The Hindu (Mumbai)

‘BJP has an edge, but a tough fight is possible’

Satisfacti­on levels with the NDA government remain significan­t but numbers have come down since the 2019 prepoll survey; while 48% respondent­s back Modi, 27% back Rahul Gandhi for PM

- Suhas Palshikar, Sanjay Kumar & Sandeep Shastri Director-Academics, Sandeep Shastri NITTE is Education Trust, and the National Coordinato­r of the Lokniti Network; Suhas Palshikar taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics;

Three weeks before the 2024 general election was to commence, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) enjoyed a comfortabl­e 12 percentage point lead over the rival alliance, INDIA, according to the CSDSLoknit­i prepoll survey. The Narendra Modi factor continues to play a major role in providing the NDA with its advantage. However, livelihood­related issues are emerging as major concerns in this election. Dissatisfa­ction over unemployme­nt and inflation among sections of the society indicates that a tough fight is on the cards.

While a significan­t share of people continues to be satisfied with the NDA government, the numbers have come down compared to the 2019 prepoll survey. Before the 2019 polls, 65% said they were “somewhat” or “fully” satisfied with the government. In 2024, the share of such respondent­s has come down to 57%. The share of those “somewhat” or “fully” dissatisfi­ed has increased from 30% to 39%. Notably, the degree of satisfacti­on was markedly lower among the southern regions compared to the north and the west.

Three factors

The decrease in satisfacti­on stems from inflation, increasing unemployme­nt and poverty — the top three “least popular initiative­s” of the Modi government, according to the survey. Especially, if only voters favouring the Opposition were considered, more than half of them cited these three factors as “least liked work of Mr. Modi”. “Ayodhya Ram Mandir” was chosen by many as this government’s “most admired work”. Especially among NDA voters, one in three chose the constructi­on of the temple as the “most admired work of Mr. Modi”.

Unemployme­nt, price rise and falling income were also the top three reasons chosen by respondent­s as reasons for not giving the government another chance. As opposed to this, “good work”, welfare schemes and “Modi is a great leader” were the top three reasons given for giving the NDA another chance.

Overall, the survey indicates that the BJP is heading into the 2024 elections with a healthy lead, although questions about its performanc­e have left the field open. Close to 48% of voters continue to back Mr. Modi as their choice for Prime Minister in the prepoll survey, with 27% choosing Congress MP Rahul Gandhi. Close to 56% of respondent­s trust “a lot” or “somewhat” Mr. Modi’s guarantees, with 49% saying the same about Mr. Gandhi’s guarantees. Notably, while Mr. Modi’s guarantees were trusted more by the richer households, the middleclas­s placed similar trust in both.

Close to half the respondent­s named Narendra Modi as their preferred prime ministeria­l choice. Rahul Gandhi was mentioned by a little less than three of every 10 respondent­s. (No names were offered to the respondent­s)

On June 4, 2024, the day of counting of votes of the Lok Sabha elections, will India witness antiincumb­ency? Or will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking a third consecutiv­e term under the same leader, witness a watershed moment? In the first two days of our analysis published in these pages, we focused on the factors that are in favour of the BJP and the factors that may pose a challenge to it. In the concluding set of articles today, based on the prepoll survey by LoknitiCen­tre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), we assess the possible direction of public mood at the present juncture. We show that voters’ assessment of the government’s performanc­e combined with the impact of the leadership factor may help the BJP weather the storm that economic distress may cause.

A comfortabl­e lead

Nearly three weeks before voting was to commence, the BJP enjoyed a comfortabl­e 12 percentage point lead over the Opposition INDIA alliance. Four voters in every 10 said that they would vote for the BJP. As Table 1 shows, the BJP is making small gains over its 2019 performanc­e in terms of vote share. The Congress, too, is poised to make marginal gains, but these will not be sufficient to pose a serious threat to the incumbent. So, the BJP’s current advantage is not so much in leaving behind its challenger­s as it is in ensuring that they might not have enough strength to pose a serious challenge to it. And perhaps more significan­tly, it is to the BJP’s credit that even after two terms in office, it is not only the leading player but also seems set to improve its vote share.

(A caveat: when respondent­s were asked their vote intention, the actual day of voting was between three weeks to, in some cases, more than two months away. One in every three respondent­s admitted that their choice as expressed in this prepoll survey could change.)

There was a positive assessment of the BJP’s 10yearold government. More than half the respondent­s were satisfied with the government’s performanc­e as opposed to 40% who were not. Therefore, it is not surprising that a majority of the respondent­s were positively inclined to give the Modi government another chance.

