Verdict 2019 has confirmed the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s political landscape. The party, under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi, has not only received a second consecutive majority but also improved upon its previous performance – an unprecedented feat in India’s electoral history.
What led to this astounding victory? Was Modi’s return inevitable? Despite the BJP’s geographical expansion post-2014, many commentators had ruled out the possibility of a second term for Prime Minister Modi in January 2018 itself. While it is true that the BJP had its tough moments in the past two years, the empirical basis behind the assertion of Modi losing 2019 was weak. It, however, did succeed in creating a false narrative about Modi’s chances of a comeback. The defeat of the BJP in the state elections in 2018 further added to this perception.
Some post-result theorisation may solely focus on the national security crisis after Pulwama tragedy or an increased religious polarisation in the past few years as the most important factors in the BJP’s victory today. The victory of this scale, however, could not have been possible without multiple things going in the party’s favour.
In our view, the BJP was very much in the contention for the top slot even before the Balakot air strikes. In Uttar Pradesh, where it was believed that the formidable alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party along with Rashtriya Lok Dal is going to push the BJP into a corner was based on wrong assumptions. The party’s resounding success has completely dislodged the sheer arithmetic behind this alliance.
Similarly, while leaders from various opposition parties across the country continuously talked about a national-level grand coalition against the BJP, the behaviour of many such parties inside Parliament suggested that the possibility of such an experiment turning into reality is meagre. From the beginning, the opposition unity was too shaky to challenge Modi and his popularity.
It is important to note that PM Modi’s personal popularity remained high even during the learner period of 2018, with a high possibility of the 2019 elections becoming plebiscitary in nature. The opposition offered no alternative vision, no message of hope, no consistent line of attack on the Modi government, and no new credible promise. This sharpened the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor and the reports from the ground were unequivocal about “Modi ke alawa kaun hai (who other than Modi)”. During our limited fieldwork, it became evident that it is not the BJP but PM Narendra Modi who is contesting the election on behalf of his party.
In an increasingly presidential-style political battle, the opposition failed to put up a leader who could match Modi’s popularity. Over the past five years, Modi continued to maintain a substantial lead over his nearest rival Rahul Gandhi in popularity ratings. The Modi factor remained salient even in this election, as the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey showed that one-third (32 per cent) of BJP voters admitted that their vote choice would have been different if Modi was not leading the campaign of the party.
In addition to the leadership factor, the BJP’s organisational machinery had no match. The party made efforts in strengthening its organisational presence in many parts of the country where it was weak electorally, and this move has paid rich dividends. It breached eastern India by winning the 2016 Assam assembly elections and continued to make inroads into new frontiers. It wrested power in Manipur and Tripura, and ousted the Congress in Meghalaya and Nagaland along with allies. The signs of a resurgent BJP in Odisha, where the party seems to be head to head with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), were evident in 2017 Panchayat polls itself. The Modi and Amit Shah duo seemed to have worked overtime sensing a Tripura like overturn in West Bengal. The results are for everyone to see.
The Congress was rarely able to provide a counter to the BJP’s ground campaign. This gap in organisational strengths became evident in the opposition’s inability to mobilise voters on key issues like unemployment, demonetisation, rural distress, increasing caste and religious violence, among many other such issues. The opposition even failed to capitalise on the mood against the government even when civil society groups led protest marches by farmers, Dalits after Rohit Vemulla’s suicide and proposed amendments to the SC/ST act, among many others.
The Balakot air strikes gave the BJP a much-needed opportunity to create a winning momentum. It created a popularity bump for Prime Minister Modi (similar to the one for Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections held after Kargil war). and made national security into an issue ‘owned’ by the BJP and a salient electoral issue. The party prevented the opposition from highlighting any issue on which the BJP may have lost its upper hand.
This scale of victory would not have been possible without some sort of support from the several beneficiaries of the Modi government’s many welfare programmes. The BJP estimates an upwards of 20-crore unique individuals benefiting from at least one of the welfare programmes. It is true that the number of welfare beneficiaries in government records is often inflated, but the scale of these programmes meant that even after accounting for leakages, a substantial section of the electorate received at least something from the government. The tangible nature of most of these gains – housing, LPG cylinder, electricity connection, among others – have augmented their recall value. Further, the presence of BJP governments both at the Centre and states in many parts of the country may have also helped in overcoming the credit attribution problem.
Finally, since 2014, the rise of the BJP has altered the nature of electoral competition. It seems that the opposition has still not fully grasped the extent and the emerging contours of the altered competitive space. It tried to mount a challenge to Modi and the BJP in a very predictive manner. The outcome, as expected, is not surprising.
The BJP’s success in surpassing its 2014 performance, which many had dismissed as an outlier, has indeed forced us to revisit our existing theories. We need a paradigmatic shift in understanding how electoral majorities are constructed.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi. Pranav Gupta is a PhD student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.