Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Lessons from 2019 verdict: Political pundits failed to recognise second Modi wave due to biases, obsolete thinking

During his thanks giving speech in Varanasi on 27 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that political pundits in India are still living in the 20th century as they have yet not reinvented themselves to the realities of 21st century Indian politics.

The prime minister was probably referring to the continuous failure of political analysts in reading elections during the last five years, including the recently concluded 2019 general election. Considering the complex pluralistic social and geographical nature of Indian society and the multi-party system, reading elections correctly in India has always been a difficult task.

The task becomes more difficult when analysts lack objectivity due to their personal biases. Let us have a look at why and where prejudices failed most analysts in reading 2019 verdict correctly, or for that matter, any election with Modi being in forefront, either in Gujarat or anywhere in India.

After Indira Gandhi, no other leader could grab the kind of dominant space in a national election till the arrival of Narendra Modi on political stage. In fact, from the day he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, he remained in focus of political observers, media and common men alike, though the reasons were different. There were few even in the Opposition camp who could anticipate his future role in national politics quite early, especially after 2007 Gujarat elections, when BJP under Modi won with handsome margin.

It took close to fifty years for the people of India to re-elect a leader with full majority, that too with a bigger mandate. Before this, Indira Gandhi was re-elected in 1971, but even then, Congress got 43.68 percent votes while NDA under Modi secured close to 45 percent votes. Majority of political pundits in the run-up to the 2019 election agreed that the BJP under Modi will emerge as the single-largest party but it will fail to repeat its 2014 feat because unlike 2014, this time, there was no Modi wave. Indeed, there was no Modi wave but a Modi tsunami which analysts failed to predict because of their personal biases against Modi.

Modi is the fourth leader after Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who could carry a national election on his shoulders single-handedly. But what makes Modi stand out is that he achieved this by his governance performance. While Nehru was a beneficiary of the post-Independent euphoria, Indira derived legitimacy from Nehru’s legacy and Vajpayee was the symbol of an alternate ideology with remarkable oratory skills. Modi worked hard for 13 years as chief minister of Gujarat and five years as prime minister to evolve a new model of governance called ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ with special recognition to the poor.

Many analysts failed to read this because they were busy conspiring against and maligning Modi’s image. They could not see his outreach to the lowest socio-economic rung of India’s population pyramid through pro-poor schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (House), Ujjwala Yojana (LPG), Ujala scheme (electricity), Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (toilets), Ayushman Bharat (health insurance), Kisan Samman Nidhi (Rs 6,000 per year honorarium to farmers) etc.

At the end of five years, Modi government had reached more than 220 million poor households cutting across all social segments. This poor outreach decimated traditional fault lines based on caste and religion, and created a new constituency for Modi. BJP’s special campaign to reach out to 220 million beneficiaries yielded results and they contributed handsomely in about 275 million votes polled by the NDA. Uttar Pradesh is the best example, where analysts — due to their biases and obsolete 20th century models — limited themselves to caste-based assessments, predicting a huge win for the gathbandhan (SP, BSP, RLD).

Analysts in India are generally too obsessed with the ‘anti-incumbency’ factor because in their lifetime, they have not seen pro-incumbency in national elections, which the was hallmark of this election. Obsession with anti-incumbency made them draw wrong conclusions from BJP’s losses in few Assembly polls and by-elections. Modi’s appeal helped the party win big in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where BJP had lost Assembly polls just couple of month back. Similarly, BJP won all nine parliamentary seats where loss in bypolls had given impetus to anti-incumbency theories.

When polling is spread over seven phases and six weeks, analysts tend to read the verdict in voter turnout more emphatically than otherwise. During this election, voter turnout numbers were getting revised for the 24 hours after the conclusion of polling. But analysts desperate to show trouble for the BJP were propagating theories on the basis of 6 pm voter turnout figures, saying that voters are not enthusiastic and low turnout is going against Modi.

But during this Lok Sabha election, India registered the highest-ever voter turnout of 67.47 percent, 1.03 percent more than the 2014 figure. So when final turnout numbers were higher, theories were reversed to suit personal anti-Modi biases. Sample this: an international New York-based journal writes on 22 May, just a day before counting: “Many Indians vote along caste or religious lines, but voters also tend to switch between the major parties from election to election. Turnout is high and Indian voters are famous for throwing out incumbents.”

The hard work of Modi and Shah has often been interpreted as desperation, but media personnel forget that Modi and Shah believe in converting simple victories into big wins. During elections, we often read stories that say that the number of Modi’s rallies have been increased because BJP is in trouble. We recall stories during 2017 UP Assembly election, during which Modi campaigned for three days in Varanasi. Conclusions were drawn in favour of SP-Congress alliance. But BJP got a historic mandate with 320 seats. Once again, it’s not the fault of the analysts but their biases.

The concept of panna pramukh (lowest rung of BJP workers inside a polling booth) has often been mocked. In the process, the critics failed to see the power of organisation. BJP, under the leadership of its president Amit Shah, worked tirelessly for five years to expand its members to more than 11 crore, trained them to imbibe party ideology, launched muti-layer programmes to engage them. Thus, a formidable infrastructure was created.

Analysts failed to notice the reason why Modi himself was invested in booth-level workers by engaging with lakhs of them through ‘mera booth, sabse majaboot’ programme through video-conferencing. Shah went on mission mode to connect with shakti kendras (units consisting of 5-7 polling booths) through more than 100 shakti kendra cluster meets. They themselves rose from the ranks of simple party workers. Both Modi and Shah have in every post-victory speeches acknowledged the role of organisation and common workers. Testimony to this is what Modi said in Varanasi, “Governemnt is niti (policy) and party is rananiti (strategy) and their perfect synergy is one of the important reasons of this victory.”

For Modi, he has lived throughout his political life with these media biases, vicious attacks through inquiries, false cases, etc. Through most of the English media, he was projected as a villain. They were even willing to subvert democratic processes if that benefited Modi. In 2002, an editor of an English daily advocated for indefinite postponement of Gujarat Assembly elections. In 2007, another editor called Gujarat election “anybody’s game”.

Modi converted all these threats and assaults into great learning experiences and strengthened his position not only in the party and the larger ecosystem of nationalists but also in the minds of common Indians. The result is for all to see. Now, BJP is the most dominant party in Indian politics and in the near future, no political party in India will come anywhere close to challenging it. Political pundits should consider this before making predictions about politics in the future.

(Dr. Devendra Kumar is a Political Analyst and Member of BJP. Dr. Vijay Chauthaiwale is in-charge, Foreign Affairs Department, BJP.)