After the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, the Bharatiya Janata Party has achieved a status that only the Congress has enjoyed so far – of being India’s single dominant party. But the BJP’s rise and the Congress’ slide didn’t start with the 2014 election, which brought Narendra Modi to power. It began in 1996, when the BJP and the Congress swapped their ability to convert success in assembly elections into seats in Lok Sabha, called the spillover effect.
The analysis of the spillover effect confirms that India has the tendency to be dominated by only one political party, and that it never really became used to a truly bipolar election.
Winning assembly, losing Lok Sabha
This inability has been attributed to infighting, the failure of the party’s campaign to resonate with voters, its weak organisational strength at the grassroots, and, of course, the Modi factor. While all these factors did contribute to the party’s poor performance in the three heartland states, it was still surprising that voter sentiment turned against the Congress within a span of six months.
Figure 1 clearly demonstrates the complete inability of the Congress to capitalise on the gains made in December 2018 elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Each data point in the graph below represents the vote share of the Congress in an assembly segment in the 2018 state elections and its vote share in the Lok Sabha constituency encompassing that assembly segment in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Figure 1 – 2019 trend in Madhya Pradesh
Figure 2 – 2019 trend in RajasthanThe line represents the relationship between the assembly segment vote share and the vote share for the Congress in the larger Lok Sabha seat within which the assembly segment is located. An upward sloping line suggests a spillover, or that the Congress did marginally better in the 2019 election in terms of vote share due to its success in the 2018 assembly elections. The more votes it received in an assembly segment, the greater the number of votes it receives in the subsequent Lok Sabha election. The spillover effect for the Congress was, however, so mild that it did not translate into any gains in terms of seats.
Slide in the making since 1996
So, what happened? Many claim that incidents in the brief six months between the assembly elections and the Lok Sabha election completely changed the tide of this spillover effect. Though additional factors, such as Balakot, undoubtedly had a minor effect, this decline in spillover effect for the Congress has in fact been a long-time coming. If we plot the same graphs as above but aggregate across many election cycles, we can visibly see the difference in the Congress’ slope pre- and post-1996.
Figure 3 – Pre-1996 Congress trend
Figure 4 – Post-1996 Congress trend
The degree of the spillover effect for the Congress had already declined to the black solid line in Figure 4 even without incorporating the 2019 Lok Sabha results. This suggests that the spillover effect for the Congress had been decreasing over the past two decades and is not a recent phenomenon. After incorporating the 2019 results, the slope declines even further. What happened in 2019 was just a natural progression of decreasing inability of the Congress to translate its success in assembly elections into subsequent Lok Sabha elections.
This really low upward trending slope for the Congress shows that the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the three Hindi heartland states, though intuitively surprising, are not shocking when considered in the context of the electoral history of India since 1996. Harsh criticism of the Congress leadership in these states might not be entirely justified as the leaders are just victims of the Congress’ decreasing ability to hold onto successful assembly election results. Rahul Gandhi took over a largely sinking ship when he became the Congress’ president in December 2017. His party’s assembly election victories should not be used as predictors of national election victories anymore even within the very states that the Congress won those assembly elections.
Reversal in BJP’s fortunes
The inverse is being seen for the BJP where it is reaping the benefits of increased spillover effects from assembly elections. In all the assembly segments that the BJP won in 2018, it did better in the encompassing Lok Sabha seat in 2019 by an even higher margin. The BJP’s success at an assembly level can be used as a strong predictor of its success at a national level. This also shows the extent to which the BJP has emerged as a national party that it is facing spillover effects similar to the degree which the Congress used to before 1996.
Whether India’s tendency to remain dominated by any one political party at a given time is essential for streamlined policy-making or detrimental to an inclusive democracy remains to be seen.
The author is a student at UC Berkeley, majoring in Computer Science and Economics. Views are personal.
This analysis was conducted using The Indian Election and Candidates Database 1961- today (Jensenius and Verniers 2017) from the Ashoka University-maintained portal Lok Dhaba along with a delimitation dataset from Francesca Jensenius.