The BJP’s victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election is extraordinary in more ways than one. While crossing the 300-seat mark — the first time for any political party since the 1984 election — is itself a remarkable achievement, it is the size of individual victories at the constituency level that truly reveals the sheer scale of the BJP’s success.
The BJP got more than 50 per cent of the vote share in 16 states and Union Territories, and in more than 200 constituencies across the country. This means that in each of these constituencies, the BJP candidate got more votes than all the other candidates put together. For all the chatter during the campaign around alliances and vote cutters, the BJP’s performance shows that in majority of the states, whether opposition parties came together or not would have hardly mattered. In fact, the BJP got more than 50 per cent of the votes even in about half of the total 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, where most political observers (including these columnists) had anticipated that the SP-BSP alliance, powered by its potent caste arithmetic, would give it a much tougher fight.
Most observers trying to demystify the BJP’s astounding victory are focusing exclusively on the personality impact of one man — Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The dominant narrative is that Modi’s personality is the overarching factor in the BJP’s performance. What these observers may be missing is that despite attempts to turn them into complete presidential-style personality contests, elections in India can never be won just on the personality of one individual, even if the person — in this case, Narendra Modi — is one of the most popular political leaders the country has ever produced. Historically, India’s most popular political leaders, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi, saw great electoral success in large part because they represented certain ideas and messages. Personality without a message is an empty vessel.
For any incumbent government, there are three key factors that play a role in determining electoral success or failure: performance, organisation and vision.
The perceptions around BJP’s performance in the last five years were hardly enough to put it on a strong wicket. Most macro-economic indicators point to high unemployment and widespread rural distress. While the Modi government seems to have achieved success in the delivery of key welfare schemes — providing everything from toilets and gas to electricity and housing to hundreds of millions of rural citizens — the prevailing perception among many voters was that the government’s overall performance could have been far better.
On the organisation front, however, there was simply no match to the BJP. Party president Amit Shah displayed uncharacteristic flexibility in stitching several key alliances early on, even conceding several seats to allies like the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (United). Meanwhile, the Congress and other regional parties did just the opposite, spending most of the campaign squabbling over seats and issues. For just the seven seats of Delhi, for instance, the Congress went back and forth on its decision to ally with the Aam Aadmi Party for months, culminating in a Twitter argument and public blame game between the respective party leaders.
The opposition parties failed to unite on issues as well. At every juncture of the election campaign, the BJP set the agenda and the opposition was forced to follow its lead. On the ground, the BJP’s millions of karyakartas worked tirelessly to meet the audacious goals of their president Amit Shah, ensuring that the party made deep inroads into uncharted states like West Bengal and Odisha. They spared no seats, working harder to wrest even seemingly impregnable constituencies like Amethi in Uttar Pradesh (held by Congress president Rahul Gandhi) and Guna in Madhya Pradesh (from where Congress’ incumbent Jyotiraditya Scindia lost).
While the BJP’s superior party organisation certainly played a role in its electoral success, only one thing explains the enormous scale of the party’s victory – vision. The vision of a party or a leader encapsulates its core ideology and message. While the Congress and most opposition parties led their entire campaign on Modi’s negative qualities and policy missteps, they failed to outline a vision of their own. NYAY was meant to be the Congress’s brahmastra, but NYAY is not a vision but rather just a policy statement. Very few people knew what the Congress really stood for in this election.
In contrast, Narendra Modi carefully and successfully built a narrative that resonated with the masses, even converting challenges like the Pulwama tragedy into opportunities to further sell this vision. Voters identified deeply with his vision of a strong India that was willing to take the fight to Pakistan on terrorism. They bought into his idea that our politics should be dominated by “kaamdars” (hard workers) and not “naamdars” (dynasts) and delivered shocking defeats to many of the opposition’s heavyweight dynasts on their home turfs. They loved his open defense of the Hindu religion and were even willing to support the candidature of the terror-accused Hindutva mascot, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, despite her many controversial statements during the campaign, including her praise of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse.
It was Modi’s successful articulation of a vision, which resonates with the masses, that truly catapulted his party to a historic victory in the 2019 election. Essentially, it isn’t the personality of the man himself but the underlying message that he has come to represent that has made all the difference. Modi has ensured that his personality is inextricably linked to messages that majority Indian voters identify deeply with. Making that happen is a rare and significant achievement.
Pradeep Chhibber is with the University of California, Berkeley.
Harsh Shah, an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley, is a political analyst and works in the private sector.