Be it a democracy or a dictatorship, regimes are almost always changed by throwing out the incumbent. The former is called a democratic transition, and the latter is inevitably a revolution. Even if it is, as usually is the case, more of the same.

India’s electoral process that has just started on April 19 will be concluded on June 4 when the results are announced. Most psephologists, commentators, astrologers and bazar gossips are sanguine that Narendra Modi will be easily re-elected to a third successive term.

I do not agree with that sanguinity. I think Modi has a hard hill to climb and the slope may be too steep and slippery for him. Look at the objective reality. In 2019 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 303 seats or almost 56% of the Lok Sabha with 37.4% of the popular vote.

This skew is how it usually is in a first past the post system. Even a minority mandate translates into an overwhelming outcome. But the problem with the BJP mandate is that it is concentrated in a minority of states.

The saffron mandate is restricted almost entirely to the large Hindi speaking states (202/235), Maharashtra (41/48) and Karnataka (25/28). It got 268 out of its 303 in just this concentration. Winning these states is not the issue for the BJP. Repeating this performance is.

The BJP governments in these states have not exactly covered themselves with glory. The party got resoundingly thrashed in the recent state elections in Karnataka where Modi fully deployed his mind spread and headgears, turning it into a Modi Vs Congress contest. In the years after 2014, the BJP has turned every election, including for municipal councils, into a Modi Vs the rest contest.

It has lost many of these. For Modi to repeat 2019 we have to assume that the electorate is able to selectively choose Modi for parliament and not for the assemblies.

But a lot of murky waters have flowed down the Ganges, Narmada and Godavari since 2019. The effects of demonetization (2016), Covid lockdowns and general mismanagement have set India on a much lower growth trajectory than the one it was between 2004-2014.

In that decade India’s GDP grew from $721 billion to $2.03 trillion or an increase of 182%; while in 2024 it grew to $3.75 trillion from $2.03 trillion or by 86.6%. But lower growth has not slowed down accumulation of wealth with the upper class.

Income inequality is among the highest in the world now. At the end of 2022, the wealth Gini coefficient of India stood at 82.3, a significant increase compared to 74.7 in 2000.

Joblessness and job dissatisfaction have grown to dominate our economic and social landscape. The ILO’s “India Employment Report 2024” paints a bleak outlook for the 7-8 million youth being added to the labour force each year, with youth accounting for almost 83% of India’s unemployed workforce.

Even more distressing is that among the unemployed, the proportion of educated young people, those who have had a secondary level education or higher, has doubled to 65.7% now from 35.2% in 2000. Unemployed graduates (29.1%) outnumber illiterates (3.4%) by 9 times. This underscores the shortage of jobs requiring skills and education.

The peasantry is disaffected and has taken to the highways again. While the Jat peasantry of Punjab, Haryana and UP fattened on assured MSP and near 100% procurement wants more, the peasantry in the rest of the country chaffs at state regulations to control prices and hence restrict their incomes.

The fragmentation of land holdings has only added to farmer discontent. Ironically it is widespread even among those who get all and those who get little.

That this general mood will not affect Modi’s standing in the saffron belt even somewhat, despite a half-constructed temple in Ayodhya is to be excessively hopeful. People are natural repositories of discontent. Even after Rama returned to Ayodhya it didn’t take people too long to raise uncomfortable questions and Queen Sita had to seek refuge in Valmiki’s ashram.

Modi has to deal with discontent and in all likelihood there will be attrition. In each of the saffron states, the BJP won in 2019 with well over 50% of the popular vote. In Gujarat it polled as much as 62%, in UP it currently holds 64 seats with 49.56%, and in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan it had over 58% each.

Only in Assam the BJP did well (9/12) with only 36% of the vote. Even in Bengal where Modi waged a vicious and personalised campaign against Mamata Banerjee to win 18 seats it won 40%. The picture is clear, there is too little room to climb higher, while a drop could be very precipitous in terms of seats.

Presuming Modi will lose support in the BJP’s existing strongholds, where can it hope to make up for the losses? Let's start from the South. It is very unlikely to gain any seats in Tamil Nadu and Kerala – meaning zero will remain zero.

It has 25 out of 28 in Karnataka, which is unlikely to be repeated. The Congress is expected to make strong gains here. The BJP has a recently cobbled up alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which could mean a couple of seats in Andhra Pradesh.

It has four in Telangana and is unlikely to add to it. Thus, even a 10% loss in seats in the saffron heartland and a further loss of, say 10-15 in Karnataka will leave it well below the halfway mark. Along with its on and off ally, Janata Dal-United (JDU), BJP won 39/40 in Bihar.

With the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) resurgent and a settled alliance with the Congress that record is unlikely to be maintained. The I.N.D.I.A. bloc is tipped to easily do double digits or even 50% of the seats in Bihar.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-Congress alliance might sweep Delhi’s seven seats. The saffron alliance won 41/48 in Maharashtra. With every party split in the state and with an uninspiring state leadership, Modi alone may not be able to pull all the chesnut’s out of the fire.

Spread it on a spreadsheet and see how the cookie crumbles. It doesn’t look like BJP is anywhere near 400. Even the halfway mark of 272 looks like a hard climb.

Mohan Guruswamy is a reputed political commentator and author of several books. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.