In recent memory, no political leader across the democratic world has enjoyed the kind of popularity and electoral success as the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indeed, one can even argue that Mr. Modi has possibly received the greatest democratic mandate in the history of mankind in terms of the sheer number of votes. This popularity seems to have only grown in the last 6 months as has been evident in state election after state election – so much so that BJP, a supposedly Hindu nationalist party, even had the temerity to try and achieve the impossible ideal of emerging on top in the country’s only Muslim-majority state.

Many of BJP’s critics have argued that the endorsement of Modi as the leader of India is flawed, mainly because more than 50% of the voters haven’t voted for him, which of course does not imply that they are opposed to him by default in a parliamentary democracy. Statistically, the fact that there exists a clear Modi vote in India today is undeniable. On a more simplistic level, this Modi vote can be defined as the 30th percentile, as BJP seems to be getting around 30% of the popular vote in almost all the elections – national as well as in major state assemblies. In a first-past-the-post system, 30% vote-share is usually considered to be the “winning vote”, especially in a divided polity like that of India.

Moving beyond percentages and on examining the raw votes, it becomes clear that there exists today a strong groundswell of support in favour of Modi, which is enabling the BJP to win clear mandates in elections. Contrary to what most pundits believed, this phenomenon is not limited to the macro-national level but penetrates deep into the microcosm of India as was evident in the recent assembly elections. On a national scale, this Modi vote constituted about 10 Cr voters in terms of raw numbers, whereas in a smaller state like Haryana it was around 32 lakhs and in a large state like Maharashtra it was roughly 90 lakhs.

Since the summer of 2014, the entire opposition political setup of India has been almost clueless about ways to take on this Modi tsunami that is sweeping across the country. Even after 6-odd months, the opposition political class doesn’t have any tangible answers to the questions that Indian voters have thrown at them. Primarily, the opposition to Modi is reliant on the passive hope that the Modi government may flounder and present a chance for them to reclaim some of their lost political space.

An example from last week showcases just how bankrupt the opposition is, in terms of political ideas to take on Modi and his administration, when all of them chose to make a huge collective noise about some Muslims being re-converted to Hinduism in Agra by a Hindu organization. It is precisely this sort of gimmickry that has built the legend of Modi today and they seem to have learnt no lessons at all from the verdict of 2014. For instance, as is evident from the above chart, while Modi and BJP have grown exponentially, the main opposition party of India, Congress, has not dramatically declined in terms of sheer votes – it has, in fact, remained almost static due to its core-vote remaining intact (mostly minorities and older voters) without any meaningful addition of younger and newer voters.

It is this status quo politics of the opposition that is hurting them the most as they are unable to either understand or react to what the new India of 2014 wants. The only plausible solution in the annals of opposition thinking is to somehow join forces and present a united front in order to prevent a vote split, which is also nothing but a disguised extension of the same status quo politics.

Does this mean that Modi is invincible? The answer to that question is probably a “yes”, at least at the national level, but maybe there is some hope at state-level politics for the opposition parties mainly because of the ‘law of averages’. The next plausible question is, when will this Modi electoral juggernaut come to a temporary stop, at least at the state level? In the foreseeable future, there are two geographies where the Modi-led BJP may face its biggest challenges – Delhi and Patna. While the real political alternative to Modi’s richly cultivated wide rainbow of Hindu votes will possibly come from a potential minority + middle castes combo in Bihar with the formation of the new Janata Dal, the first real roadblock is likely to come from the elevated environs of Delhi.

If at all there is an alternate political pathway in India today that moves beyond the status quo, it has to be in the form of Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP experiment which is of course limited by its geographical spread beyond Delhi. Lest we forget, almost 4 years ago, when the then ruling coalition of a Congress-led UPA was at the peak of its political prowess after winning 200+ LS seats, when Sonia Gandhi and her NGO cheerleaders were sold as the hope on which India would bring ‘inclusive growth’, when Rahul Gandhi was considered as the youth icon of 21st century India, when the main opposition BJP was in complete disarray, it was then that this man ‘who-saw-tomorrow’ started a campaign against corruption at unprecedented scales prevailing in Sonia’s India. Whatever be his politics, whatever be his ambitions, whatever be his ideology (or the lack of it), one cannot ignore the fact that he was the man who-saw-tomorrow, when everybody else was blind, for no other political stalwart of that time was even willing to utter the word “anti-incumbency” in the same sentence with either “Congress” or the “Gandhis”.

So Kejriwal it was who first joined hands with Baba Ramdev and then shrewdly used Anna Hazare to at least provoke the conscience of middle India, if not start a mini revolution in urban geographies. The same Kejriwal, who then in a blinding moment of misplaced ambition gave up everything, is once again trying to reinvent himself in the familiar political environs of Delhi. The same Kejriwal, who, lest we again forget, even in the summer of 2014, at the peak of Modi mania in the national elections managed to win over 33% of Delhi voters despite Congress taking away 15% of the popular vote.

