After turning election into referendum on PM, 'There Is Modi Only' factor powering BJP to a big win, writes GVL Narasimha Rao

GVL Narasimha Rao
'Anti-incumbency' is a term that to the surprise of many, is used mostly in India only. It is evident from the Wikipedia entry for 'anti-incumbency' that runs just four lines

As the national election enters the last lap, the BJP's detractors and pundits see the party miles ahead but see this as a 'no wave' election. As a noted poll analyst, I see all the signs of a 'bigger wave' now than in 2014. The key drivers for the bigger mandate for the BJP are enhanced and unrivalled popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expanded electoral base of the BJP due to the unprecedented levels of developmental outreach and enlarged national footprint of the BJP now, compared to 2014.

Leadership factor

Modi's strong and muscular leadership was a promise in 2014. The 56-inch-chest comment of 2014 best illustrated that promise. In 2019, it is an irrefutable reality. Throughout this election campaign, no Opposition leader mocked the 56-inch-chest statement of 2014. Today, even rivals concede, albeit grudgingly, that they cannot question decisive and bold leadership credentials of Modi.

A series of actions has established Modi as leader par excellence. From experience, people firmly believe that he alone can do things that no other leader can. This can be described as the TIMO (There is Modi Only) factor of the 2019 election. In politics, when likability for a popular leader transforms into unconcealed admiration and hero worship, it signals an unprecedented wave election. The TIMO factor, evident even in casual conversations, is hugely powering the BJP wave in this election helping the party to breach traditional fault lines and making strong inroads into unconquered territories.

It is difficult to imagine any other leader of our times having done these: Airstrikes in Pakistan's Balakot, the return of Wing-Commander Abhinandan Vatharman from Pakistan's captivity in just two days, pressurising China to get Masood Azhar declared as a global terrorist in the United Nations, sending forces into enemy territory to carry out surgical strikes, demonetisation of high value currency notes, legislating a constitutional amendment for 10 percent reservation for Economically Backward Classes (EBCs) in a record three days etc.

The TIMO factor is mainly a result of the Modi government's achievements on the national security and foreign policy fronts. Opposition parties at first attempted to deflate this sentiment by questioning the success of the surgical and airstrikes. When they realised that these strikes had roused an overwhelming patriotic sentiment, they changed the tune to claim that only armed forces should get the credit. Even these claims did not work as people are aware that the Opposition would have raked the Modi government over the coals if anything amiss had happened during these daring missions.

That the 'Modi factor' is all-pervasive is evident from the loud cheers in his favour even in the opposition meetings. Digvijaya Singh had one such bitter experience when he called on stage a Congress supporter to criticise Modi. Instead, he praised him saying Modi carried out surgical strikes and killed terrorists leaving a stunned Digvijaya red-faced. In rallies addressed by Rahul Gandhi in Karnataka, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and other leaders elsewhere, slogans in favour of Modi were raised, embarrassing the political rivals.

Development a key driver

The conventional political wisdom till the 1990s used to be that development does not win votes. With a single-minded focus on development, Modi had debunked this theory by scoring repeat election victories in Gujarat. Modi is a firm believer that development is an election winner.

The sheer spread and scale of developmental interventions implemented in the past five years is breathtaking. This massive surge in development is fashioning his re-election now on a big scale. Consider these: Over nine crore toilets in rural areas, seven crore free LPG connections, two-and-a-half crore free power connections, one-and-a-half crore free houses for the poor, 10 crore households under the health insurance scheme Ayushman Bharat, 12 crore farmer families under Kisan Samman Nidhi and the list goes on. The Modi government's developmental outreach is the largest for any government the world over.

Women factor

Modi's hard work, impeccable integrity, developmental initiatives have won him a fan base among women. Our internal polls and field enquiries show significantly higher levels of support for Modi among women than men. Main beneficiaries of flagship schemes like Swacchta Abhiyan, Ujjwala, Mudra etc are women.

Women lean more towards issue and performance-based voting and are less prone to caste voting. The old belief that women vote as decided by their menfolk is passé. Increasingly, women are voting independently in elections. Women are not public with their voting preferences and constitute the 'silent majority' of the electorate. A 'silent' women vote is a nightmare for poll pundits and pollsters. This may well be one source of underestimating the BJP's success in these polls.

Expanded base, footprint

In 2014, the BJP's electoral footprint was limited and largely confined to the Hindi belt and states in the western region. The number of states in which the BJP and its allies are in power has nearly trebled in five years. The BJP has emerged as a dominant political force in the East and North East. Thus, the BJP is no longer dependent on a clean sweep in the Hindi heartland to acquire a parliamentary majority. The farsightedness of Modi and adept stewardship of the BJP by Amit Shah has helped the party expand its base and footprint.

Positive and negative waves

This is a 'positive wave' election for the BJP. The year 2014 primarily saw a negative wave to overthrow the corrupt Congress government. 'Negative waves' are the result of public anger and thus tend to be noisy. In contrast, 'positive waves' are more serene and calm and do not produce noise levels.

Recall the 2009 election to understand how we tend to misread elections with positive waves. The Congress' tally went up from 145 to 206 seats giving the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government another term in office. No pollster or poll pundit predicted the Congress' big gains. A positive vote is silent while a negative vote is noisy.

The 2019 election is a "positive wave" of peaceful reaffirmation of public support to an incumbent government. The fact that the voter turnout levels in 2019 are similar to those of the high-decibel 2014 election tells you that there is equal voter enthusiasm now, but the election has been relatively calmer.

It was in the BJP's interest to turn this election into a referendum on Modi. The binary of "With Modi, Against Modi" suited the BJP the most. By making vitriolic personal attacks against the prime minister throughout the campaign, the Opposition parties ensured that Modi remained the focus of the election. We couldn't have asked for anything better.

The author is a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) from Uttar Pradesh and a noted psephologist

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