Dr. Manisha Madhava
The electoral verdict of 2019 confirmed the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP’s victory is the most resounding verdict of any political party in recent times. The NDA won 353 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha and BJP alone won 293 seats, of the 437 seats, 11 more than what it won in 2014. Its vote share increased from 31% to 37.4 %, the highest that any party has won since 1989.
The BJP and its allies won seats from 17 of India’s 29 states; making its presence pan India. On its own, it won 226 of the 299 seats (75 %) in twelve states of North and West India alone.[i]It added another 38 seats with its allies winning 88 % of seats in the region. The BJP’s tally in Uttar Pradesh, is 64 seats, 9 more than the total tally of the Congress, the principal opposition party. In states such as Uttar Pradesh BJP got nearly 50% of votes, despite a formidable challenge from Mahgathbandhan. Only three southern states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, withstood the Modi wave.
The Scale of Voter Support
Traditionally BJP’s support came from the upper caste and upper classes of the urban population. However, the election results show the success of BJP in forging a coalition across social groups. A post-poll survey by CSDS reveals that more than one-third (34%) Dalits voted for the BJP in 2019 as compared to around one-fourth (24%) in 2014. A similar change also occurred among the OBC’s, with 48 % lower OBC’s and 41 % upper OBC’s voting for BJP. It also had an equivalent vote share among the poor, lower, and middle-class voters. Despite rural distress, there is a sharp increase (7.3 %) in BJP’s vote share in the rural constituencies. [ii]
The party’s vote share among men (39%) is marginally higher compared to women (36%).[iii] The only social group among which BJP failed to make gains were Muslims, the party’s vote share among Muslims remained almost the same at 8%.
Vote for BJP or Modi?
A victory of this scale could not have been possible without multiple things going in the party’s favour. The Bhartiya Janta Party scripted a national narrative that subsumed other mundane issues such as unemployment, agricultural distress amongst others. The political narrative encouraged the voter to rise above the humdrum and vote for a stable government in the national interest.
BJP turned the election campaign into a presidential and plebiscitary campaign. Modi was projected and believed to be a self-made man, honest and a decisive leader capable of leading 1.25 billion Indians to economic development and national security. Modi’s popularity catapulted BJP to victory. Survey data suggests that voters voted for Modi, rather than BJP.[iv]
A divided opposition lacking a leader of Modi’s stature, or an alternative vision gave little hope. The anti-Modi campaign such as Chowkidar Chor Hai sounded negative and promises such as NYAY sounded empty. The BJP raised the ‘real’ spectre of unprincipled coalitions, which in past were unstable. This sharpened the TINA factor.
Modi’s leadership was bolstered by robust party machinery amplified its message through various platforms. It learnt quickly from its losses in 2018 and allied with regional parties such as AIADMK and JD(U).
Travails of Opposition?
The elections decimated the opposition.
The UPA won 91 seats with a vote share of 20%. The Congress party won 53 seats 7 more than the 44 it had won in 2014 when it posted its lowest tally ever. Seven Chief Ministers and the leader of the Congress party lost the elections. The Left parties, hitherto dominant in Bengal where they were in power for 34 years till 2011, and further in Kerala as well got a drubbing, winning only 6 seats in the Lok Sabha. Regional parties such as SP and BSP that mobilised on caste lines too were drubbed by the electorate.
In particular, the successive failures of the Congress party had raised important questions about the future of the party itself. Over the years the internal organisation of the party has weakened. The rank and file of the party stand demotivated and many of its prominent leaders did not campaign effectively during the elections. Even the induction of Priyanka Gandhi did not enthuse people enough. Analysts have therefore begun to question the relevance of the Congress party.
However, it would be premature to write off the Congress party. Given its long history, the Congress may provide an umbrella for oppositional forces that believe in pluralism enshrined in the Constitution to come together.
While India will have a stable government for the next five years, the mandate may also be interpreted as a rise of majoritarianism with a strong emphasis on nationalism. In the first term of BJP, Hindu nationalism was less evident in political economy or foreign policy, though it was felt in government’s education policy, in its approach to Hindu-Muslim relations, Muslim refugees, etc. None of these tilted the scales against the BJP. This signalled “the growing acceptability of Hindu nationalism”.[v] BJP’s moderate supporters believe that the nationalist ideology of BJP is not affecting its policy prescriptions. [vi] Analysts fear that this may transform India into an ethnic democracy or may give rise to democratic authoritarianism.
The PM in his first speech after election spoke of inclusive and efficient governance; however, he took a jibe at secularists, who had held the minority voter captive for political gains. We may, therefore, see two parallel narratives in Indian politics; push on economic development and focus on cultural nationalism. Scholars believe that a single-party majority in the parliament and complete domination of the party by the leader with limited opposition from within threatens strong institutional structures.[vii]
Internationally, BJP’s victory places Modi amongst the whole generation of strong leaders with a major say in world affairs. It would mean that India will take a more assertive stance against its neighbour Pakistan and China’s growing dominance in Asia. That, in turn, may also mean a closer relationship with Washington, especially in defence.[viii]
[i] Includes Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttarakhand.
[ii] The difference between the party’s vote share in urban and rural constituencies declined from 8.9 percent in 2014 to merely 3.5 percent in 2019 (NES, 2019; Lokniti- CSDS).
[iv] 33 percent of the BJP and 25% of the BJP allies voters gave importance to the PM rather than the party in making their decision (NES, 2019, CSDS-Lokniti)
The author is an Associate Professor & Head, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai