The starter’s pistol has not gone off but the race is on if the seat adjustments and political confabulations are any criterion. But Lok Sabha 2019 presents a more confusing picture at this point than the last general election, when one contender was miles ahead. The ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party is in pole position but out in front its frailties are also evident. Despite the bluster and brave words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues their worries are plain to see.

To begin with, the failure to form a government in Karnataka after last year’s Assembly elections, though it was the biggest party, was a bitter blow. The big shock, however, was the defeat in three Hindi heartland state elections, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December. They send 65 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In 2014, BJP had 62 of them. The assembly returns indicate they might lose half that number if this result is replicated in Lok Sabha 2019.

These, however, are numbers and projections based on numbers. The real signs of BJP nervousness are to found elsewhere. One is the dramatic increase in trash talking of Congress leaders dead, alive and incumbent by Modi and his colleagues. It is hard to see what they gain from abusing Jawaharlal Nehru, dead these 55 years, in public meetings instead of talking about policy successes and their plans for the next term. Nehru is probably not even a memory these days.

 The second is the generous allocations of seats for allies such as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). There are problems galore, with no answer in sight, in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, with toxic chief ministers and fractious allies. Then there is what looks like a desperate, last-ditch effort to offer reservations and concessions to disgruntled sections. It translates into a picture of confusion about both ends and means, not a happy sign for a Great Leader.

Everyone accuses BJP of fascist intolerance of dissent. But anyone who has lived in West Bengal, or Telangana, or Tamil Nadu knows exactly how tolerant its chief ministers are of contrarians, let alone dissenters.

Naturally, the opposition is more optimistic than it has ever been since 2014. Apart from the Hindi belt defeats the BJP is stuck with the disaster that was demonetisation, its baffling shiftiness over the Rafale deal with France and the uproar over the citizenship bill in the northeast, a region that it almost exclusively controls. Meanwhile, electoral pacts, natural and unnatural, are rapidly being cobbled together, there is energetic talk of a grand opposition coalition, and Rahul Gandhi is starting to look like a leader at last. But dreams of a Delhi durbar are little more than irrational exuberance.

The most serious obstacles to a national coalition are the lack of a natural leader and a commitment to a common agenda. What, after all, unites figures as disparate in temperament and interests as Mamata Bannerjee (Bengal CM), Chandrababu Naidu (AP CM), Mayawati (BSP), Sharad Pawar (NCP) and the Dynasty? It is not enough to hate the BJP. They have to convince voters they can form an effective government. The competing insecurities of Mamata and Mayawati, for one, make that a project hard to believe in or execute. More likely is a version of the Game of Thrones, with losers rushing off to the BJP for consolation.

Everyone accuses BJP of fascist intolerance of dissent. But anyone who has lived in West Bengal, or Telangana, or Tamil Nadu knows exactly how tolerant its chief ministers are of contrarians, let alone dissenters. Mamata’s infamous rant in 2012 at a young college student in Kolkata who had the temerity to question her on law and order is a textbook case of the fascist mindset. Seat adjustments are both necessary and good but the real question is, why should voters believe they are better than the BJP?

Also, its leaders should take a look at BJP’s electoral machine. Party president Amit Shah has put together a real monster that gobbled up most of the country in just four years. It stood the test under immense stress in all recent Assembly elections. Rajasthan, for instance, saw it getting 38.8 per cent of the vote, a whisker less than the Congress’ 39.09. In MP it was even closer, 41.3 against 41.4 by Congress. Only in Chhattisgarh was there a marked erosion.

For all its strengths, however, the BJP looks like it has lost its mojo. The mechanical invocation of whataboutery to deflect critics and increasing stridency over Ayodhya indicate that it is running out of ideas. In the absence of a wave it is unlikely to repeat 2014. Even defeat is a real possibility if the opposition can persuade voters it is a viable alternative. That, of course, is the big question.