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Modi is winning the narrative, but is that making the arithmetic harder?

The question is whether BJP’s graph is rising faster than the opposition’s desperation?

The baseline of the 2019 election is quite simple :

(1) There is no doubt that BJP and Modi are by far the No. 1 choice of the country.

That’s one of the constant factors. But there is a second constant factor:

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(2) No party can seriously hope to get 50% votes… or for that matter … get >50% vote in 200+ seats.

So, can Modi be defeated? Of course. Even Nehru would have lost the 1952 election if the opposition had united against him. In fact, Nehru would have lost pretty badly. In 1952, Congress had a 45% vote. A united opposition would have swept the election, with a double-digit vote share lead of 10%!

So the only “variable factor” in this election is how far the opposition is willing to go to defeat Narendra Modi.

This variable factor depends obviously on the opposition’s perception of who is winning the election. Ironically, this means that “highs” for PM Modi in some way increase the risk of him losing in 2019.

In December, the opposition was all over the place. The cocky Congress, with 3 newly won states, appeared to be on a rampage. They were reading two hung assemblies in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as a huge positive vote for their prince Rahul Gandhi. The enthused Congress even began chasing a mirage in Uttar Pradesh, injecting Priyanka Gandhi into the campaign, thinking that this might be the India of 1975.

One might just laugh at this.

Despite the December low and perhaps because of it, BJP’s chances were going up. The party took some measures to mollify core middle class voters by raising the Income Tax exemption to 5 lakh, brought in reservation for “economically weaker sections” and a cash handout for marginal farmers.

PM Modi remains incredibly popular. Nobody thinks his government is corrupt. Most people appreciate his vision and his work on addressing core issues: such as electricity, gas and toilets for all. And the scale on which he has pulled off these quantum improvements. The only challenge was addressing a strange, almost irrational feeling of “what have I really got?” You can’t assuage these feelings by reeling off data about numbers of gas or electricity connections or roads built, etc. It comes from lingering insecurity that followed the high expectations of 2014….everyone wants to believe PM Modi is thinking about them personally.

That’s why the income tax exemption limit was so important. And so was the reservation for economically weaker sections. And the Kisan Samman Nidhi for marginal farmers. It was a reminder from Delhi that their favourite leader is thinking about them.

The opposition was mostly blind to these shifting sands. They were still on a high from December, the first time Congress had actually beaten BJP in an election since May 2013.

The BJP, meanwhile, was getting ready to sweep Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. With Cong left out of the BSP-SP tie-up in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP was again in the hunt for 40 seats from UP. The state of Bihar was already in the bag anyway. The BJP was escalating massively in Bengal and Odisha.

Then the terrorist attack in Pulwama happened. Then the revenge air strike in Balakote. Then Abhinandan brought back within 24 hours. As Air Force Chief Dhanoa said yesterday, operations are still “ongoing”.

Modi’s face is everywhere. Nobody is even talking about the opposition. They have no narrative, nothing to tell the voter.

“Vote for Congress because PM Modi is not perfect” is not an election-winning slogan. Neither is “Vote for Congress because Pakistan PM likes us”. Nor is “Let’s go back to things as they were because the last five years fell a bit short of your highest expectations.”

I think the election is set to be announced in 4-5 days. Voting may start in a little over 30 days. No time for the opposition to create a narrative now.

The problem for PM Modi now is that a dejected opposition has gone back to working with calculators instead of people.

Today we hear that AAP and Congress are very close to striking a 3:3:1 deal in Delhi. This could easily mean 7 seats subtracted from the BJP tally. If Congress joins the alliance in Uttar Pradesh, that’s BJP down by another 20 seats.

This puts even more pressure on the BJP’s “greenfield states” like West Bengal and Odisha.  I do not believe the BJP leadership is overconfident. They have lived through 2004. Getting Jay Panda on board yesterday was a good acquisition. The man has been stalling for a long time. The fact that he finally boarded the BJP ship yesterday shows that fence sitters sense a clear pro-Modi mood.

But as the BJP’s graph rises and so does the desperation on the other side, watch out. Desperate people do desperate things. And these things sometimes do work.

The question is whether BJP’s graph is rising faster than the opposition’s desperation?

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