Three factors that will decide who wins 2019 Lok Sabha elections

by Amitabh Tiwari

Now that the Election Commission has announced the dates for the 2019 general elections, speculation is rife as to who will win and form the new government at the Centre.

Pre-poll surveys which were predicting a hung Parliament are re-assessing the situation after surgical strikes 2.0.

In my opinion these three key factors will determine who wins the 2019 polls:.

  1. To what extent are these elections held in a Presidential style (Presidential vs Local)

The general elections in India are increasingly becoming ‘presidential’ in style. In 2014, Narendra Modi’s persona weighed heavier than any other parameter. According to CSDS, which carried out a National Election Study 2014, 28% voters gave importance to the prime ministerial candidate, 26% to the local candidate, and 18% to the state-level leadership.

The prime ministerial candidate emerged as the top-most consideration for voters. With the Opposition not putting up any prime ministerial candidate, Modi had an open field of sorts. Further, 27% people who voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014, would not have done so if Modi was not the PM candidate. This fetched BJP around 5 crore votes out of a total 17 crore votes.

Source: All India Post Poll Survey Findings

However, if it wants to win, the Opposition cannot afford to run a presidential style election this time. Although Congress president Rahul Gandhi is inching up the popularity charts, he is still way behind Prime Minister Modi. The Congress and the anti-BJP regional parties need to raise the issues on the ground and failures of the existing BJP Member of Parliament to exploit the agrarian/rural distress and the unemployment issue. The Opposition will have to convert a single/national election into 543 mini-contests.

Terrorist attacks like Pulwama and the government’s response in the form of surgical strikes 2.0 are helping the BJP to make it a presidential — ‘majboot versus majboor sarkar’ — contest. The Opposition is falling in to this trap by raising the issue of the number of casualties.

The Congress needs to learn from its victories in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it downplayed the leadership angle and focused on local issues and failures of the local representatives rather than just targeting MP CM Shivraj Chouhan and Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh.

  1. First time voters and their preference 

In 2019, over 8 crore voters aged 18-19 will be voting for the first time. The total voting population is expected to increase from 81 crores in 2014 to 90 crores in 2019. This number is likely to go up as dates for enrollment are still open.

As per an Indian Express report, in 282 seats, first-time voters are more than the winning margin in 2019. On an average, 1.5 lakh first time voters have registered for each seat. A large section of these first-time young voters may not be tied to any ideology.

As many as 29.4% of first-time voters were not supporters of any party as per NES 2014. They are more likely to vote for development rather than caste considerations alone. A media survey in 2014 said that almost half of the 15 crore first time voters in the 2014 general election wanted to see Modi as prime minister. The turnout among these voters is also higher than other age groups.

Realizing their importance, the BJP has made them their focus group for 2019 polls. In a rally in Chennai on January 14, 2019, Modi asserted that BJP is the natural choice for first-time voters as they are not interested in ‘dynastic’ parties. He exhorted party workers to organize meetings with first-time voters and educate them about his government’s developmental projects.

The Congress is also gearing up to get this set of voters on their side. As per an Economic Times report, its manifesto could include providing English lessons to students in remote areas, sorting out paying guest accommodation for girl students from northeastern states, and taking the initiative to boost women’s security.

  1. Quantum of undecided voters and herd mentality

Almost 14% respondents in NES 2014 stated that they decided whom to vote for only on the day of voting. Another 11% said they decided just 1 or 2 days before D-Day. This is significant, one-fourth of the voters who polled in 2014 — meaning as many as 14 crore voters out of 55 crore who voted in 2014.

This trend was visible not only in 2014 but also in 2004 and 2009 polls. A large section among them could be herd mentality voters, who normally go with the wave. In a wave-less election like 2019, these voters could hold the key to government formation.

The real challenge for campaign strategists is to convert this set of voters and bring them over to their side:

2004 2009 2014
On the day of voting 13.8% 12.0% 13.0%
A day or two before voting 14.0% 11.0% 11.5%

To sum up, an exciting contest is on the anvil. Whether the winner will be the BJP or the Congress depends on the ability of the ruling party and the Opposition to nationalize or localise the elections and impress the first-time and the undecided voters.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political consultant, strategist and commentator advising political parties and leaders. He is a former corporate and investment banker and tweets @politicalbaaba)