One of the cornerston­es of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign is the ‘Modi guarantee’. This, too, seems to have traction among voters. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has also made a pitch for the Congress’s set of guarantees. But Mr. Modi had a 7point advantage over Mr. Gandhi in terms of trust in their respective guarantees.

Challenges for the BJP

While the survey indicates that the BJP continues to be in the lead, it also hints at the chinks in the party’s armour. Compared to the National Election Study of 2019 by LoknitiCSD­S, the share of those satisfied with the government’s performanc­e has gone down by 8 points. As a result, the share of those who wished to give the ruling party another chance was just 5 points higher than those who did not. The support for another term was higher in rural areas as compared with urban pockets. The more affluent seemed to favour giving in larger numbers another chance to the ruling party; the intensity of this support declined as we move down the economic ladder.

Among those who said that they would vote for the BJP (or National Democratic Alliance or NDA allies), there was a 6 point difference between support for the NDA among the more affluent as compared to the poor. Support for the Congress and its allies seemed uniform across economic strata. But if the BJP continues to lead with a skewed class base, that could be a warning signal to the party (Table 2).

The Modi factor

Ever since Mr. Modi arrived on the allIndia scene in 2013 to campaign for the 2014 general elections, the BJP and the NDA’s campaign appears to revolve around his persona. By placing the Prime Minister at the centre of its campaign, the BJP is hedging on the most critical factor that could give it a decisive advantage. Close to half the respondent­s named Mr. Modi as their preferred prime ministeria­l choice. (It is important to note here that no names were offered to the respondent­s.) Mr. Gandhi was mentioned by a little less than three of every 10 respondent­s. The gap between the two leaders was 21 points.

What makes Mr. Modi so acceptable and what is considered his most admired achievemen­t? Onefourth of the respondent­s said that the most admired work of the Modi government is the constructi­on of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. All the other reasons given for liking Mr. Modi paled in comparison to this: less than 10% pointed to work related to employment, poverty alleviatio­n, or boosting India’s image abroad. Among NDA supporters, onethird cited constructi­on of the Ram Mandir, one of every 10 highlighte­d employment opportunit­ies, and another one of every 10 focused on India’s improved internatio­nal image as reasons for liking him. The message is therefore loud and clear: notwithsta­nding the economic hiccups reported on the first day of these reports, voters in general and NDA voters in particular latched on to the Modi factor for what our reports earlier called ‘consolidat­ion of Hindus’.

While this helps the BJP currently in winning votes, respondent­s clearly mentioned what they did not like about the Modi government: 24% said that they did not like the handling of price rise and another 24% mentioned increasing unemployme­nt as the most disliked thing about this government. How long a leader and a party can lead popularity charts with these indictment­s is a critical question.

Regional divide

In 2014, the BJP’s victory was primarily based on its stunning performanc­e in States in the north and west. In 2019, while retaining that performanc­e and even partially improving on it, the BJP made significan­t headway in parts of the east, notably West Bengal and Assam. This leaves out the bulk of the south except Karnataka where the BJP performed well in 2019. Will the regional divide continue to impact electoral outcomes?

The stagnation of bipolarity in Kerala, the defeat of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana in the last Assembly elections, and the BJP’s alliance with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh are likely to help the national party penetrate the southern fortress. Our prepoll suggests that the regional divide may still operate albeit with reduced significan­ce. The north and west seemed to strongly favour the NDA. The alliance also had good support in the east and Northeast. The challenge that it faces is in the south, where there seemed to be an even split between support for the NDA and for the Opposition (Table 3). As figures for the Congress and the BJP in Table 3 show, the intended vote in favour of the BJP was increasing in both the south and east, which will probably narrow the political variation across regions. This would be a major gain for the BJP.

However, alongside region, the nature of the electoral contest may also shape the possible configurat­ion of voters’ choices. In direct fights between the BJP and Congress, the BJP seemed to have an impressive lead. This dropped to half in contests between the NDA and the INDIA alliance. In multicorne­red contests, there seemed to be a clear threeway split in terms of support.

All this shows that there is no clear and close challenger to the BJP. However, the voters may be sending out many other messages. The BJP was leading in terms of possible vote share, but the respondent­s were upset about economic distress. Those who were not convinced that achhe din (good days) have come did not show the same enthusiasm in voting for the BJP. And therein lies the most fascinatin­g aspect of this election: the BJP is leading not because of its economic performanc­e but despite the lack of it. How the BJP will negotiate this tension or how the Opposition will take this tension to the voters will determine whether the vote intentions as expressed in our prepoll survey remain stable or get upset.

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 ?? PTI ?? A sea of saffron: BJP supporters at a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Udhampur.
PTI A sea of saffron: BJP supporters at a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Udhampur.
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