Now, as Delhi is heading towards a decisive electoral battle, there is little doubt that it would be a fight between a wildly successful BJP under Modi and a richly optimistic AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal. There have been three defining features in all the elections that BJP has faced until now in the last 1 odd year, starting from Chhattisgarh last November to the national elections in the summer of 2014 and concluding with the ongoing Jharkhand and J&K polls – 1] a demoralized opposition, 2] lack of a strong opposition leader and 3] huge anti-incumbency against non-BJP governments (in the case of BJP-ruled states like MP, there was actually a pro-incumbency). All of these three factors will be missing in Delhi as there has been no government in the city state for a year now for any anti-incumbency to develop and in Kejriwal there is a strong popular leader in the opposition camp, which is hardly a demoralized lot going by the resilient online pitch of its supporters. So what are the factors that may have a bearing on Delhi polls this time?

  • Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity in Delhi as the choice for CM of the state, which has been consistently high across a range of polls and has almost never been below 36%
  • Lack of local leadership in a totally urbanized state may hurt BJP, which also lacks organizational capacity due to severe turf battles
  • How BJP manages to creatively tap the biggest weakness of AAP – the failed 49-day government – and drive home the message of governance to make a big impact
  • Modi, being the most popular leader in India today, has to find a neat balance between campaigning in Delhi and over-exposure to electoral appearances owing to non-stop elections for a year which has also translated into non-stop coverage on TV (which has 70% penetration in Delhi)
  • Kejriwal’s ability to refurbish himself – from constantly attacking Modi (which has always been counterproductive) and instead finding a parallel development plan for Delhi
  • How AAP manages to attack the BJP government on the black money issue and how well BJP can defend itself could be a deciding factor since almost 66% of respondents from Delhi in our own recent 6-month poll survey indicated that the “U-turn” on the subject is perceived as a big negative for the Modi government
  • Candidate selection… period
  • The lacklustre performance of BJP in the MCD
  • The developing fatigue among BJP supporters while the AAP supporters are still buoyed (especially in the Social Media universe which will be of prime importance in Delhi)
  • Timing of the elections – if the polls are held after the presentation of the union budget (unlikely), then it would help AAP tremendously as the expectations from the next budget are impossibly high and, in all probability, the finance minister is likely to present a major disappointment

To understand exactly how these factors will have an impact on the Delhi elections, we must glance at various pre-poll surveys conducted by a host of agencies (most of them with a dubious reputation). The picture that emerges from these polls is that of the ranges for each of the three major competing parties.

What is clear from these surveys is that BJP starts the election with an advantage, which is a continuation of the trend from the previous state assembly polls and the summer elections. What is also clear is that AAP is more or less holding on to its own vote-base, while Congress may be shrinking further. What is not clear from these polls is the exact percentage of undecided/swing voters – this is an aspect that most non-serious pollsters either miss completely or gloss over as inconsequential.

Based on our own past experiences, we can safely state that, at this stage of the pre-election atmosphere in a state (4 to 6 weeks before polling), normally there are about 15% undecided voters and roughly 5% ‘shifting’ voters (willing to swing). Taking into consideration the fact that the Delhi electorate is made up of 1.35 Cr voters, this 20% segment translates into roughly 27 lakh voters. Assuming that 65% of these swing voters will eventually make a decision and turn out to vote, the actual number would still be a whopping 18 lakh voters.

This is where the ten factors listed above will come into picture in winning over these crucial 18 lakh voters who will decide the fate of Delhi. As of today, BJP seems to have no blueprint on how to go about attracting these voters beyond using the Modi card, whereas AAP still has many more aces up its sleeve due to their inherent political freshness which protects them from many accusatory fingers.

Beyond these plausible pathways, there is another major X-factor in the upcoming Delhi elections. The entire opposition realizes that this probably would be the only golden opportunity to try and stop the almost impossible electoral run of BJP that has seen them already achieve seven straight victories, including the mammoth national election, and brought them on the verge of winning another state in the form of Jharkhand (Jammu & Kashmir being not considered as a normal electoral state due to obvious conflict reasons). It is thus incumbent upon the whole opposition to put all their might behind Arvind Kejriwal and his fledgling outfit. We have already seen an open offer from the newly reformulated Janata Dal to that effect and there have been rumours of a behind-the-scenes understanding between Congress and AAP.

If Congress were to try and have a backroom understanding with the AAP, as it has been reported to be experimenting of late in other states and even with ideological opponents like Shiv Sena (in Maharashtra),  then it could potentially add a maximum of a million votes to AAP’s kitty and make all the difference in 30-odd seats.

At the end of the day, Delhi is an electorally insignificant state and if BJP fails to win the state election it will not really make much material difference to either Modi’s Prime Ministership or to the BJP government. However, if Kejriwal is unable to halt this metaphorical Modi’s electoral Ashwamedha in Delhi then the impact on the morale of the opposition would be incalculably high.