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India's Modi weighs the odds as he ponders an early election

BJP and supporters hope the prime minister can see off INC challenge

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Dec. 9. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are considering moving the next election for the lower house of parliament forward to October and November of 2018, instead of April and May of 2019 as was initially scheduled.

In a recent assembly election in Modi's home state of Gujarat in western India, the BJP suffered heavy losses when the votes were counted on Dec. 18. But the party managed to hang on to its majority and many BJP members feel Modi remains popular. They believe an early dissolution of the parliament will work to their advantage.

"An early general election in October to November 2018 is possible," a senior official affiliated with the BJP told the Nikkei Asian Review, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added: "At this stage, there is 50% probability of Modi calling for a national election and dissolving parliament before the government completes its full term" in May 2019.

That sentiment was widely shared by members of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that supports the party, during a conference call on Dec. 18, the official said. The RSS held the conference call to congratulate the BJP for its victory in two assembly elections, one in Gujarat and the other in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, returns for which came in the same day. Modi and other ministers were in attendance.

What are the chances?

An early dissolution of parliament and general election "would require in-depth, ground-level reports from BJP and RSS state units," another BJP source said. The BJP holds a slight majority in the lower house on its own at present. Modi and his party will decide whether to go ahead with an early dissolution, the source said, based on whether they think they stand to gain more seats by "riding the continuing Modi wave."

The results of assembly elections in three states in particular -- Chhattisgarh in the east, Madhya Pradesh in central India and Rajasthan in the west -- will weigh heavily on Modi's decision. Given that the BJP is the top party in these three states, the local elections will serve as a litmus test for the prime minister's popularity.

The assembly votes are slated for November to December next year, but the BJP senior official hopes to move up these elections up by about six months as well. Whether BJP can persuade the three states to hold their assembly elections around March to April 2018, at the same time as a vote in the southern state of Karnataka, is another major factor affecting the Modi government's decision on an early general election, according to the official.

Bounce back

Behind the BJP's electoral calculations is the slow recovery in the clout of the biggest opposition group and one-time ruling party, the Indian National Congress, which fared well in the Gujarat assembly election, for instance. Although the BJP maintained its sole majority in the assembly, capturing 99 seats, that was down from 115 in the previous election in 2012. By contrast, the INC garnered 77 seats, an increase of 16 from the 2012 election, helping it close the gap with the BJP.

It is difficult to draw conclusions from the assembly vote. Although the BJP lost seats, it received 49% of the votes cast, up 1 point from the 2012 election. The decline in seats may be due mostly to poor tactics.

Supporters of India's main opposition Indian National Congress celebrate early poll results outside the party's office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat on Dec.18.   © Reuters

Gujarat has been governed by the BJP since 1995. Modi was chief minister of the state from 2001 to 2014. But the INC has picked up votes in rural areas, which have benefited little from Modi's focus on infrastructure and industrial development.

The latest opinion poll in July 2017 by India Today, a magazine, showed nationwide support for the INC at 28%. That was still far behind the BJP, at 42%, but up 3 points from the January 2017 survey.

In December, Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took over as the president of INC from his mother, Sonia Gandhi. The BJP has criticized the opposition party's dynastic tendencies, but many INC supporters welcome the generational change.

"In the last couple of months, everybody has started to say '[Rahul] is slightly getting better. He is more aggressive,'" said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based think tank. Kumar has also noticed a change in the way Gandhi speaks, and on his Twitter account.

"Though we don't know whether it is due to a change in his advisers, Rahul is not using loose words anymore. The questions [he poses to] the government are more relevant now, and he is very quick to respond on Twitter. These are all changes in the last three to four months," Kumar said.

There were similar reports last summer that the Modi government was considering an early election. At that time, Modi and the BJP were so confident of gaining seats that they insisted on an early vote, but the RSS argued the decision should be made after assessing the results of the Gujarat assembly election, a BJP source said.

The RSS has not forgotten the bitter lesson of the 2004 general election. The BJP was in power at the time and following the advice of then-Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee and others in the party, the government called a snap election about six months earlier than initially planned. The BJP suffered a crushing defeat and lost power to the INC. Chastened RSS members believe a move to dissolve parliament this time around should go ahead only after assessing the INC's strength, Modi's popularity and other factors.

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