The BJP’s breakthrough in 2014 prompted a debate about whether India had left the era of multipolarity, fragmentation, and coalitions behind in favour of a new, dominant-party system in which the BJP assumed the role of central pole that the Congress had once played.
In the wake of the 2019 general election results, which come on the back of significant political changes at the level of India’s states, there is empirical support for more unequivocal judgments. Indeed, the available evidence points in one direction: 2014 was not an aberration; it was instead a harbinger of a new era. India does appear to have ushered in a new, fourth party system—one that is premised on a unique set of political principles and that shows a clear break with what came before. In the 2019 general election, the BJP did the unthinkable: the party clinched a second consecutive majority in the Lok Sabha, a feat that was last accomplished by the Congress Party in 1980 and 1984.
This paper outlines some of the fundamental principles of India’s fourth electoral system.
India’s Electoral Systems
There is broad consensus that India’s electoral history—from the inaugural post-Independence general election in 1952 until the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections in 2014—can be roughly divided into three electoral orders. Yogendra Yadav, one of India’s leading political scientists, was among the first to provide this organizational rubric. Yadav has also argued that a new electoral system commences whenever an observer can “detect a destabilisation of [an old system] and its replacement by a new pattern of electoral outcomes as well as its determinants.”
1952 to 1967: Congress Dominance
Between 1952 and 1967, the Congress party dominated Indian politics, both at the centre and across her states. As the party primarily responsible for winning India her independence and home to many of the most respected nationalist leaders, the Congress benefited from widespread popular appeal as the umbrella organization under which India would establish its post-Independence identity. As a catchall party that sought—in theory if not always in practice—to provide a pan-Indian representation for all of India’s diverse caste, linguistic, and religious groups, the Congress Party’s penetration into Indian society was unmatched.
The inadequacies of the other players on the political scene fuelled that dominance.
1967 to 1989: Growing Opposition At The State Level
The year 1967 proved to be a critical inflection point, ushering in the dawn of India’s second party system. Although the Congress’s grip on power in New Delhi remained firm, its hold on India’s state capitals began to fade. With the exception of the election of 1977—when the Congress was badly punished for then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s autocratic excesses during Emergency Rule between 1975 and 1977—the party remained the default choice for governance at the center. But new expressions of caste and regional identities chipped away at the party’s monopoly of subnational politics. The 1960s gave rise to India’s “first democratic upsurge”—to borrow Yadav’s term—when populous OBC groups first mobilized to ensure that their political power was in greater alignment with their demographic weight and their increasing economic clout.
1989 to 2014: Dawn Of Coalition Politics
Whatever semblance of Congress dominance that remained after 1967 would come to an end in 1989, which denoted the start of coalition governance in New Delhi and the third party system. Although the Congress’s grasp on national power had gradually weakened in the 1960s and 1970s, by the end of the following decade it had completely given way to a multipolar constellation of forces in which the Congress was no longer the single pole around which politics revolved. Three powerful forces—often termed “Mandal, masjid, and market”—disrupted Indian politics, prompting a realignment in politics.
Beyond India’s third party system
In order to evaluate whether India has truly entered a new era of politics with the BJP’s recent general election victories in 2014 and 2019, it is necessary to clarify the precise attributes of the third party system against which any future change can be measured. Broadly speaking, there are six defining attributes of the third party system.
First, the absence of a central pole in national politics between 1989 and 2009 is perhaps the central feature of the third party system. Although the Congress played that role for decades, after 1989 it no longer had the breadth and depth of support required to define the system. Although the BJP would soon emerge as the only other truly national party to give the Congress a serious fight across multiple states, it too had limitations of demography, geography, and ideology.
Second, the third party system was an era of political fragmentation. The number of parties contesting elections surged after 1989 as the Congress order broke down for good.
Third, electoral contests became markedly more competitive on nearly every dimension. Victory margins came down and the share of candidates winning an outright majority of votes in their constituencies dropped.
Fourth, the entire political system became highly federalized. National-level outcomes were directly influenced by the state-level verdicts that preceded them, but the intensity of the effect depended on the proximity of the two polls.
Fifth, voter turnout surged at the state level while national political mobilization cooled. In the third party system, the gap between voter turnout at the state and national levels saw unprecedented divergence.
Finally, there was a clear change in the social composition of the representative class. For instance, in northern Hindi belt states, the combined share of OBC and SC legislators superseded that of upper caste and intermediate castes for the very first time.
Discontinuities across all six of these hallmarks of the third party system were on display in the electoral outcomes of the two most recent general elections—2014 and 2019—not to mention in the shifting dynamics at the subnational level.
The foundations of the BJP’s power
Plumbing data on electoral returns is useful, but has its limits. There are other, not as easily quantifiable, factors that shape the BJP’s present hegemony and that help underpin the fourth party system.
BJP as system-defining party
One of the defining characteristics of the second party system in which the Congress featured as the dominant power was that national election verdicts functioned as referenda on Congress rule. As Yadav explains, “[a] typical verdict in this period took the form of a nation-wide or sometimes state-wide wave for or against the Congress. The local specificities of the constituency simply did not matter.” This could well describe Indian elections in the post-2014 era. Major parties contesting the 2019 elections, with relatively few exceptions, positioned themselves as either supportive of Modi and the BJP or vehemently opposed to them. While the opposition did not succeed in either creating a nationwide coalition to tackle the BJP or unifying behind a common prime ministerial contender, it did forge a series of state-specific alliances that were explicitly constructed on an anti-BJP platform. In the end, the opposition’s machinations utterly failed to contain the BJP’s rise (arguably, the opportunistic “counter-BJP” coalitions may have strengthened the BJP even further), but there is no denying that the political formations on display were largely in reaction to the BJP’s own standing. This is the very definition of a system-defining party.
