India’s election for the Lok Sabha – lower house of Parliament – will begin in mid-April and conclude a month later. It will decide the fate of political parties and leaders, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi remains India’s most popular leader but will he get as decisive a mandate as he did five years earlier – or worse, lose power?

A brief survey of the pre-poll scene over the past five decades offers revealing clues.

Indira Gandhi quit the Congress party in 1969 after a bitter struggle with a set of powerful leaders from different parts of the country who had helped her become prime minister in January 1966. To consolidate her grip on power she pushed the country further along the road of socialism via moves such as nationalizing private banks. However, in order to gain authentic legitimacy, she needed a clear popular mandate. So, she decided to call for elections in 1971, a year earlier than scheduled.

Indira’s narrative

Indira sought votes on a single platform which was captured in a succinct slogan: “I demand the removal of poverty; they demand the removal of Indira”. The cry to eliminate poverty and promise equitable wealth and income became the single pre-election narrative. She pursued it vigorously through the election campaign. Along with this singular theme, she claimed that she alone could achieve this national goal.

Thus, Indira Gandhi’s success came through a well-controlled and pushed dominant theme with Indira as sole flag-bearer of that goal. Since then, only three of the 11 Lok Sabha elections have witnessed the 1971 combination of one pre-eminent narrative, its unrelenting projection and convincing voters that only its proponent could deliver on such a vision. In each of those three elections, the people of India responded by giving a parliamentary majority to that leader.

Six years later Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 election, largely because of popular revulsion at her imposing an emergency that suspended citizens’ fundamental rights. A coalition led by the Janata Party and the successor government supported by the Congress could not last three years. So, mid-term elections were held in January 1980. Gandhi campaigned on one theme: stability. She put herself forward as the only political leader who could guarantee it. The voters gave her party 353 seats in a house of 529.

In 1984, elections were held in the wake of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination on October 31 of that year. The dominant theme was Indira Gandhi’s legacy for the poor and dispossessed, and the sole person projected to preserve it was her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi. He won 414 seats, a feat not accomplished either by his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister or his mother, and is unlikely to be repeated.

The Modi wave

Narendra Modi’s remarkable achievement in the 2014 elections was that he was able to secure a majority for his party, the BJP — 282 seats out of 544. While the BJP led a coalition, the winning parties contested the polls separately. Modi’s success was notable because no one had succeeded in gaining a majority on his or her own in three decades since 1984. Rajiv Gandhi was unable to repeat his triumph from 1984. In the 1989 election, the Congress party fell catastrophically from 414 to 193 seats.

Modi offered the vision of a new and bold India free from the shackles of corruption, the wheeling and dealing of family-controlled or caste-based parties moving rapidly forward to promote inclusive growth. He appealed to young voters, saying that he was a person who, like the overwhelming majority of Indians, had experienced poverty first-hand. He also projected himself as a decisive and nationalist leader with a proven administrative record, as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, in contrast to a “feeble” Manmohan Singh, supposedly controlled and manipulated by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul.

The dominant message of inclusive and corruption-free growth was attractive because the United Progressive Alliance coalition led by the Congress party was plagued with corruption scandals and uneven economic growth in its second term from 2009 to 2014. The ruling UPA offered no challenge to Modi. Nor did the fractured caste-based regional parties in the Hindi-speaking areas where Modi’s message resonated with enormous force. Consequently, Modi was able to attract followers of all parties in this large part of India. He won an astonishing 191 of the 226 seats on offer in this area. This was the foundation for his spectacular success.

Before surveying the current pre-election scene, it is noteworthy that the seven other elections since 1971 did not have the magic of a single controlling theme and a sole leader to take advantage of it. These elections threw up fractured mandates and resulted in coalition governments.

So, what is the present situation?

Burdened by incumbency

It is far more difficult for an incumbent leader to fashion a dominant narrative than a challenger unless there is a defined rallying point. Generally, such a reference point has to be external but it can also be internal, as in 1971, when Mrs Gandhi projected her old party leaders as obstacles to a new era. Without such a rallying point, an incumbent can only rely on his record to appeal for votes. But contrasting his successes with the failures of past governments doesn’t cut much ice with voters. So, Modi has now to rely on the achievements of his government. Here he can point to a number of measures, but no single dominant theme has emerged. Besides, all his claims are being contested.

Modi is seeking votes for positive economic management and putting in place programs for the benefit of the poor. How is this message faring?

India is acknowledged as the world’s largest growing economy but opposition parties are casting doubt on the statistics. A recent report indicated that the government had not allowed statistics that paint a grim picture – very high rates of unemployment, especially in the organized sector – from being published. Government spokespeople have claimed that the economy is registering high jobs growth.

There is little doubt that Modi has introduced many programs in the health, education, banking, housing, sanitation, household energy sectors, which have eased the burden of the poor. However, here too the opposition has been pointing to shortcomings in these schemes, and this has prevented Modi from building an effective and captivating message.

Recently, Modi pushed through an affirmative action program based on economic criteria, a revolutionary move given that it did not involve social backwardness and required a constitutional amendment. For the first time, higher castes and minorities — such as Muslims and Christians — have been covered in the ambit of affirmative action. However, while this theme may develop traction with the upper castes, it is not likely to change the antipathy of minorities towards Modi, because they firmly believe that he does not care for them.

Modi’s last budget was introduced to parliament on February 1. It contained a direct cash transfer scheme for distressed farming families. It also gave tax relief to a large section of the lower middle class. A large number of these important sections have shown signs of alienation from Modi. Will these measures help to win them back? Certainly, Modi will use them to burnish his credentials as the messiah of the poor and underprivileged. But with the tie-ups with caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh, the state which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha, the PM’s ability to cash in on these schemes will be limited.

Modi is claiming that without him there will be no stability, however, he is not relying on a single grand theme but on specific measures for specific sections of the electorate, including the traditional Hindu support base of the BJP. For them, he has extended his support for construction of the temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya. He is doing this carefully though, as he has assured that the government will take steps only after the Supreme Court issues a verdict. At the same time, his government has urged the court to release land adjacent to the disputed area that was acquired by the government to prevent any possibility of further complications in the matter.

The Congress party has tried to blunt Modi’s assertion that he has led a corruption-free government by highlighting the Rafale aircraft deal. The previous government discussed the acquisition of 126 Rafale fighter aircraft from France for many years but did not seal a deal. Modi changed the parameters by opting to buy 36 planes all manufactured in France. More importantly, the Indian partner of Dassault changed from the public sector company Hindustan Aeronautical Limited to a company newly set up by billionaire Anil Ambani. The opposition has claimed that Modi favored Ambani and paid far more for the planes than envisaged in the old contract. Little appears to have stuck but the opposition has been hammering the PM.

The absence of a single theme associated with a single leader has led to coalition governments. Modi is trying to buck the trend. It may not be easy for him to do so.

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