, even 251 for the NDA means less than a majority and 292 seats for others. This leaves a possibility for all kinds of permutations and combinations to also have a shot at reaching the magic majority number of 272.
This is very similar, in fact, to the UPA-II result in 2009, where the Congress won 206 seats, which then easily managed to pull together a majority coalition. Of course, the BJP finds it more difficult to pull allies than Congress. Hence, what will happen remains to be seen. Overall, it will signal the return of coalition politics in the country. Some say that is what leads to heavy corruption. Then again, some say, a majority government becomes too authoritarian and can also be corrupt.
A lot will change in the course of the year.
However, one thing is clear. The Indian voter will never settle. It will keep its vote dynamic, and the slogan for 2019 elections is this — ab ki baar, kya pata kiski sarkaar!