Lord Ram, not economy, will help Modi win in 2019

By Minhaz Merchant   @minhazmerchant |
 2017-10-07 14:10:03

To reach the comfort zone of 300-plus Lok Sabha seats, BJP must win big in Uttar Pardesh.

Bill Clinton famously declared, "It's the economy, stupid", during his presidential campaign against George H Bush in 1992.

Well, it usually is. Not in India though. The Kargil war, not the economy, won Atal Bihari Vajpayee the September 1999 general election. The Bangladesh refugee crisis won Indira Gandhi the March 1971 Lok Sabha poll even though the economy was lumbering along at 3 per cent a year. Rajiv Gandhi's tragic assassination won the Congress the May 1991 general election despite a bankrupt national treasury.

Will building the Ram temple electrify Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vote base, especially in Uttar Pradesh, in 2019?

Modi is India's most astute politician. He knows that the BJP has lost a great deal of goodwill among the middle-class and the business community. Workers have been hit by the economic slowdown and paucity of jobs. Businesses are struggling with the excruciatingly complex Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Farmers are in distress. Students are in revolt. By any statistical yardstick, Modi should lose the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

There are two reasons why he won't. First, Ram. Second, Rahul.

Let's analyse the second factor first. Rahul Gandhi is likely to be the face of the national mahagathbandan (grand alliance) that will present a united alternative to Modi. The united Opposition will be a mishmash of the Congress, the ideas-bereft Left and Islamist-leaning regional parties such as the SP, RJD, TMC, NCP, NC, JD(S), AIMIM and IUML.

Between them, these 10 UPA partners and UPA-leaners such as the DMK won just 108 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

If Rahul is smart (a possibility), he will appoint Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia as chief ministerial candidates for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, respectively. The two states are scheduled to hold assembly elections in November-December 2018. Anti-incumbency is growing in both. The Congress has more than a fighting chance in each.

The Babri Masjid being demolished in 1992.

Rajasthan sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha, Madhya Pradesh sends 29. While assembly results are no indicator of Lok Sabha voting trends, the BJP (which won all 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan in 2014 and 27 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh) should be worried. After Punjab, these two states could be its next Achilles heel.

Rahul may be mocked by BJP supporters but it would be foolish to underestimate either him or the pull of dynasty in a still-feudal India. Modi is clearly aware of this. Rahul's suit-boot sarkar taunt forced Modi to switch his political strategy from pro-industry to pro-poor.

The tired old Congress-led and -fed ecosystem has come roaring back to life. Left-leaning jholawalas are in full voice - candles lit, open letters to the prime minister in the mail, protests underway, petitions on the ready.

That's where Uttar Pradesh and Lord Ram come in. Modi knew way back in March 2017 that the tide was turning. Winning Uttar Pradesh in a landslide did not make him lower his guard. He knows that winning a large chunk of seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 is crucial to retaining power. Hence the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister.

Adityanath wasn't chosen for his administrative brilliance but for the 24/7 messages he sends out as a Hindu mahant. Adityanath's five-day break to preside over his Gorakhnath math is an early indication. His march against "jihadi violence" in Kerala is another.

Modi also knows that if Mayawati's BSP joins the Congress and rival SP (where Shivpal Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav have called a truce) in a united front against the BJP in UP, the numbers in India's make-or-break state could still go awry.

Electoral math

Party president Amit Shah and Modi have done their calculations for 2019 carefully. The BJP obviously needs to win big in Uttar Pradesh - at least 65-70 seats - or the electoral math in 2019 will not add up.

The BJP won 78 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 in Rajasthan (25/25), Madhya Pradesh (27/29) and Gujarat (26/26). These three states will not deliver a similar harvest in 2019.

Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh with 59 Lok Sabha seats between them could be trouble spots too if (in Maharashtra) the Shiv Sena walks out of the NDA before the general election.

All of this explains Shah's tireless efforts in Kerala, the Northeast, Odisha and Bengal. But the numbers here are small except for Assam and Odisha. Bengal and Kerala remain electorally embryonic for the BJP.

The two silver linings are Bihar (where the BJP and JD(U) should sweep over 30 of the state's 40 Lok Sabha seats) and Tamil Nadu (where the AIADMK and Rajinikanth may offer the NDA an electoral cushion).

Will that be enough to give the BJP alone the 350 Lok Sabha seats that Shah has targeted? No.

Will it give the party at least 272 seats? Possibly yes.

Could it fall short of 272? Unlikely, but not impossible.

The must-get NDA (not just BJP) numbers in 2019 are: Uttar Pradesh (65), Bihar (35), Tamil Nadu (AIADMK, 25), Gujarat (20) and Maharashtra (25, excluding Shiv Sena). That totals to 170 in five key states. Add Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh (TDP), Odisha, Karnataka and the Northeast and the NDA's tally could struggle to cross 300. Smaller states such as Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand and others will chip in but without a big haul in Uttar Pradesh, the going will be tough for the NDA to reach the comfort zone of 300 Lok Sabha seats.

The Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Whichever way the verdict goes, Lord Ram holds the key to 2019.

Also read: Why Bangladesh took in the Rohingya Muslims

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