Polling officials carrying EVMs at Sukma, in India’s Chhattisgarh state, embark an aircraft bound for a polling station on Wednesday, ahead of the country’s upcoming general election.—AFP
Polling officials carrying EVMs at Sukma, in India’s Chhattisgarh state, embark an aircraft bound for a polling station on Wednesday, ahead of the country’s upcoming general election.—AFP

NEW DELHI: India begins its crucial national elections on Friday amid hopes and fears for its troubled democracy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the most right-wing leader to head the country, is hoping to win a third consecutive term, the first time since Jawaharlal Nehru, while his rejuvenated rivals say he could lose.

Mr Modi says he is confident of getting more than 400 seats in the 18th Lok Sabha, a brute majority of in the 545-seat lower house, a feat achieved only once by Rajiv Gandhi.

The Bharatiya Janata Party hopes to increase its tally from 303 to 370, the rest coming from other members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It is widely feared that Mr Modi would seek to use the majority to change the constitution to align with his idea of Hindu Rashtra.

Opposition sees an opening for itself in PM’s northern stronghold; Modi says he is confident of getting more than 400 seats in Lok Sabha

Mr Modi’s hitherto fractious rivals comprising regional parties plus the Congress, recently cobbled the India National Development Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc. They are pitching for the removal of the NDA from power for its “whimsical policies, narcissistic hegemony, communal avowal as well as violence against the minorities and the fear factor against any dissent”.

Ground reports say there is no Modi wave evident in any part of the country, but these are early days. The biggest chunk of seats will be in the fray on Friday, covering 102 races in 21 states. The remaining six phases of the polls, including the last leg on June 1, will make these the longest elections in memory. Security is cited as the reason, and it would involve the deployment of 3.4 lakh paramilitary forces in rotation.

West Bengal, where the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to expand from the 18 of 42 seats it won last time, would see polls in all seven phases. A maximum of 92,000 security personnel are likely to be deployed there.

The BJP had just two seats in the state in 2014.

The NDA is banking largely on the so-called Modi magic together with the Ram Mandir and the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Every BJP leader is reinforcing Hindutva, which otherises the Muslims. The BJP’s manifesto is personalised as ‘Modi ki Guarantee’, with the programmes of a decade-long rule listed. The Congress’s promise of ten forms of justice has fresh appeal: “We promise you greater freedom, faster growth, more equitable development and justice for all.”

The rub however is in the numbers. Mr Modi’s 39 per cent votes got him 55 per cent seats in 2019. In so doing, he obviously won by dividing the 61 per cent votes cast for non-BJP parties.

The opposition sees in this a chance, which requires it to unite where it matters. The question is where would Mr Modi find the extra 67 opposition seats while not losing any of his to account for the BJP’s goal of hitting 370 without allies.

The opposition sees an opening for itself in Mr Modi’s northern stronghold. Much has changed since 2019 when he won all seven seats in Delhi, all 10 in Haryana, all 25 in Rajasthan, 25 of 48 in Maharashtra, 27 of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, all 26 in Gujarat, 62 of 80 in Uttar Pradesh, 22 of 40 in Bihar, all five in Uttarakhand and all four in Himachal Pradesh.

That adds up to 213 seats for the BJP from the northern stronghold. Elsewhere, the BJP picked up 25 out of 28 in Karnataka, eight of 21 in Odisha and four from 17 in Telangana. The BJP won two seats from 25 in Andhra Pradesh. It’s saturated in the north and in the absence of a divisive issue clicking, the chances are it could only go down from there.

In Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh the Congress has taken power since the last elections. The BJP might improve its tally in Andhra Pradesh where it has cobbled an alliance with the Telugu Desam. Wild guesses have been made, however. Rahul Gandhi says the Modi alliance could be restricted to 180, nearly a hundred short of a majority.

Shiv Sena’s Uadhav Thackeray on whose strength the BJP won handsomely in Maharashtra feels, not without a tinge of bitterness that the BJP would get just 45 seats. And the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal says it would get twice the number of seats than the BJP in the state, which should worry Mr Modi’s supporters.

After the Muzaffarnagar communal polarisation of 2014 and Pulwama-Balakot nationalist fervour fuelled his campaign in 2019, the Modi souffle has so far failed to rise again.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2024

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