With the formal announcement of Lok Sabha Elections 2019, the countdown to the national elections has truly begun. It is increasingly becoming clear that the coming election will be one of the most keenly contested, will witness a high-decibel campaign and be one of the shrillest in terms of rhetoric, attack and counterattack. One has already seen trends of this in the last few months. But, in what ways is Elections 2019 similar to the polls of the past, and from what perspective is it different?
In the five years since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there has been an intense competition among different political parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to capitalize on its Lok Sabha victory and cash in on the goodwill for a few years. As it was coming close to completing its term, visible anti-incumbency stepped in, and the defeat in the Hindi heartland states at the end of last year appeared to have seen the political journey reach a "full circle". The Pulwama attack and the subsequent developments have added a new dimension to the ensuing electoral contest. In this context, a few issues merit attention.
Much as the BJP was credited with having secured a majority on its own in 2014, the government that was subsequently formed was essentially a BJP government, with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) being a belated afterthought.
As the party prepares to seek a second term, it is increasingly accepting the fact that there was a need for coalition partners in different states and, thus, strengthening the NDA. One often spoke of the BJP and its NDA in the last five years. Given the alliances that the BJP is focusing on, the NDA partners are gaining increasing political visibility. The non-BJP parties, too, have realised the need to come together to challenge the BJP. A key element of the campaign is bound to be continued reference to "strong" (majboot) vs "desperate" (majboor) alliance.
Given the BJP’s increasing dependence on NDA partners, it would be difficult for them now to be critical of alliance politics. Beyond doubt, alliance arithmetic and political chemistry on the ground will be decisive in this election.
It is also important to note that even if there were major national sentiments that parties may want to focus on (security, patriotism, unemployment and the like), this election will not be one single result, but 29 different results. It is clear that the factors and forces that will determine this result will be different in each state and even the "national" issues will play out very differently in each state. The state and regional variation will be critical to explaining the electoral trends.
Elections 2019 is clearly going to witness an attempt to seek support on two competing narratives. The BJP and its electoral partners are clearly going to pitch this election on leadership, viewed from the prism of national security, patriotism and a "particular" idea of India. This will clearly play out differently in different regions of the country. While it has the potential to gain some visibility in the north and west of India, its likely impact on the south and east remains debatable.
On the other hand, those opposing the BJP would like to focus the floodlight of attention on issues of unemployment, price rise, economy and the performance of the BJP government as contrasted with the promises made during the last election. There is also a desperate bid on the part of the principal opposition party to position corruption as the key electoral issue. The election campaign will truly be a fight over winning the "perception battle" as to which of the two narratives would be privileged.
The country is likely to witness an election campaign, which could turn vicious, acerbic and represent the deep divisions that are clearly visible in society.
Sandeep Shastri is a political and electoral analyst, who is also the pro-vice chancellor of Bengaluru-based Jain University.