Milan Vaishnav, South Asia Program Director, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses the overarching themes of the 2019 general election and the message from the Budget with Rediff.com's Archana Masih in an email interview.

What do you see as the predominant themes in India in the months leading to the general election?

I think there will be three overarching themes. The first is the economy. The BJP will not compare its record to the promises of 2013-2014, but it will try and paint a contrast with the second term of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance), which saw growth slow down, inflation tick up, and corruption scandals explode.

The Congress, on the other hand, will compare the UPA's 10-year record (from 2004-2014) with the BJP's last five years in office to tout its credentials.

Obviously, the Opposition is going to go hammer and tongs at the issue of 'jobless growth'.

The second issue is development and welfare—this is what the BJP would prefer to speak about.

The ruling party believes that its welfare schemes are highly popular, especially among women, and that this plank will appeal to voters, particularly in rural areas.

Milan Vaishnav
Vaishnav’s primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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Modi's pitch to the electorate is that the BJP is responsible for establishing the pillars of the modern welfare state and that he needs another five years to fully build out this framework—from universal banking to universal health care and direct benefit transfers.

The third and final theme will be nationalism—not Hindutva, but nationalism.

We have seen this over and over again over the past five years: The government has tried to frame its economic approach, foreign policy, and social policy through this filter.

It is less polarising than talking about Hindutva and, as political scientist Suhas Palshikar has noted, one can easily pivot to the idea that being a good nationalist and a good Hindu are one and the same.

Mr. Modi remains the most popular political leader. What changes do you see in him since he assumed office?

Obviously, the rhetoric has changed.

The lofty talk of turning India into Gujarat, as he'd promised on the 2014 campaign, has slowly disappeared.

The government has pivoted into more traditional areas like welfare and development.

Modi still exudes confidence publicly, but I think he and the party have been rattled by the state of the economy, the Opposition's newfound collaboration, and the Congress victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

This helps explain the BJP's last-ditch attempts to shore up key constituencies ahead of the election.

What is your assessment of the last Budget before the General Election? What is the message emanating from it?

As many commentators have already noted, this was not your standard 'interim account'—this was a full-on election year Budget.

As the 2019 race has tightened, the government is pulling out all the stops to try and shore up its support.

This Budget had tax sops for the middle class, an income support scheme for farmers, and record allocations for social schemes like MGNREGS.

And this comes on the heels of the government's decision to amend the Constitution to create a new 10 per cent quota for 'economically weaker sections' in the general category.

Overall, I think the ruling party is feeling nervous about its reelection chances.

Will no tax on income up to Rs 5 lakh help the BJP garner middle class support in cities because the party is worried about growing urban apathy?

To be honest, we do not have a good evidence base to assess whether these targeted sops actually change voters's minds. For instance, we do not have one credible study (that I have seen anyway) that looks at the electoral impacts of farm loan waivers or an increase in Minimum Support Prices (MSPs).

Politicians believe that they win votes and, in some sense, that is all that matters.

I think the tax relief for middle class families certainly does not hurt the BJP. For a party that came to power on the promise of building and supporting a 'neo-middle class', it is important that it be seen as delivering on that pledge.

The government has been constantly targeted for failing to create enough jobs and a yet to be released NSSO report stated that the unemployment rate in India at a 45-year-high—how is unemployment going to affect the BJP's fortunes in the general election?

This is going to be the BJP's Achilles's heel headed into the 2019 race.

The core of the Modi promise was that he would ramp up growth, create good jobs, and revive India's moribund investment cycle.

To date, growth has been uneven, formal sector jobs remain few and far between, and the investment cycle still has not been unburdened from the twin balance sheet issue (the double whammy of public sector bank Non-Performing Assets and heavily indebted corporate balance sheets).

The fact that the government has not been up front about its jobs record (just witness the brouhaha over the leaked NSSO report) suggests it is insecure about its own record in this regard.

Remember that the BJP did very well among young voters in 2014: states with a larger share of first-time voters (those between the ages of 18 to 22 who had never voted in a national election before) also saw the largest percentage increases in the BJP's vote share.

If young voters spurn the BJP or decide to stay at home, this could spell trouble for the ruling party.

How has India changed in these five years?

First, I think Modi has been able to reassert India's role on the global scene. He has not always lived up to the rhetoric around the notion that India will act as a 'leading power' rather than a 'balancing' one, but there is a feeling globally that India embraces its regional and global role in a way that it might have shied away from in the past.

Second, Modi has spent a lot of time convincing the world that India is 'open for business' again. Here, I think the record is very mixed.

We have seen serious reforms—lifting FDI caps, GST, the new Bankruptcy Code, and so on.

But we have also seen a serious bout of protectionism—increasing tariffs, local content restrictions, the new e-commerce regulations that hurt Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart.

I think the net assessment on Modi is that he is more pro-business than pro-market—that is a subtle, but important distinction.

Third, politically the BJP has become the new centre of gravity. I don't think there is any question about that. The Congress is a shell of its former self and regional parties are on the back foot in many parts of the country.

