Lok Sabha election results 2019: BJP’s performance a result of deep social churn
As the much-anticipated election results started pouring in on Thursday, the exit polls stood vindicated. In terms of the number of seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) improved its stellar performance of 2014, with a significant increase in aggregate vote share and geographical footprint.
As the election began, the BJP leadership had three broad objectives: containing the damage in Uttar Pradesh from an alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); finding new growth areas in eastern India; and maintaining its impressive strike rate in states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where it was locked in a direct contest with Congress and where its principal challenger had detected green shoots of recovery in recent assembly elections.
None of these objectives were easy to accomplish, yet BJP managed to meet them, riding a deft and agile campaign and the steady approval ratings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, making the 17th general election a watershed moment in our political history.
To understand the enormity of the verdict, it has to be remembered that an alliance between the SP and BSP was able to break BJP’s momentum in the 1990s. Consequently, overcoming the arithmetical challenge posed by the alliance was no small achievement. Curiously, BSP has performed better than SP in this election, belying the conventional wisdom that the BSP vote bank is more transferable and its partners benefit more from allying with BSP than the other way around. Perhaps analysts will decode the political implications of this puzzle in the coming days.
The relevance of the West Bengal result will go beyond the state, as it provides a template for the future expansion strategy of the BJP. For example, as the Left becomes politically more enfeebled in Kerala and at the same time retains a sizeable vote share, it has become a potentially lucrative target of political poaching as did the Trinamool Congress in Bengal. Sooner or later, the West Bengal model will be applied to Kerala as well.
With strong leads in terms of vote share vis-à-vis its next rival in central and western India, a steadily increasing geographical footprint and aggregate vote share, BJP seems to have become the new political hegemon, much like the Congress was at its peak. Modi needs to worry less about his immediate political future and more about his legacy. The time to make a transition from seasoned politician to statesman may be now.
One difference from the days of Congress hegemony is that voters seem to be voting differently in national and assembly elections. This can be inferred from the results of the Chhattisgarh and Odisha polls. Chhattisgarh elected the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance with a big majority just a few months ago, but has sent a sizeable number of BJP members to the Lok Sabha this time.Odisha has voted for incumbent chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in the assembly elections, but also opted to send BJP representatives to Parliament.
One implication of such behaviour is that political competition will become most intense at the sub-national level in the coming years. Indian voters will continue to keep politicians on their toes.
As for the Congress, the extent of its defeat is massive, not merely in terms of the number of seats. In many states, the difference between vote shares of BJP and Congress range between 10 and 30 percentage points. It is clear that tactical and incremental improvisations will not help the party reinvent itself.
Beyond the immediate challenge of securing its governments in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress will need an ideological reinvention. BJP’s stellar performance may be the result of a deeper social churn. Increasing urbanization and Internet penetration are making the young voter reject old caste loyalties and embrace a bigger religious identity. Additionally, it is not a coincidence that one of the main Congress leaders who has been electorally successful in this election, Amarinder Singh in Punjab, wears nationalism on his sleeves.
If this reasoning is correct, the Congress may need to reassess its position along the twin ideological axes of nationalism and Hinduism. At the same time, it needs to differentiate its ideology from the BJP’s lest it be accused of playing second fiddle. This may not be impossible, but difficult.
In a fuller version of a poem on which the Jana Gana Mana was based, Rabindranath Tagore invoked the striking imagery of “the dispenser of Indian destiny” whose “conch shell sounds” can be heard even amid the fiercest of tumults. Indian voters, the arbiters of the nation’s destiny, have spoken through their verdict on a fiercely contested parliamentary election. Now, it is up to our political class to find a note of calm reassurance and a new beginning in it.
Also read: How BJP used data to craft landslide win
Avinash M Tripathi is associate research fellow (economics) at Takshashila Institution.