NEW DELHI: Sanjay Kumar, director at the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti, expects the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to emerge as the single-largest party and says that, along with its allies, the party will reach very close to a parliamentary majority.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) could be 10 or 15 seats above or short of the majority mark and the Congress may find it very difficult to get 100 seats, Kumar said in an interview. Edited excerpts:

How do you view the election narrative?

I think there are different narratives, if we look at how the BJP led the campaign, the narrative kept shifting but couple of issues were visible in all the phases of elections like nationalism, Balakot air strikes, Pulwama, national security and terrorism. If you look at these narratives it has run through all the seven phases of election. But in between different phases, BJP has been very clever in picking up different narratives at different points of time. After 4-5 phases, corruption became a big issue. Then there was a reference to Rajiv Gandhi. Another shift in the narrative happened when there was talk about how weak the regional parties are and how difficult it would be for leaders of regional parties to form a government.

We did not hear anything from the BJP on issues of demonetization or the achievements of the government. In the name of achievements, BJP kept invoking Balakot and national security. The party did not even talk about toilets and gas cylinders.

If we look at the Congress, I don’t think the party has led a very carefully crafted campaign. They started with chowkidar chor hai, attacking the Prime Minister and trying to convey to the people that this government is not clean and there has been corruption in this government and even the Prime Minister is involved in it. They wanted to dent the image of the government as corrupt. I think they were not very successful in doing it. NYAY was a positive narrative, which also I do not think worked because it was there for some time and then disappeared. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress did not know if they should attack the grand alliance or not. There was lot of confusion in the campaign speeches in Uttar Pradesh. The sense I am getting is that this is an issue-less election, there is no clear one issue. If you compare it with 2014, fight against corruption was a clear issue and people had hope in Modi.

The election campaign has largely been negative.

Did the BJP succeed in dominating the narrative?

Absolutely, the only positive thing the Congress came up with was NYAY but failed to get it off the ground. A lot of people may have heard about NYAY but the belief that the Congress would be able to deliver this if they come to power was very little. People did not believe it with conviction because a large number of people do not believe that Congress can form the government. So the narrative has been dominated by BJP, when the Prime Minister was attacking regional parties and said that the alliance was opportunistic, the Congress had very little to offer. The Prime Minister kept saying mahamilavat but there was very little that was countered.

Both the BJP and the Congress have tried to reach out to economically weaker sections through PM-Kisan and Ujjwala or NYAY and loan waivers. How far do such strategies work?

The focus of all political parties is on the poor, whether through NYAY or Ujjwala also because it is easy to swing urban voters. We have seen that rural and poor voters tend to be loyal to a political party for much longer. If they vote for a party it takes much longer for them to switch loyalties. They switch after a very concerted effort of a political party.

In order to surpass 30% votes, to at least get close to a majority mark, BJP needs to keep the voters who had voted for them in 2014 intact. This is why for the last three years the whole governance shifted on trying to mobilize poor voters. At the same time, it is necessary for the Congress to win back those poor and lower class voters and that is why the Congress was making that effort because they know that these are our loyal supporters.

Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, have failed to stitch together a pan-India alliance. How do you see this?

There had been talk about a mahagatbandhan including the Congress six months before the elections. In my opinion, it was never possible to have a pan-India alliance against the BJP. We cannot think of such an alliance in many states, including Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. It was still possible to have a carefully crafted alliance, in some of the cases the Congress should have taken a lead and in others, regional parties should have taken charge.

A pan-India alliance in that sense against the BJP could have never materialized. There has been a lot of confusion regarding that and a lot of it will end up giving advantage to the BJP.

First-time voters are said to be a key electorate in this elections. How do you see their role in the poll outcome?

Data by CSDS shows that turnout before 2014 of such voters used to be 4-5% lower than the average turnout. Only in 2014, the turnout among young voters surpassed the average turnout by 2%. From 5% lower in the previous election to 2% higher, that is a big jump. So that is one evidence of young people voting more in Lok Sabha elections.

Earlier they used to be more divided like any other age group but only in 2014, there was a decisive shift towards the BJP. The BJP’s national vote share was 31%, but among young voters (18-22 years) this was 37%. That is 6% higher. The preference for Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate was also higher.

So in 2014, they shifted for BJP in a big way. In 2019 we don’t know whether they will still be voting for the BJP in large numbers but I have not seen any sign of young voters moving away from the BJP and going to other parties. I still think the BJP will get an advantage from young, first-time voters.

What is your reading of the possible outcome?

First, I don’t have any doubt of the BJP emerging as the single-largest party. Second, along with its allies I think the NDA is very close to a majority, 10 or 15 seats above the majority mark or below. Third, the Congress will find it very difficult to reach a three-digit number, almost impossible to reach 100. Why I am saying that is the evidence is very clear. The Congress had a 19.3% vote share in the 2014 elections, they need a big swing in its favour, nearly 8-9% we can expect Congress to win 85-90 seats. I don’t get that sense from the ground that the Congress will be able to generate that swing. So, the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 will be very large. The BJP in my opinion should be above 200 seats so there has to be gap of 100 seats between the first two parties.

What do you think continues to work in the favour of the BJP and why is the Congress not able to gain that ground?

One is the TINA factor—there is no alternative. I think the BJP has been very successful in building this narrative and convincing people. Second, standalone also, a lot of people still have huge trust in Modi as the Prime Minister. Trust deficit and anger with the Congress is less compared to the Gandhi family for which it is very high. Attraction for the BJP is far less compared to Narendra Modi as prime minister which is very high. My own hypothetical reading is if the BJP was contesting this election minus Modi, I don’t think it would have managed to win this election.

Now that the exit poll results are out, how do you look at the trends which have been indicated by these projections?

I think that the trend is clear, NDA would form the next government without any difficulty, while there would still be suspense on whether the BJP could get a majority of its own.

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