CSDS-Lokniti 2024 pre-poll survey | There is no clear and close challenger to the BJP this time. ‘Ifs and buts’ apply

The BJP, which is banking on its record in government, the Modi factor, and more votes from southern and eastern India, is in a pole position. But respondents are upset about economic distress

April 13, 2024 05:10 am | Updated 08:44 am IST

BJP supporters at a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Udhampur.

BJP supporters at a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Udhampur. | Photo Credit: PTI

On June 4, 2024, the day of counting of votes of the Lok Sabha elections, will India witness anti-incumbency? Or will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking a third consecutive term under the same leader, witness a watershed moment? In the first two days of our analysis published in these pages, we focused on the factors that are in favour of the BJP and the factors that may pose a challenge to it. In the concluding set of articles today, based on the pre-poll survey by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), we assess the possible direction of public mood at the present juncture. We show that voters’ assessment of the government’s performance combined with the impact of the leadership factor may help the BJP weather the storm that economic distress may cause.

A comfortable lead

Nearly three weeks before voting was to commence, the BJP enjoyed a comfortable 12% point lead over the Opposition INDIA alliance. Four voters in every 10 said that they would vote for the BJP. As Table 1 shows, the BJP is making small gains over its 2019 performance in terms of vote share. The Congress, too, is poised to make marginal gains, but these will not be sufficient to pose a serious threat to the incumbent. So, the BJP’s current advantage is not so much in leaving behind its challengers as it is in ensuring that they might not have enough strength to pose a serious challenge to it. And perhaps more significantly, it is to the BJP’s credit that even after two terms in office, it is not only the leading player but also seems set to improve its vote share.

(A caveat: when respondents were asked their vote intention, the actual day of voting was between three weeks to, in some cases, more than two months away. One in every three respondents admitted that their choice as expressed in this pre-poll survey could change.)

There was a positive assessment of the BJP’s 10-year-old government. More than half the respondents were satisfied with the government’s performance as opposed to 40% who were not. Therefore, it is not surprising that a majority of the respondents were positively inclined to give the Modi government another chance.

One of the cornerstones of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign is the ‘Modi guarantee’. This, too, seems to have traction among voters. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has also made a pitch for the Congress’s set of guarantees. But Mr. Modi had a 7-point advantage over Mr. Gandhi in terms of trust in their respective guarantees.

Challenges for the BJP

While the survey indicates that the BJP continues to be in the lead, it also hints at the chinks in the party’s armour. Compared to the National Election Study of 2019 by Lokniti-CSDS, the share of those satisfied with the government’s performance has gone down by 8 points. As a result, the share of those who wished to give the ruling party another chance was just 5 points higher than those who did not. The support for another term was higher in rural areas as compared to urban pockets. The more affluent seemed to favour giving in larger numbers another chance to the ruling party; the intensity of this support declined as we move down the economic ladder.

Among those who said that they would vote for the BJP (or National Democratic Alliance or NDA allies), there was a 6 point difference between support for the NDA among the more affluent as compared to the poor. Support for the Congress and its allies seemed uniform across economic strata. But if the BJP continues to lead with a skewed class base, that could be a warning signal to the party (Table 2).

The Modi factor

Ever since Mr. Modi arrived on the all-India scene in 2013 to campaign for the 2014 general elections, the BJP and the NDA’s campaign appears to revolve around his persona. By placing the Prime Minister at the centre of its campaign, the BJP is hedging on the most critical factor that could give it a decisive advantage. Close to half the respondents named Mr. Modi as their preferred prime ministerial choice. (It is important to note here that no names were offered to the respondents.) Mr. Gandhi was mentioned by a little less than three of every 10 respondents. The gap between the two leaders was 21 points.

What makes Mr. Modi so acceptable and what is considered his most admired achievement? One-fourth of the respondents said that the most admired work of the Modi government is the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. All the other reasons given for liking Mr. Modi paled in comparison to this: less than 10% pointed to work related to employment, poverty alleviation, or boosting India’s image abroad. Among NDA supporters, one-third cited construction of the Ram Mandir, one of every 10 highlighted employment opportunities, and another one of every 10 focused on India’s improved international image as reasons for liking him. The message is therefore loud and clear: notwithstanding the economic hiccups reported on the first day of these reports, voters in general and NDA voters in particular latched on to the Modi factor for what our reports earlier called ‘consolidation of Hindus’.

While this helps the BJP currently in wining votes, respondents clearly mentioned what they did not like about the Modi government: 24% said that they did not like the handling of price rise and another 24% mentioned increasing unemployment as the most disliked thing about this government. How long a leader and a party can lead popularity charts with these indictments is a critical question.

Regional divide

In 2014, the BJP’s victory was primarily based on its stunning performance in States in the north and west. In 2019, while retaining that performance and even partially improving on it, the BJP made significant headway in parts of the east, notably West Bengal and Assam. This leaves out the bulk of the south except Karnataka where the BJP performed well in 2019. Will the regional divide continue to impact electoral outcomes?

The stagnation of bipolarity in Kerala, the defeat of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana in the last Assembly elections, and the BJP’s alliance with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh are likely to help the national party penetrate the southern fortress. Our pre-poll suggests that the regional divide may still operate albeit with reduced significance. The north and west seemed to strongly favour the NDA. The alliance also had good support in the east and Northeast. The challenge that it faces is in the south, where there seemed to be an even split between support for the NDA and for the Opposition (Table 3). As figures for the Congress and the BJP in Table 3 show, the intended vote in favour of the BJP was increasing in both the south and east, which will probably narrow the political variation across regions. This would be a major gain for the BJP.

However, alongside region, the nature of the electoral contest may also shape the possible configuration of voters’ choices. In direct fights between the BJP and Congress, the BJP seemed to have an impressive lead. This dropped to half in contests between the NDA and the INDIA alliance. In multi-cornered contests, there seemed to be a clear three-way split in terms of support.

All this shows that there is no clear and close challenger to the BJP. However, the voters may be sending out many other messages. The BJP was leading in terms of possible vote share, but the respondents were upset about economic distress. Those who were not convinced that achhe din (good days) have come did not show the same enthusiasm in voting for the BJP. And therein lies the most fascinating aspect of this election: the BJP is leading not because of its economic performance but despite the lack of it. How the BJP will negotiate this tension or how the Opposition will take this tension to the voters will determine whether the vote intentions as expressed in our pre-poll survey remain stable or get upset.

Sandeep Shastri is Director-Academics, NITTE Education Trust, and the National Coordinator of the Lokniti Network; Suhas Palshikar taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics; and Sanjay Kumar is Professor and Co-director Lokniti-CSDS

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