Arithmetic gap big challenge for PM Modi and BJP in key states

Arithmetic gap big challenge for PM Modi and BJP in key states
Arithmetic gap big challenge for PM Modi and BJP in key states

In all the reportage and commentary on the Lok Sabha elections, particularly in the Hindi heartland, a contrast is drawn between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) advantage — Narendra Modi’s popularity — and its challenge — the arithmetic gap.

But break it down to understand what this challenge is all about, and a large element of it is what is called the “Muslim vote”. Further, it is clear that things would have looked rather different if the BJP had a more harmonious equation with Muslims – wherein it provided representation to the community, reoriented its ideological framework, and tamed its Hindutva impulses, and Muslims, in turn, began to trust and vote for the party.

Make no mistake. The absence of this equation, or indeed the tension between the party and Muslims, has often been a great source of strength for the BJP. Because in times of polarisation, it consolidates large sections of Hindus. But it is also an impediment because when religious polarisation ebbs, the arithmetic takes over. The 2019 election will also show whether the votes of Muslims, as in 2014, will be rendered rather irrelevant in shaping the final outcome, or whether this minority vote will regain its importance in shaping national politics.

The arithmetic challenge

Let us take three examples from the key battleground states of this election.

In Bengal, as a report in The Hindu on Tuesday pointed out, when BJP leader Mukul Roy was brought in from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the first thing he did was to identify 32 of the 42 constituencies where minorities (Muslims, that is) did not have a decisive presence. This is where the party decided to focus on. So it begins the race in Bengal having disregarded 10 seats. Or, with Bengal having close to 25% Muslim population, the BJP’s playing field is only 75% of the voting population. This is a minus 25% disadvantage as far as the starting vote share is concerned. On the other hand, a party like TMC can, on paper, work on the entire electorate and craft a winning coalition within that.

Or take Uttar Pradesh (UP). The state has a little over 20% Muslims; in a range of seats, if they vote in a consolidated manner and ally with even one more Hindu community, they can swing the outcome. The BJP thus begins the election with a minus 20% disadvantage. Indeed, when party strategists draw their plan, they already discount Muslim votes, along with Yadav and Jatav votes. This has generated pressure on the party in this election to win more than 50% vote share in each seat. That is an enormous challenge for any party.

In Bihar, the Muslim population is close to 17%, with a substantial number concentrated in the Seemanchal region of north-east Bihar. That explains why, even at the peak of the Modi wave in 2014, the party lost a bulk of the seats in this belt. The BJP starts with a minus 17% disadvantage here.

A caveat is important: Muslims are not the only one who oppose the BJP in these states. There are many among Hindu caste groups — particularly as you go down the socio-economic and caste ladders — who remain distant from the party. But Muslims continue to be the single largest common bloc across multiple states who oppose the BJP.

So the BJP is playing a game with a negative score: -25 in Bengal; -20 in UP; and -17 in Bihar. It is when these segments combine with even a few social groups — Yadavs and Jatavs in UP this time; or Yadavs and a range of backward groups and Dalits in Bihar, as happened in the 2015 Bihar elections — that the BJP faces insurmountable odds.

When arithmetic is offset

Yet, it has gained tremendous success in two of these states, Bihar and UP, in the past. The party hopes to replicate its performance, and is eyeing great strides in West Bengal. How?

This can happen only if three conditions are met.

When Muslims are in these substantial numbers, there is a counter consolidation that can often happen among Hindu castes. This is what we saw in UP in the 2014 general elections or the 2017 assembly polls. A range of Hindu castes came together against what was seen as the pro-appeasement Samajwadi Party (SP) government. This is what the BJP also hopes to achieve in West Bengal because they can sense Hindu discontent against Mamata Banerjee’s perceived policies vis a vis Muslims. The more other parties explicitly woo Muslims, the more ground the BJP gets to allege that minorities have a disproportionate say or veto in Indian democracy and thus construct and bolster the Hindu vote. In such cases, the distance between the BJP and Muslims turns to an advantage because it is seen as the party that will cater only to majoritarian interests.

The second condition under which this disadvantage in arithmetic is offset is when there are multiple parties competing for this Muslim vote. In UP, in 2014, the Muslim vote got fragmented between SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and in Bihar it got divided between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad. In 2017, in the UP assembly elections, the community got fragmented between SP-Congress and the BSP, which put up 100 Muslim candidates. An entirely united Muslim vote, various studies have shown, is a myth, but the more it fragments, the more it suits the BJP.

And finally, when an election turns presidential, with one overarching figure appealing to a range of Hindu castes and breaking traditional voting boundaries, the patterns change. This is what happened to a large extent in UP and Bihar in 2014, when Modi was able to craft a coalition across Hindu classes and castes.

The 2019 question

The big question in the 2019 election is, therefore, the following. Will the Muslim vote regain its importance, and will the BJP suffer because this large demographic of Indian population continues to mistrust the party for a range of reasons, including policies, statements and actions over the past few years?

The Opposition hopes so. And that is why it is seeking to neutralise those three conditions stated above which help the BJP win despite Muslim opposition. It is wooing the Muslim vote but very quietly, while wooing the Hindu vote explicitly. Banerjee is going out of her way to challenge Modi on Sanskrit shlokas; Yadav and Mayawati avoid symbolic gestures which can be construed as pro-Muslim; Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra go temple hopping.

It is also more united than it was in the past. In Bihar, the Muslim votes will consolidate behind the Lalu-Congress alliance. In UP, SP-BSP are together, although the Congress is separately contesting and whether it divides Muslim votes is yet to be seen. And Banerjee in Bengal is confident that Muslim votes will consolidate largely behind her, even though there are two other claimants for it in the form of the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The Opposition also believes that Modi’s appeal has waned to the extent that he is no longer capable of uniting the various strands of Hindu society, particularly the disadvantaged.

The BJP, however, continues to believe that, as in 2014, both critics and opposition parties are underestimating its strengths.

The election, especially in the backdrop of the Balakot strikes, in the assessment of the party, has once again fused nationalism and Hindutva. This is a potent combination that will cut across the caste divide in a way the slogan of development had done in 2014. The BJP also believes that other parties still carry the baggage of being seen as pro-Muslim. But, in its ultimate analysis, Modi’s appeal will be enough to withstand the disadvantage in arithmetic, caused partially, but not wholly, by Muslim opposition to the party. And if that happens, a new normal could be established where the minority vote, for the second consecutive general election, would not be decisive.

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