With the Election Commission of India (EC) announcing the dates for Elections 2019 on Sunday, the die is now cast. It will be tempting to try and seek parallels from the past to etch the trends for the upcoming electoral showdown, but that would be a mistake as every election, whether national or state, has its unique narrative.
The obvious question then is what will it be for this election. A good hazard will be that this is rapidly morphing into a showdown between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the rest; the closest that a democratic framework like India’s can fashion in terms of a presidential contest.
This narrative was, with the benefit of hindsight, seeded in the audacious win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fashioned by Modi in 2014. It had ended the era of coalitions with the BJP, first time in 30 years, managing a majority on its own. The Modi stamp on the victory was not one off; we would see this pattern playing out again and again in every state election as the BJP expanded its national electoral footprint, at the expense of the Congress, to unprecedented proportions, with the exception of the defeats in Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
Effectively, Modi has, over the last five years, emerged as the anchor of the BJP, which in turn has evolved into the principal pole of Indian politics. The flip side of this is that if Modi is weakened, so is the BJP, particularly with respect to the Lok Sabha elections.
The opposition for its part has a difficult task.
It would ideally have avoided a presidential contest as it is aware that at present it does not have the leadership to challenge Modi. At the same time, its best bet has been to try and discredit Modi, which only reinforces the contours of a presidential contest.
Presume it will recall that whenever the opposition defined the dominant narrative, like in Bihar and Delhi, then it has worked to its advantage; conversely allowing Modi to define the electoral narrative implies that it will be the opposition that will play catch-up. What should also worry the opposition is that the guiding ideology of unity seems to be that of "enemy’s, enemy (read BJP) is my friend", which can never be the glue that holds alliances.
Further, it has been difficult to stitch one national alliance, with some political parties discovering that what is good for them nationally is not a good idea locally—in other words for short-term gains, they may end up hurting their long-term electoral interests in a state. This has been most manifest so far in alliance efforts in Uttar Pradesh—central to BJP’s success in 2014—and Delhi. Exactly why the ‘Mahagatbandhan’, or Grand Alliance, has not acquired the desired potential.
The opposition has also been handicapped by the fact that the Congress, the only national party with the potential heft to take on the BJP, is plumbing its worst lows in electoral politics; to be sure, it has recovered some of its mojo by clawing out wins in BJP’s heartland in Central India.
Events over the last few weeks beginning with the Pulwama terror attack, culminating in the daring Balakot air strike, and the capture and release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman are threatening to reorder the narrative of the campaign.
It has visibly shifted the momentum towards the BJP.
While this may be the case, a key part of the contest—selection of candidates—is yet to be decided. In a close contest, this could be the key factor determining the outcome.
Like they say, let the games begin.
Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.