Many believe that if what seemed like a popular government led by then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee could be defeated in 2004, why can’t the present BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which seems equally popular, be defeated? Analysts draw various similarities in the political climate prevailing before the 2004 Lok Sabha election at present, and conclude that the Narendra Modi government is in for a tough time when it faces the electorate in 2019.
The parallels and analysis being done and the conclusions being drawn are too simplistic and require a careful study. One will be making a huge error if one concludes that given the political similarities between 2004 and 2019, the electoral verdict in 2019 will be similar to that of 2004. The current political climate might look similar to what it was before the 2004 Lok Sabha election, but underlying those similarities are various differences which might make the electoral contest in 2019 different from 2004 and the Congress might face enormous difficulty in putting up a challenge for the BJP. To explain, I will offer both political argument and empirical evidence.
The present Congress is very different from the Congress of 2004. When the Congress went into the 2004 Lok Sabha election, it had a much bigger support base compared to what it is at present. Though the Congress suffered three successive defeats (1996, 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections), but its vote share remained intact at 28.3 per cent.
The BJP, which was the ruling party, was defending its 23.7 per cent vote share which was less than the Congress. The Congress at present has a much lower vote share of 19.6 per cent compared to the BJP which has 31.0 per cent votes — a complete reversal from what the situation was in 2004. Even if the Congress with all its effort manages to increase its vote share in 2019 — adds five to six per cent votes to its present vote share — it may not be able to win seats in three digits during the coming Lok Sabha elections. But if the vote share of the Congress declines even by one per cent, it might lose a large number of seats.
The BJP will be far less vulnerable compared to the Congress in 2019. Even if the BJP loses some votes in the Hindi heartland, it may not lose too many states as the victory margins of the BJP in many states — like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — are very large. The average victory margin of the BJP was little more than 2.5 lakh votes in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana; it was slightly more than two lakh votes in states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra; while it was marginally less than two lakh votes in states like Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Even in other states the victory margin of the BJP has been very big — Chhattisgarh 1.3 lakh, Delhi 1.5 lakh, Bihar 1.1 lakh, Jharkhand 1.3 lakh, Assam 1 lakh and Karnataka 1.2 lakh. There are other states like Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Jammu and Kashmir where the BJP’s victory margin has been about one lakh votes.
A careful look at the various state governments at present suggests that not just in national politics, but also at state-level politics, the Congress is far weaker now compared to 2004. The Congress is the ruling party only in two states — Punjab and Mizoram — and is sharing power in the coalition government in Karnataka with the Janata Dal (Secular). The political scenario was completely different in 2004. Not only did the Congress have a much bigger support base at the national level (28.3 per cent vote share), but it was the ruling party in nine states and the coalition partner in three more states. Altogether, when the Congress went to polls in 2004, it was the ruling party in as many as 12 states of India.
Let me also offer the political argument why 2019 is different from 2004. There is a difference between the present leadership of the Congress and the BJP. The present leadership of the Congress (Rahul Gandhi) is seen as much weaker compared to how its leadership was perceived by the people in 2004. While it is true that the leadership of Sonia Gandhi was not seen as very formidable, but at least there was no visible sign of leaders of other regional political parties openly opposing her.
At present, many leaders of regional parties have openly expressed their reservation in accepting the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. This makes the Congress look far weaker now compared to what it was in 2004.
The BJP and its leadership against which the Congress contested the 2004 Lok Sabha election was different compared to the present BJP and its leadership. The BJP at present is headed by Amit Shah, who is seen as a master strategist and who knows the art of winning elections. What adds to the strength of the present BJP is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in whom the people of this country have much greater faith than in any other Prime Minister in recent decades. This helps the BJP in mobilising votes for the party.
Mr Shah and Mr Modi have demonstrated this in various Assembly elections in the recent past and the BJP will have huge advantage over the Congress in this respect during the coming Lok Sabha elections. The electoral challenge for the Congress is far more stiff compared to what it was in 2004 and it is extremely incorrect to compare 2019 with 2004.