For a marathon runner, a good start is crucial to the outcome. So, too, all political parties need a good start for the marathon, that is the 17th Lok Sabha elections. At the same time, like in a marathon, it is possible for the runner to perform well even after a bad start. Still, a bad beginning does create some disappointment for the runner.
In the seven-phase Lok Sabha election, the people have already spoken in 91 constituencies. All political parties made their very best effort to take the lead in the first round of the election.
For a party, a good beginning can not only help build the morale of workers but also swing undecided voters over to its side. There exists a significant percentage of the electorate who do not want to waste their ballot and wish to vote in favour of the possible winner. While we would get to know only on May 23 when votes are counted, how people had voted in the first round of the election, the turnout figures do give us some initial indications.
Conventional wisdom suggests, a higher turnout is a vote against the government, while a lower one suggests popular preference for re-electing the ruling party, even as the turnout figures and electoral outcomes over a period of time do not suggest a correlation between the two. For, there have been instances when the voting percentage has increased, yet parties have been re-elected. There have also been times when it was much lower than the previous election, yet parties were voted out.
For an analyst trying to make sense of what might have happened in the first round of the election in these 91 Lok Sabha seats spread across 20 states and Union territories, the task has become far more difficult. The turnout figures in most states suggest there is hardly any substantial change from 2014.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, I got a sense of the BJP voter showing far greater commitment towards voting in favour of his party than the Congress supporter while the voters of regional parties were somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. I arrived at this understanding based on nationwide studies at the macro level as well as by meeting voters who travelled long distances of more than 500 kilometres to cast their vote in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the ground. Going by this logic, I assume that in the first round a higher turnout would spell an advantage for the BJP in BJP-ruled states and a lower turnout might translate into the opposite for this party.
Of the eight Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh that went to polls in this state in the first round, the turnout went up only in Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddha Nagar seats where the two ministers of the incumbent government, V.K. Singh and Mahesh Sharma, are, respectively, contesting.
In the remaining six Lok Sabha seats, that have a sizeable proportion of Muslim voters, the turnout dropped compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. My reading is, the BJP may have an advantage only in these two Lok Sabha seats and might be in trouble in the others.
If that happens, the BJP would be down six in UP in the first round. It had won all these eight Lok Sabha seats in 2014 when elections were held there on April 11.
Overall, the turnout in these eight constituencies went down by two per cent compared to the 2014 election.
The seven Lok Sabha seats of Maharashtra witnessed an eight per cent lower turnout compared to the 16th Lok Sabha elections. The lower level of voter enthusiasm in all these seven seats that are held by the BJP-Shiv Sena combine (BJP five, Shiv Sena two) signals trouble for the alliance in the state.
A 10 per cent lower turnout in the five Lok Sabha seats of Assam of which four were won by BJP in 2014 may not be a good sign for the BJP in these seats either. BJP voters are known to be much more enthusiastic than others. The turnout in four Lok Sabha seats of Bihar, which remained more or less the same, indicates a closely contested election in these seats that have a sizeable proportion of Dalit voters. A lower turnout in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand may also be a cause of concern for the BJP as the party had maximised electoral gains in these states in 2014.
In the Northeast and the two southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, there is very little scope for the BJP to improve upon its tally of 2014. The BJP might find it difficult to retain its lone seat in Arunachal Pradesh at the backdrop of popular anger here against the Citizenship Bill. It is important to note that the turnout in this state has gone down by 10 percent.
The turnout also went down in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The latter witnessed its assembly election concurrently with the first round. Both these southern states are ruled by the regional parties - N. Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party is in power in Andhra Pradesh while K. Chandrashekar Rao's Telangana Rashtra Samithi has won the 2018 assembly election with a huge mandate in Telangana.
In Andhra Pradesh, the turnout went down by nearly 12 per cent and it seems that the YSR Congress has an advantage over the TDP, while in Telangana, which also witnessed a drop of eight per cent in turnout, there seems to be evidence of some revival of the Congress though TRS may still have the upper hand.
In either of these states, the BJP has hardly anything to gain. It might hope to make up some of these losses in Odisha and Tripura. But overall, it seems to be a little bit on the back foot after the first round.
But as in a marathon, where at times the runner overcomes a bad start, the BJP might be able to stage a comeback when other parts of UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Gujarat and some other states go to poll. It is a long race which has only just begun....