How important is Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) fortunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? Will the lack of consensus over a prime ministerial candidate be the opposition’s Achilles heel in 2019?

Narendra Modi was the BJP’s trump card in 2014, and there is a good reason why the party continues to emphasize his leadership in its election campaign, an analysis of past poll data from the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggests.

Lokniti-CSDS surveys have consistently asked respondents to mention their preferred prime ministerial candidates. Modi’s popularity in this regard has remained almost unchanged as compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In the surveys, 36% and 34% said that they wanted to see him as the PM in 2014 and mid-2018 respectively.

Modi’s popularity seems to have peaked in 2017, after the BJP’s emphatic victory in Uttar Pradesh and declined since then. But he still retains greater support than any other Indian politician, and is at least as popular as in 2014.

The popularity ratings are likely to have changed numerous times since the last survey in May 2018. During this period, the BJP lost crucial assembly elections, and faced criticism on key issues such as farmer welfare and unemployment. PM Modi might have regained some lost ground through moves such as reservations for the economically weaker sections and cash transfer scheme for farmers.

The air strikes in Pakistani territory by the Indian Air Force last week might further boost Modi’s popularity, or at least help maintain the status quo in India’s leadership stakes.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, held immediately after the Kargil War, there was a substantial rise in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity. Between 1998 and 1999, there was a 10 percentage point increase in his popularity. The recent conflict with Pakistan was nothing like Kargil; yet, the very fact that air strikes were made deep in Pakistani territory could sway voters.

Will the opposition be able to counter the BJP’s message on Modi’s strong leadership?

It is worth noting that the past few years have witnessed a steady rise in Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s popularity. The proportion of respondents who mention his name has increased 10 percentage points to 24% over the past five years, as the first chart shows. An important reason behind this seems to be a clarity over leadership among Congress supporters. The proportion of respondents who did not respond to this question has declined from nearly three out of ten (29%) in 2014 to 17% in the last survey. This seems to have gone in favour of the Congress as its supporters were more likely to decline to answer this question in 2014.

Even if Rahul Gandhi is a more acceptable candidate today than he was in 2014, the opposition—including the Congress party—is reluctant to project him as a prime ministerial candidate. While they have been meeting to chalk out a common campaign, opposition parties have been consciously avoiding discussions on prime ministerial contenders to avoid any internal tussle. The BJP, on the other hand, is leaving no stone unturned to project the informal understanding between the opposition parties as a mere coalition of convenience with multiple prime-ministerial aspirants.

Could the opposition’s inability to decide a prime ministerial candidate, in turn, help the BJP in this election? In the 2014 Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey, respondents were asked to select the most important consideration while voting – the party, local candidate or the prime ministerial candidate. While a plurality of respondents (45%) mentioned party, one-sixth (16%) said prime ministerial candidate.

Similarly, in the 2014 post-poll survey, respondents were asked whether they give importance to a local candidate, state leadership or the PM candidate while voting. Almost an equal proportion of respondents said that they gave importance to the PM candidate (28%) and the local candidate (26%) respectively.

The BJP enjoyed a significant lead among respondents who prioritized the PM candidate. In both surveys, more than half of the respondents who prioritized the PM candidate had voted for the BJP. These figures must be read carefully though as the responses to the question might be driven by partisan considerations; the presence of a charismatic leader such as Modi might have led many BJP-inclined voters to mention the PM candidate as their reason for voting. Data from the 2014 post-poll survey shows that more than one-fourth of the respondents who had voted for BJP (28%) would have voted differently if Modi had not been the party’s PM candidate.

The BJP realizes that it holds an edge if the 2019 elections become a presidential-style contest. The BJP’s latest slogan—Modi hai toh mumkin hai—reflects the party’s efforts at capitalizing on Modi’s personal popularity in this election.

The leadership question is likely to become even more salient at a time of external conflict. A question the BJP is likely to pose to the voters would be whether they would trust a wobbly coalition government to take decisive action in the event of external threats or cross-border terrorism. The opposition does not seem to have a robust answer to that question yet. The lack of a consensus prime ministerial candidate continues to lead the opposition towards direct attacks on Modi over issues such as the Rafale deal to dent his image, and to reduce the salience of the leadership factor.

How far these strategies will work will become clear in about 10 weeks from now.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Pranav Gupta is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, US.

Close