Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister and BJP President Amit Shah at Parliament library, New Delhi | File photo: PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister and BJP President Amit Shah at Parliament library, New Delhi | File photo: PTI
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Barely a year since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s losses in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan assembly elections, the electoral map of India already looks less saffron.

Despite the BJP’s massive victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the state assembly elections are proving to be a tough contest for the party. It struggled in Haryana, failed to come back to power in Maharashtra, and badly lost in Jharkhand. Notwithstanding these electoral reversals, the BJP’s ideological project remains at its peak, and even the opposition to its politics mirrors in ideas and tactics.

What explains the BJP’s inability to retain power in states and overcome anti-incumbency sentiments? Why is this national party losing state assembly elections? While the specifics of political dynamics vary in each state, four common factors seem to underline the BJP’s underwhelming performance in retaining the states.


Also read: Wrong to assume Modi govt can be defeated after BJP’s performance in Jharkhand


Dependence on Modi and Shah

First, the BJP’s over-reliance on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to win elections is costing it. While the duo by far remains the best election team any political party can hope for, their track record in retaining states has not been great. The Modi-Shah combination worked miracles for the BJP from 2013 to 2018, especially in those states where the party was in opposition.

PM Modi’s charisma helped the BJP add more voters to its base. Amit Shah, with careful micro-management and alliances with regional parties, created unmatched election machinery on the ground. This rapidly expanded the social and geographical footprint of the BJP. By March 2018, the BJP along with allies was ruling in 21 states, roughly 70 per cent of India’s population.

These electoral victories in the past meant that now the BJP is contesting as an incumbent party in most states. In these elections, voters are evaluating and scrutinising the BJP state governments based on their performances and whether they have fulfilled people’s expectations. PM Modi’s personal appeal then has a limited value in state elections.

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Moreover, the BJP’s rise as a dominant national party provided an extra muscle to Amit Shah in dealing with the party’s pre-election allies on matters of the seat-sharing and allocation of cabinet portfolios. The BJP was able to clinch power in many states since 2013 because of support from regional parties such as Janata Dal (United), All Jharkhand Students’ Union (AJSU), the Shiv Sena, the J&K Peoples Democratic Party, and the Lok Jan Shakti Party. But now many of these allies have either left the BJP or are unhappy with it. So, now the BJP has been losing election partners in states — take Maharashtra for instance where decades-old alliances have crumbled. In Jharkhand too, the party contested the elections without AJSU and its allies from neighbouring Bihar — JD (U) and LJP.


Also read: With Jharkhand, India is telling Modi it wants a ‘majboor sarkaar’, not ‘majboot sarkaar’


Maintaining social coalition

Second, there is a limit to the BJP’s strategy of exploiting the wedge between dominant castes and non-dominant social groups in states. The BJP’s electoral success in Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand in 2014 was attributed to a successful consolidation of non-dominant social groups. For instance, in Jharkhand, a consolidation of ‘upper castes’ and OBC voters led to the party’s victory in 2014. After winning the assembly election, the BJP appointed chief ministers from non-dominant social communities all three states.

Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi Khatri, and Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, became CMs in Haryana and Maharashtra. Similarly, in Jharkhand, the party appointed the state’s first non-tribal as CM – Raghubar Das, an OBC. This gambit of the BJP seems to have invited backlash from dominant groups. A large section among the dominant castes felt excluded from the ruling social coalition and asserted themselves in state elections. These antagonised voters may still vote for Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha elections but not for the state BJP leader.


Also read: Hold off the Indian political ‘turnaround’ story, BJP still has the most MLAs by a distance


Strong local face

Third, it has been a common practice within the BJP and the Congress to appoint chief ministers without a mass base. It suits the national leadership in both the parties to have rubber-stamped CMs who are dependent on them for mobilisation. But this strategy is a double-edged sword.

The central leadership of a party cannot always campaign and win elections for its state leadership, especially if the election is being contested on local issues. However, if the state leader develops an independent base for herself, the central leadership becomes insecure.

Electoral contests in India are leader-driven, and Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das lost his own seat by a substantial margin against his former party colleague —  Saryu Roy.

Unpopular leaders without a strong voter base are unlikely to win their re-election bid. Narendra Modi, Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and many others within the BJP did start out as top-down appointees, but they built independent support early on in their tenures that greatly helped their re-election campaigns. In Gujarat, Modi’s successors Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani fell short of public expectations, and the BJP had to sweat it out during the 2017 assembly elections to hold on to its pocket borough.


Also read: Modi lost Jharkhand because his priorities have changed – from vikas purush to Hindu saviour


The big change in Indian politics

Finally, a big change in Indian politics since the arrival of Modi and the rise of BJP has been the extent of variation in voting behaviour during Lok Sabha and state assembly elections. During the 1990s, state-level dynamics determined voting behaviour during national elections too. Since 2014, there is a national mood during the Lok Sabha elections that dissolves state-specificities, but the same specificities come back with greater vigour during assembly elections.

The BJP, with its centralised leadership and the nationally coordinated campaign, is finding it difficult to break through this emerging divergence in people’s voting preferences.


Also read: Hemant Soren could teach Congress a thing or two about fighting Narendra Modi


Can the BJP break this cycle in the near future? The answer lies in whether it manages to overcome these four hurdles.

Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Pranav Gupta is pursuing a Ph.D in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. Views are personal.

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12 Comments Share Your Views

12 COMMENTS

  1. My question is bjp won lok sabha elections but lost state elections and it happed in same states. Like in Delhi, Maharashtra, jharkhand etc. Can a same voter think like I want Modi to be PM but Bjp shouldn’t win state elections. This type of voting will just create chaos between the upper house and the lower house.

    Waise bhi hamare zindagi me teen cheezo ki bari kami hai entertainment entertainment entertainment.

  2. BJP will be getting back in power in the states it lost election and specially in the upcoming state elections
    Especially West Bengal

  3. Overconfidence, arrogance, complacency, combined might of opposition, not giving due respect to allies, autocratic way of functioning, flawed economic policies, inability to address local issues ,eg 370 abolition was meaningless for starving farmers.

  4. An impartial assessment.I also feel the neglect of Dominant groups combined with anti incumbancy resulted in the debacle.Except in Chattis garh the damage is marginal. Should be able to repair if economic slow down is tackled timely.

  5. In case of Maharashtra
    1. In Modi, Shaha rallies, more emphasis was given on national issues or the work done at national level.
    2. It was a mistake to give tickets to imported candidates than party workers. A common person was unhappy with this import.
    3. BJP must avoid forming government without clear mandate. Should not adapt policy of forming government by hook or crook. (As in the case of Karnataka) It spoils the image of party.

  6. BJP is already a sinking ship, as it’s saffron agenda is destroying the constitution, and play politics of divide communities & rule, more over their intentions are not clear, they are doing every wrong, just to get power, which will worked only for few years, they have become arrogant & decorators, they can’t make fool to all 130 crores Indians always, either they have have to be honestt & transparent in their policies or else they will loose everywher.

  7. How about self obsession?!

    Modi has to be given credit for everything. Even for things the state government does. This results in people thinking that the state government has done nothing!! 🤣🤣

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