Rahul Gandhi and Congress apart, triple anti-incumbency looms as major threat to Narendra Modi's return in 2019

BJP is hopeful of bettering its 2014 Lok Sabha performance in 2019. It has formed governments in 13 states which have held elections after May 2014 and retained two states. Along with its allies, the party now rules 20 states which send 63 percent of total MPs to the Lower House. Narendra Modi’s approval ratings remain high and he enjoys a lead of over 30 percent versus Rahul Gandhi in India Today Mood of the Nation Survey.

However, all is not hunky dory for the party. BJP has lost four Lok Sabha by-polls held in 2018, all in the Hindi heartland. The Opposition has smelled blood and Congress is leading discussions to form a grand alliance. Whereas, regional parties like TMC and TRS have initiated a discussion to form a Federal Front. Amidst this background, a number of commentators have started questioning BJP's ability to repeat its historic performance in 2019.

Narendra Modi

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

These alliances, formed purely on an anti-Modi plank, may not worry the prime minister at this stage too much.

While it is no mean feat to lead a majority government at the Centre, having chief ministers in two-third states and 274 MPs in Lok Sabha — the highest tally of any party since 1984 — could act as a double-edged sword. In addition to this, BJP now has 35 percent of all India MLAs and controls many municipalities across the country. This heightens the risk of BJP facing triple anti-incumbency in 2019. It is the biggest threat to Modi making a comeback in 2019 in my opinion.

People feel Modi factor was the only reason BJP won in 2014. However, his popularity alone doesn't explain the full story of BJP’s historic mandate. Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) carried out a National Election Study 2014 and asked respondents the following question:

"While voting some people give importance to the local candidate, others to the state level leadership of the party and some others to the prime ministerial candidate. How would you describe yourself?"

In response to the question, 28 percent voters gave importance to the prime ministerial candidate, 26 percent to the local candidate and 18 percent to the state-level leadership. And therein lies the biggest headache for BJP. A good 44 percent of people gave due consideration to the local candidate and top leadership of parties in contention in the states while casting their vote.

One of the primary reasons for UPA's loss in 2014 was that it suffered from similar triple anti-incumbency. UPA was in power for 10 years at the Centre, UPA had chief ministers in 16 states and Congress had 206 MPs. A section of people were fed up with the corruption scandals under Manmohan Singh’s government and the falling economy, some were unhappy with the performance of the state governments of UPA and others with the non-performance of its MPs. All this led to a significant built-up of anger among public resulting in a humiliating loss for Congress, down from 206 to a historic low of 44 MPs and less than 20 percent vote share.

Politicians are adept at shifting blame. In state elections wherein Opposition rules at the Centre, ruling party pins the blame on the central government for non-cooperation and non-release of funds. This strategy has been effectively utilised by Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat BJP governments over the decades. We are now witnessing similar strategy being employed by Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh.

In state elections after 2014, BJP blamed Opposition governments for not utilising funds released by the Modi government and won many states. However, now the states where BJP is in power cannot shift the blame to the Centre for not fulfilling their manifesto promises. Similarly, during the campaign in 2019, Modi can't shift the blame on state governments for not delivering on his pet projects. This puts BJP campaign strategists in a quandary.

BJP will likely deny tickets to many sitting MPs like in MCD polls where it replaced all corporators. As per my sources, this number could range from 50-80. This way BJP hopes to negate the local candidate level anti-incumbency. This way BJP will try to sell that it's being proactive and will not tolerate non-performance.

BJP hopes that since many MPs are lightweights, replacing them will not give rise to any big rebellion. But as we have seen above, local candidates played almost similar role as Modi factor in 2014.

Additionally, national elections are not corporation elections. Federal Front / Third Front which may not have candidates in many seats can give tickets to some of these candidates.

BJP also may not be able to hold on to declaring the names of the candidate till the last moment, especially if a grand alliance and or a third front announces candidates early to exploit the three levels of anti-incumbency.

To conclude, BJP’s electoral success of the last four years that has seen it control almost two-thirds of India could become its own enemy, hobbling prospects of a slam dunk victory in 2019. Unlike in the past, it will not be able to assign blame for not fulfilling promises to others. Moreover, opponents’ barbs of the government failing on the jobs and agrarian front are finding their targets and Rahul Gandhi is surely albeit slowly climbing in the leadership league tables. If all these weren’t enough, there’s anti-incumbency against state governments and BJP MPs, all of which could complicate matters.

Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker who is now following his passion for politics and elections. He is the co-founder of LoudST and can be reached @politicalbaaba on Twitter


Updated Date: Mar 26, 2018 17:52 PM

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