Not a replay of 2019?

By now, there is little doubt that a war of succession has begun within the BJP

Farrukh Khan Pitafi May 18, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at


The widespread suspicion that everything is controlled in the country poses a serious challenge to the integrity of India’s opinion polls. Do not shoot the messenger. This distrust is the main reason why, despite predictions of a sweeping victory by incumbents, the opposition alliance keeps gaining momentum. The mainstream media, of course, is badly compromised. We saw Adani stamping out the last vestiges of independent journalism through a hostile takeover of NDTV.

Recently, NDTV’s former promoter, journalist and psephologist of renown, Dr Prannoy Roy, has resurfaced with his online coverage of the 2024 election. Apart from his travels and interactions with a wide range of ordinary voters, he produces online snippets in which he talks to his friend and colleague Dorab Sopariwala and seeks to answer some critical questions with the help of data. How accurate are the opinion and exit polls? Answer: usually quite accurate. Likewise, who does a low turnout historically help? Answer: Advantage BJP. It has a very organised team of Panna Pramukhs (literally page in charge or minders) and booth workers to get out voters that are simpatico. I would be remiss if I did not point out the professionalism on display by Dr Roy. If I were cheated out of my life’s work or my career sabotaged in such a manner, I would have made the total annihilation of everyone involved the purpose of my life. He is a better man than I am, I guess.

The answer to low turnout poses some fresh questions. Remember, one of the reasons why the opposition looks more muscular than it otherwise should is because of low voter turnout. The moment low turnout was reported, experts on the social (read alternative) media felt vindicated. I have told you before that in the absence of free and independent electronic media, the only pocket of resistance is online, most notably on YouTube. And that universe comes with its own limitations. While many displaced senior journalists have found refuge there, albeit momentarily, the place has traditionally worked as a bubble reality, and there is no dearth of confirmation bias, which can be infectious at times. Add to it that too many agendas often work at cross purposes. Even so, some remarkable tag-teaming is happening among the well-established YouTube channels.

That’s not all. The dip in the first phase turnout numbers witnessed shoddy attempts to assign a pro-incumbent spin by pollsters and equally clumsy attempts by the Election Commission to pad the numbers. But more telling was a dramatic shift in Modi’s own demeanour and campaign. While earlier he would talk about vixit Bharat (developed India) by 2047 and mostly ignored the Congress party, he suddenly returned to the communal pitch and engaged it directly. What can we make of this? That he had access to some crucial polling data and was shocked by the trends? You will forgive this scribe if he tells you that that is where the mind immediately goes when such flip-flopping occurs. But that is not the end of the story. Modi seemed to be changing tack at the speed of a shapeshifter. Mangal sutras, buffaloes, Pakistan, Adanis and Ambanis and eventually, the alleged birth rate rise in the Muslim community. If his own constant change of tone was an indicator, nothing seemed to stick. Since then, he has turned a full circle by claiming that he does not do Hindu-Muslim communal politics. You be the judge of that.

Some other indicators should worry his supporters. For example, the stock market keeps sinking. Again, views are divided on what is causing this. Some claim that the fear of a weak coalition government (read a government by the INDIA coalition) is affecting investor confidence. Others see Modi’s recent attack on Adani and Ambani as the reason. But all agree that the market volatility is not good for Modi.

By now, there is little doubt that a war of succession has begun within the BJP. Supporters of the insurgents believe that it was Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah who started it by denying tickets to many key players. Likewise, the Panna Pramukhs we mentioned look less enthusiastic than before. And there is also a discernible enthusiasm gap among the RSS cadres.

But remember 2019? Many thought that demonetisation alone could dent the BJP’s popularity. Or UP elections in 2022? When many thought the sight of dead bodies floating in the Ganges during the COVID crisis could stall its electoral progress. That did not happen. Could this time be different?

When this election cycle began, I had written in this space that I was more likely to root for a Modi win despite my clear bias in favour of the Congress (I grew up reading Gandhi and Nehru’s writings, after all). There are two reasons. One, many on our side claim to know Modi’s plan of action after victory. He plans to mend fences with Pakistan and China, take India to the UNSC, win a Nobel Prize for Peace and retire at 75. Two, ten years are enough for any strongman to perpetuate power beyond borders. Resultantly, like everywhere else, there’s no shortage of Modi’s fanboys and fangirls in Pakistan. Some go out of their way to hurt you if you speak against him. And I am many things but not a fool. I have not changed my position yet. But these fangirls and fanboys should remember whether he wins or loses; they have to live here and face the consequences of their actions. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

This is not 2019, and everyone knows it. If you want to see what has changed, you need to pay more attention to the politics and strategies of the opposition INDIA coalition. Compared to the last election, they have all matured and come closer. Besides, no rule lasts forever. And there is no Balakot or Muzaffarnagar to suspend public distrust and disbelief. There are reports of voter apathy among Modi’s core constituents. If you need a data point to prove it, please refer to the election commission’s recently released numbers regarding gender turnout patterns. You will notice a significant dip in the women’s votes in the constituencies where they have traditionally been in his vanguard.

Please do not blame me for the observer effect. I am not saying that he has lost. Like you, I will only believe in his loss when I see it. I am just honestly reporting what I see and hear. But clearly, all is not well. How is it my fault that too many Indians, including some from Modi’s party, cannot wait to volunteer information?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2024.

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