Modi’s 400-Seat Dream In Doubt as Opposition Gains Steam

Modi’s 400-Seat Dream In Doubt as Opposition Gains Steam

(Bloomberg) — Before India’s marathon election kicked off in April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was promising to come back to power with an even bigger majority than he won five years ago.

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With less than two weeks to go before election results are announced, the picture is looking less certain for the popular leader.

Party insiders, opposition members and analysts who have traveled across the country to speak to voters say there’s little evidence of a “Modi wave” that allowed his Bharatiya Janata Party to sweep the polls in 2019. Then, the BJP won 303 of the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. Along with its allies, the BJP-led coalition had about 351 seats.

Modi targeted more than 400 seats for his coalition this time around, a goal emblazoned on campaign posters and one the prime minister frequently plugged in his campaign speeches. But a notable shift in Modi’s tone after the first phase of voting — where he began using divisive, anti-Muslim language and ramped up attacks against the main opposition group’s welfare policies — fueled speculation the BJP may have been spooked by early voting trends and needed to fire up its support base.

Election rules don’t allow for any result polls to be published during the six weeks of voting, so it’s difficult to know with any certainty whether the BJP’s support has indeed declined. India’s first-past-the-post electoral system means even small margins can decide the winner. Exit polls won’t be published until June 1 with results expected on June 4.

Mudding the waters even further is the fact that both the ruling party and opposition are publicly claiming they have the upper hand. Modi himself told The Economic Times this week that the BJP has already won a majority of the seats in the parliament based on voting in the first five phases of elections so far.

However, behind closed doors a picture is emerging of an opposition alliance that’s slightly more optimistic about their likely gains, and a ruling party that appears to be bracing for some losses. The Indian National Congress, the main opposition group, expects to win between 90-110 seats in total, up from 52 in 2019, according to a senior party leader, who asked not to be identified as the discussions are private. The estimates were based on internal polling, the person said.

Three BJP officials from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana states privately admitted that the party is unlikely to match its 2019 figures, although they still expect to win a majority of the seats in parliament. The officials asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about internal matters.

Nalin Kohli, a spokesperson for the BJP, said there’s no reason why the ruling party and its allies won’t significantly increase their results from five years ago given the performance of the Modi government and its leadership. Congress party spokespeople weren’t immediately available to comment when contacted for further information.

Uncertainty about the poll outcome has already been seen into financial markets, with volatility rising in recent weeks. The India VIX Index — a gauge of likely market swings over the next 30 days — more than doubled from a low in April.

Foreigners pulled $3.5 billion from local shares in May, although there are now signs of global funds ending their bearish view. Indian equities hit a record on Thursday after the central bank’s generous dividend to the government and Modi’s comments to The Economic Times of an expected “historic mandate.”

Majority Mark

Political analysts and economists are less optimistic.

Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, expects the BJP to stay in power, while winning anywhere between 282 to 310 seats nationally. Shumita Deveshwar, chief India economist at TS Lombard, was more bearish, saying anecdotal evidence during her recent travels from India’s east to west coast suggests the BJP could possibly fall below the majority mark of 272 seats. With the help of its allies, though, the party will still be able to form the government, she said in a report on May 16.

Reasons for the BJP’s slide in support are varied, according to party officials and analysts. Modi has been in power for a decade and has delivered on several of the BJP’s key pledges, a key one being the building of a temple in honor of the Hindu god Ram on a site where an ancient mosque once stood. The inauguration of the temple in Ayodhya in January fulfilled a key promise made to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist base for decades.

“Anecdotal evidence from our travels on the election trail from India’s east coast to its west suggests that Modi’s popularity has waned somewhat since the Ram temple inauguration in January, when a BJP wave seemed to have swept across India,” Deveshwar said. “Although multiple factors at play in a country as vast as India make the national mood difficult to read, common themes we picked up on the road include the lack of job creation and rising demand for welfare schemes.”

Beyond those, voters’ concerns have been dominated by the high cost of living and caste identity, observers say. The opposition’s heavy focus on improving the welfare of the poor, especially those who belong to the lowest social groups, have resonated with voters, they say.

Modi’s 400-seat target may have been counter-productive, too, since it might have led to complacency in the BJP’s ranks while fueling a belief among lower-caste voters that the BJP will use its parliamentary super-majority to push through changes that reduce Affirmative action policies for lower socio-economic groups. Home Minister Amit Shah has consistently denied the party has any such plan, although that hasn’t stopped the opposition from exploiting voters’ anxiety around this.

The shift in momentum was in some evidence in the electorally important state of Uttar Pradesh, considered a stronghold for the BJP after it swept the region with 71 out of 80 seats in 2014 and won 62 in the 2019 elections.

Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, the biggest opposition group in Uttar Pradesh, has been drawing significant crowds to political rallies, where he campaigns alongside alliance members, like the Congress party and the Trinamool Congress. The alliance parties have agreed not to contest seats against each other, allowing them to consolidate the opposition vote against the BJP.

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Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, the face of the Congress party, were due to address a rally together earlier this week in a town in Uttar Pradesh, but were forced to leave after throngs of supporters rushed the stage to see the two leaders, pushing through police barricades.

The two men, relatively young leaders in their 50s, represent change for the voters who are disillusioned with the decadent-long rule of 73-year-old Modi. Heading into a third term, the “brand value of Modi isn’t there” and the opposition is putting up a strong fight in Uttar Pradesh, said Sunita Aron, an author of three books on Indian politics, including a biography on Yadav.

“The body language between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi shows they’re friendly, they share a camaraderie,” said Aron, who was an executive editor for the Hindustan Times in Uttar Pradesh for more than two decades. “If the two leaders are standing on a stage, holding hands, that sends a message to the cadres on the ground that we’re coordinating, we’re working together.”

Uttar Pradesh was once again seen as a walkover for the BJP when the election began, but Aron said there’s now at least 25-30 seats in contention for the opposition.

“The BJP has an edge, but the alliance is giving it a good fight,” she said.

The clamor for change was evident on Tuesday at a rally in the rural town of Bhadohi, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Flying in on a helicopter that sent dust clouds high up in the air, Yadav was cheered on by more than 8,000 supporters, predominantly young men, waiting in 40-degree heat to catch a glimpse of the leader, campaigning there on behalf of a candidate from the Trinamool Congress.

Yadav told his supporters the alliance will increase government jobs and waive loans for farmers, prompting huge roars from the crowd. In an interview after his speech, he criticized the Modi government for its policies and said the ruling party was losing support because of rising joblessness and inflation. He said the opposition alliance was aligned on its priorities, including improving affirmative action policies for the lowest caste groups.

He predicted the BJP will lose its majority and the opposition will form the government.

“The BJP route to power was through Uttar Pradesh, now they are losing all seats and that will be their end,” Yadav said.

–With assistance from Debjit Chakraborty and Ravil Shirodkar.

(Updates with financial market performance.)

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