Opinion | Lok Sabha Polls: NDA Has A Clear Upper Hand In Phase 5

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Forty-nine seats across eight states and Union Territories will vote in Phase 5 of the Lok Sabha elections on May 20. With polling completed for 70% of the total Lok Sabha seats, the battle now enters the consolidation phase for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in battleground states.  Since the party won a majority of these seats along with its allies in 2019, the challenge for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is maintaining its tally and preventing any significant slippages. 

This phase will see polling in five seats each in Bihar and Odisha, three in Jharkhand, one each in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, 13 in Maharashtra, 14 in Uttar Pradesh and seven in West Bengal. This phase will also mark the end of voting in Maharashtra and the western region. Thereafter, the battle remains in only the Hindi heartland and eastern India. Additionally, Odisha will also be simultaneously voting for 35 assembly seats on May 20.

The key high-profile candidates in this phase are Rajnath Singh (Lucknow), Rahul Gandhi (Raebareli), Piyush Goyal (Mumbai North), Chirag Paswan (Hajipur) and Omar Abdullah (Baramulla). 

The Seat Splits

The BJP is contesting 40 seats and its allies are fighting in nine. This includes the six seats the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena is vying for. In contrast, the Congress is contesting on just 18 seats, leaving 31 for its allies. The Samajwadi Party (SP) is contesting 10 seats, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena eight, Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) two, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) four. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), meanwhile, is in the battle for 46 seats, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) for five, and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) seven. 

According to the NDTV Data Centre, in 2019, the BJP won 32 of the 49 seats that will vote on Monday; the Congress when on a single seat, the BJD two, BJP allies seven, and Congress allies (including the TMC) seven. Effectively, the NDA won 39 seats, the INDIA bloc constituents eight, and non-aligned parties - namely, the BJD, even though it has usually taken a pro-BJP stance over the last decade - won two seats. 

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The NDA recorded an average vote share of 53% in the constituencies it won, the INDIA bloc constituents got 50%, while non-aligned parties netted 49% votes. In terms of margins, the BJP won 12 seats with a lead of 10 percentage points (pp) in terms of vote share, which can be considered a close contest. In 20 seats, the BJP won with a comfortable majority of more than 10%. 

The BJP had a strike rate of 80% for these 49 seats, even though its overall strike rate was lower at 69%. The Congress's success rate, in contrast, was just 3% for these seats, though its all-India average was 12%. 

In terms of turnout, this phase also witnessed a comparatively lower turnout in 2019. On the 30 seats where polling increased, the incumbent party lost. And in the 19 seats where the turnout decreased in 2019, the winning party from 2014 lost in six.

A Battle Over Legacy In Maharashtra

Of the 13 seats in Maharashtra, 10 are in the Mumbai-Thane region, the stronghold of Shiv Sena. Here, the fight between Shinde and Uddhav factions will be over the legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray. Uddhav's estranged cousin and the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), Raj Thackeray, has also provided support to the BJP. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance had won all of these 10 seats with a huge victory margin of around 25% in both 2014 and 2019. 

From the NDA, the BJP and the Shinde-led Shiv Sena are contesting five seats each, while from the INDIA bloc, the Uddhav-led Shiv Sena is contesting seven, the Congress two, and the Sharad Pawar-led NCP one. The latter doesn't have a significant base in the region. 

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On five seats - Kalyan, Thane, Mumbai North West, Mumbai South and Mumbai South Central - both Sena factions are pitted against each other. In total, of the 13 seats in Maharashtra, the Sena had won seven in 2019. But as many as five MPs have since shifted to the Shinde camp. The INDIA bloc hopes that Uddhav will get sympathy for the way his party was split by Shinde. All eyes will be on the turnout in the urban centres, which has traditionally been low. 

A Close Fight In Odisha

In Western Odisha, of the five seats that will see polling on May 20, the BJP had won three in 2019, while the BJD won two. The electoral fight appears to be tighter this time. There has also been some pre-poll violence in the Odisha Chief Minister's home district, Ganjam. One BJP supporter lost his life in the clash. 

Given that Odisha is seeing simultaneous polls, party strategists believe that an improved performance in the assembly polls will automatically jack up its numbers in the Lok Sabha. V.K. Pandian's elevation in the BJD has not gone down well with many party workers and leaders, and the BJP, by deploying senior ministers and chief ministers in the state campaign, hopes to capitalise on this sentiment. 

Advantage BJP In Uttar Pradesh?

In Uttar Pradesh, the battle moves to 14 seats in the central and eastern parts of the state. State capital Lucknow, Faizabad (Ayodhya) and Gandhi family bastions Amethi and Raebareli are part of the battle. The BJP had swept this region in the last election, bagging 13 of the 14 seats, with Congress winning just Raebareli. 

This time, while Rahul Gandhi is contesting from Raebareli, K.L. Sharma, considered close to the Gandhi family, is fighting from Amethi. Priyanka has been camping on these two seats for days now as it's a prestige battle for the Gandhi family. The SP, meanwhile, has changed its strategy and fielded more OBC candidates than the BJP in the state to breach the latter's fort. It has also put up fewer Muslim-Yadav candidates to shed its traditional image. 

How well the BSP performs and which party it damages could well determine whether the INDIA bloc can dent the BJP's tally in seats that are in and around Ayodhya, the epicentre of the Ram Mandir movement. 

Triangular Contest Looming In Bengal

In West Bengal, seven seats from the south and presidency regions will be voting in this phase. The BJP had won three seats in 2019, and the rest went to the TMC. A close battle is on the cards here as the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M)-led alliance are attempting to turn it into a triangular contest. Mamata's flip-flop on whether she is part of the INDIA bloc may also have caused some confusion among voters. 

In five of the seven seats, the parties that ranked third in 2019 secured more votes than the victory margin. So they may spoil the chances of either of the main contenders. 

In Bihar, voting will be held in five seats in the north, all of which were won by the NDA in 2019 with huge margins. From the NDA, the BJP is contesting three seats, while the Janata Dal (United) (JD-U) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) are contesting one seat each. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) hopes to turn the tables based on its performance in the 2020 assembly elections, the drop in Nitish Kumar's popularity due to his flip-flops. He is also banking on the boost his own image received for generating jobs as deputy chief minister. 

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.