The BJP controlled just five states as recently as 2014; today it is in power in 17. This is a big shift.

The BJP's last campaign was about 'vikas', are you seeing the party going to go back to the Ram temple and Hindutva as it tries to win another term?

In 2014, the BJP deployed Hindutva when and where it suited them. It popped up in western Uttar Pradesh in places like Muzaffarnagar. The card was played in Assam and in the border areas of West Bengal and the north east.

I do not foresee it being the overarching theme, but it will be part of the layered messaging that the BJP deploys. And it is important to keep in mind that this messaging need not emanate from Modi—it can be exploited by his surrogates.

A U.S. intelligence report recently said there is a strong possibility of communal violence in India if the BJP stresses on Hindu nationalist themes ahead of the general election. What are your thoughts about this report? Is this an alarmist view?

I do not see anything alarmist in what the U.S. director of national intelligence has said in his report.

The report states that if the BJP campaigns on the back of Hindu nationalist themes, that could trigger communal strife that could, in turn, result in violence.

We have seen this movie before and it is a risk factor. My own sense is that the BJP is not going to run a heavily Hindutva campaign and it does not really need to given Modi's own bonafides among the Hindu right.

Of course, it will use polarisation in certain regional theatres, but I do not see it being a central, overarching, theme in the national theatre of politics.

Even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has announced that it will delay its agitation over the Ram Mandir issue for at least four months.

What impact is Priyanka Gandhi's entry into politics going to have?

There are two obvious benefits. First, Priyanka gives the Congress greater leverage in the party's negotiations with the BSP-SP alliance.

The alliance finalised a seat-sharing arrangement that left the Congress out in the cold—the BSP-SP merely said it would not contest the Congress pocket boroughs of Amethi (Rahul Gandhi's seat) and Rae Bareli (Sonia Gandhi's seat).

The Priyanka factor might help the two sides seal an unofficial tactical alliance that gives the Congress preeminence in some eastern UP seats.

Second, the move enthuses the cadres. The Congress rank and file has had very little to cheer about over the last five years.

The December 2018 state election results, coupled with Priyanka's entry as general secretary, has put new wind in their sails.

But the most important impact—in my view—is that Priyanka's induction will provide free media time and marketing for the Congress.

Given how significant the BJP's funding advantage is over the Congress, this helps close the gap because the Congress can be ensured of coverage whenever Priyanka speaks and wherever she goes.

So I think of her entry as a kind of substitute for raising political finance.

Can a united Opposition give a good fight and turn the tables? Or is the BJP now a well oiled election-winning machine, despite the setbacks in the assembly elections?

The united Opposition can definitely give the BJP a good fight. But I start from the premise that this remains the BJP's election to lose.

It possesses a lot of advantages. Modi remains the most popular politician in India; the BJP's organisational and fundraising prowess is considerable; and the Opposition, while newly collaborative, has no leader or clear economic messaging as of yet.

There are many people confidently predicting that Modi will be a one-term prime minister; I think that is very premature.

The national campaign has not yet begun in earnest and he has every incentive to presidentialise this election, as he did in 2014.

One thing we know is that campaigns do have an independent, causal, impact on people's voting decisions in India.

The Opposition constantly harps about the assault on public institutions under the Modi government, especially the use of the CBI. Do you feel institutions are being interfered with and are under threat?

First things first, many previous governments have abused institutions due to political expediency. The CBI was not called the 'Congress Bureau of Investigation' for nothing!

I think there are two new trends.

First, look at how many apex institutions have appeared to face a credibility crisis in recent years—the Election Commission, the CBI, the Reserve Bank of India, the Supreme Court, the list goes on.

Second, there is a brazenness to the interference that I think is new. Look at the middle-of-the-night ouster of CBI chief Alok Verma.

Or the suppression of economic data. Or the pressure placed on then RBI governor Urjit Patel by the government's handpicked members of the RBI board.

I think this all raises the question: Is the BJP the 'party with a difference' or simply a different party?

Defending one's actions by pointing to the Congress's past foibles is neither here nor there; there is a reason the Congress has 44 seats in Parliament today.

What is the upcoming election going to be in terms of the money spent, selection of candidates and campaign rhetoric?

The Centre for Media Studies estimates that the 2009 election cost around $2 billion and that parties and candidates spent around $5 billion in 2014.

I expect 2019 to easily top 2014. It could well double the 2014 estimate. This is not a partisan issue—all parties (save, perhaps, for the Communists) will be spending inordinate sums to win this election.

82 percent of Members of Parliament elected in 2014 are crorepatis and I expect this number to reach nearly 100 percent in 2019.

Parties require the assistance of self-financing candidates who can cover their campaign costs, pay for party tickets, and subsidise candidates who do not have resources.

All sides will decry the use of money and muscle power, but will simultaneously depend on both to win. This is one factor that unites the government and the Opposition.

The interview was originally published by Rediff News.