The party has developed a new, nationalist narrative that has broad currency with the voting public. To reduce this narrative to one of Hindu nationalism would be inaccurate; the party’s pro-Hindu views are but one element of its overall nationalist discourse. Broadly speaking, this narrative has three elements.
Aside from nationalism, the BJP has also managed to dominate the discourse on the economy and economic development.
Organizational and financial prowess
A political machine that is miles ahead of the competition in terms of its organizational foundations and material resources gave the BJP the ability to project Modi as a leader with unimpeachable credentials, to deliver its nuanced messages of nationalism to different target audiences, and to parry the opposition’s jibes. Under the tutelage of BJP President Amit Shah, the party has built a well-oiled party machine that is organized down to the level of the panna pramukh—literally a party worker who is in charge of an individual panna (page) of the voter roll linked to a neighborhood polling station.
It could be argued that both the 2014 and 2019 elections were Modi’s victories rather than the BJP’s. In the 2014 race, the BJP encountered a perfect storm of anti-incumbency against the ruling Congress, economic malaise, a pervasive sense of policy paralysis, and lackluster leadership on the part of the Congress. The 2019 case is somewhat more complicated given the prevailing economic headwinds. Yet here too, in spite of the dislocation created by policy errors associated with demonetization and the patchy rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and the resulting sense of unfulfilled promises, Modi remained extremely popular in the eyes of the electorate.
According to the 2019 National Election Study conducted by CSDS, Modi’s net favorability (a measure of his popularity relative to that of Congress President Rahul Gandhi) was roughly at the same level it was in April–May 2014. Although there were expected fluctuations over the five-year period, Modi still led Gandhi by 18 percentage points in April–May 2019. In essence, a central component of what people voted for was Modi’s leadership.
A new chapter
Based on the available data, it seems reasonable to conclude with greater confidence that, since 2014, India has indeed embarked on a new chapter in its political evolution. Gone are the days of Congress dominance, but India’s grand old party has clearly been replaced by a new, formative political force in the BJP. With the 2019 general election, it is now clear—judging by a multiplicity of criteria—that India is in the midst of a new, dominant-party system.
The dawn of this fourth party system raises important questions that deserve greater exploration by political scientists in the years to come. For starters, how do economic indicators shape voting behaviour? For decades, it was believed that good economics did not make for good politics in India. According to several assessments, things began to change in 2000s such that economic and electoral performance became mutually reinforcing. For the first time, voters appeared to be punishing incumbents who presided over periods of weaker economic growth and rewarding those who did the opposite.
The 2019 election poses a quandary for this literature as the BJP’s track record was extremely mixed when one looks at standard economic indicators like GDP growth, employment, and agrarian well-being. Indeed, it is striking that the economy played such a little role in the 2019 election given that it was the centerpiece in many ways of the 2014 race. According to CSDS’s nationally representative pre-poll survey, 21 percent of Indians named joblessness as the issue of greatest concern to them ahead of the election. That proportion declined by almost 10 percentage points in just six weeks of the 2019 election campaign.
The importance of economic issues (which include unemployment, the GST, inflation, and growth) declined over time, with 38 percent claiming they were the most important election issue in March 2019, but just 25 percent reaffirming this once the election had concluded. It’s possible that the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” is still pertinent but needs to be amended to include “only when there is a viable challenger.”
A second issue that deserves greater scrutiny is the role of caste. There are broadly two conceptions of Indian electoral politics. The first is that elections are mainly about arithmetic, or the ability of political parties to amass support from a sufficient number of castes or communities to stitch together a minimum winning coalition. The second conception is that elections are about chemistry, rather than arithmetic. In other words, leadership, messaging, coalition dynamics, and so on trump purely identity-based calculations in which a party’s popularity can be measured merely with reference to the vote banks that have traditionally supported it.
The 2019 elections certainly give a fillip to the latter view. That is not to say that caste is no longer a central issue in Indian politics; to the contrary, many experts have argued that it is alive and well. But the larger point is that if identity considerations were all that mattered and every party’s core demographic constituencies were well known, then India would exhibit far less electoral volatility than it does.
A third area for further investigation relates to the role of political campaigns. In India, there is very little work that has been able to precisely quantify the impacts of political campaigns on how voters vote. And yet, both the 2014 and 2019 elections suggest that campaigns (not surprisingly) have a material impact on voter behaviour. For instance, it is indisputable that the tensions between India and Pakistan helped bolster the BJP’s case for re-election even while it is very much disputed how significant this factor was in terms of votes and seats.
To be clear, the emergence of a new party system says nothing about the endurance of that electoral order. While India’s previous three systems each had a degree of staying power, the fate of the fourth party system will eventually hinge on the precise dynamics of India’s party politics and the vagaries or voter behaviour. In addition, the transition from one system to the next can usually only be discerned ex post and with the benefit of retrospective evaluation and hindsight.
The BJP’s emergence as a hegemonic force does not mean that the party is somehow inoculated from electoral setbacks. Indeed, between 2014 and 2019, the BJP lost critical state elections in Delhi and Bihar in 2015 and in three northern India states in December 2018 held on the eve of the general election. In fact, the BJP has not won a single state election in calendar years 2018 and 2019 (to date). But the larger point is not about individual wins and losses as it is that the BJP has emerged as a system-defining party, in response to which all others position themselves.
Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can follow him on Twitter @MilanV. Jamie Hintson was a James C. Gaither junior fellow with Carnegie’s South Asia Program from 2018 to 2019. The authors are grateful to Samuel Brase for editorial guidance and Amy Mellon for her help with the data visualizations.
This article was first published on Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.