The Change of 2004
  d.l. seth
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VIEWED from the disciplinary perspective of an electoral analyst, the parliamentary election of 2004 truly belonged to the class of normal elections. First, it did not in any significant way affect the ongoing structure of political competition carried through the by now established multiparty coalition system. Second, the election verdict did not indicate any spectacular movement of voters from the previous election of 1999, either between the two contending parties (the Congress and the BJP) or the coalitions (NDA and UPA) and produce a clear majority for the winning coalition of the kind it did in 1999 for the NDA. And yet it removed from power the BJP-led ruling coalition and gave the Congress-led UPA a mandate to rule.

Let us briefly review some facts illustrating why 2004 was a normal yet a problematic election, one that ended in changing the regime without producing a clear verdict.

* The popular vote of the Congress party, the leader of the winning coalition, was just 26.4%, lower than even its 1999 vote share by 1.9%.

* The popular vote of the BJP was 22.2%, just 4% less than that of the Congress. Ironically, the loss of popular vote of the leader of the winning coalition – the Congress – was, even if slightly, more than that of the BJP. In this election the Congress went down by 1.9%, whereas the BJP slipped by 1.6%, a difference of 0.3% in favour of the BJP.

* If we compare the vote share of the Congress and BJP in the seats they contested, the Congress vote share improves only marginally by 1.3 percentage points, but the BJP shows a marked decline in its vote share by 6.7 percentage points.

* Significantly, the BJP’s loss was not the Congress’ gain. What BJP lost to Congress it gained from it in about the same measure: each party lost about 8% of their 1999 supporters to each other in 2004. The 2004 movement of voters away from BJP was in the direction of the non-Congress parties. But as alliances, both the UPA and the NDA lost substantially to the other regional, unaligned parties, with the NDA losing about 9% and the UPA 11% vote. The higher loss of the UPA is accounted for by the Left Front bagging about 2% of the 1999 UPA vote. In short, the real gainers in this election, both in terms of seats and votes, were the non-Congress, non-BJP parties, with the gains made by Congress allies giving victory to the UPA.



The contest of 2004, as it turned out, was between the BJP and non-Congress parties rather than the BJP and Congress. The UPA had the winning edge over the NDA thanks to alliances the Congress forged with such regional parties as RJD in Bihar, DMK in Tamil Nadu, JMM in Jharkhand and NCP in Maharashtra. The NDA defeat, on the other hand, was largely due to the fact that it dropped its 1999 allies and decided to go alone in states like Haryana and Jharkhand, and changed allies in Tamil Nadu.

Despite its proven skills in coalition making, it seems the BJP had a secret desire to set itself on the course of winning an electoral majority for itself. The result was that both the BJP and its allies went down, each losing a substantial number of seats; the BJP lost 44 and its allies as many as 67 seats.

If we confine our view of the 2004 election to its morphological character – i.e. it being a normal election which, by involving marginal shifts in voting patterns, did not give a clear, comfortable majority to the winning coalition, nor an unambiguous mandate for policy reversals – we may miss out on the other, more interesting side of this election. It is true that every election shares some characteristics with other elections of the past or those in other democracies and, as such, could be easily docketed as a type. But pigeon-holing an election into a classificatory category gives only a quick and flat view of a complex, multi-dimensional event like the 2004 election. Further, if we are interested in an election, not only as a stand-alone event but in understanding its relationship with other aspects of the political system, it becomes necessary to view it in a larger historical and systemic context. If viewed in such a perspective, the 2004 election would appear as a momentous event in India’s electoral history, heralding significant changes in the political system.



Following on the 1999 election, the outcome of 2004 has produced a stabilizing effect for the new multiparty system that emerged in the wake of the 1989 election. If there ever was a critical election which decisively, almost irreversibly, changed the structure of the party system, it was the one in 1989. It gave rise to a highly volatile electorate that set off a long spell of political instability, necessitating four parliamentary elections in ten years – from 1989 to 1999. For about a decade it appeared as if the party system had lost its moorings, and the capacity to produce a stable government that could complete a full term.

Given this context of political instability, the 2004 verdict that made a change of regime possible without creating serious imbalances in the coalitional party system, acquires an altogether different meaning. Viewed in continuity with 1999, the 2004 election seems to have ended the earlier phase in which political instability was seen as an inevitable consequence of an election fought by a multitude of parties, projecting all round disarticulation (mismatch) between ethnic identities and political-economic interests of various groups in the society.



Come 2004, we see parties linking effectively issues of development to those of collective identification. We now witness greater acceptance of a coalitional system by Indian citizens as well as significant developments in the skills and culture of forging and managing coalitions among our politicians. This is amply illustrated by the way the Congress, a party considered for long as politically unwilling and strategically inept for making a coalition outside itself, could put together what turned out to be a winning coalition. The CSDS 2004 National Survey data reveals that a majority of Indian citizens find coalitions an acceptable arrangement.

Although the new, multiparty coalition system is now 15 years old, it entered the phase of stability only with the 1999 election. The election produced a ruling coalition enjoying a stable legislative majority that completed a full term in office. The institutionalization of the system is marked by some structural elements the coalitional system has acquired.

One, governments in the new party system, functioning through coalitions, are better placed to take bold policy decisions, something that was not so easy, strange though it may seem, for governments in the 1970s and ’80s. Even when elected by a huge majority and with over 2/3rd of seats in Parliament, the governments run by one party majority were too complacent and did not feel the pressure to perform. As against this, today’s coalitional governments are able to take major policy initiatives of a kind which the governments enjoying comfortable majority would not have dared. Some such decisions, good or bad, are nuclear testing, privatization, and policies vis-à-vis Pakistan and Kashmir. These governments could take such decisions, some of which were not considered popular, because they could harness support of many interest groups and regional and ethnic formations representing themselves through a number of parties within the government.



This change from a one party majority system to coalitions has lent structural stability to a long-term policy process. It has ensured a degree of irreversibility to some basic policies, especially in the areas of external affairs, defence and the economy, lending continuity to governance despite regime changes. In sum, coalitional politics has made governmental representation more open and accommodative to diverse identities and interests in society. Ironically, at the same time, an expanded and diversified structure of representation in the government has reduced the scope of direct-action movements which sought to compel governments to withdraw or change a policy ‘the people’ may oppose. Such pressure is now increasingly exercised through organized interest-groups and, more often, by the coalitional partners acting in the interest of their own voter-constituencies.

Without the help of parties and organized interest groups which are now a part of governance, the resentment people may feel on different issues and government policy remains segmentalised or dispersed. Their aggregation and mobilization at a larger macro-level has become difficult. Mass movements, like for example, the JP movement, appear as a politics of the past. Even mobilization on emotionally charged religious issues fails to sustain or escalate beyond a point. The coalitional parties within the government and caste-ethnic politics – a grassroot reality of the new coalitional system – often frustrate the designs of leaders of such mobilizational movements by blunting the symbols and blocking top-down communication channels that ‘national’ leaders may want to activate with the masses. It seems that mass politics is being increasingly replaced by organized politics.

Third, the degree of institutionalization the coalitional party system has attained over the last two elections (1999 and 2004), has its structural basis in the emergence and growth of several local and regional parties. These parties, for the sake of convenience, are labelled here as Third Sector Parties, on the consideration that no party in this sector is in a position to overtake in its national vote share (regardless of its official status as a ‘national’ party) either of the first two parties, i.e. the Congress and the BJP, in the foreseeable future.



The parties belonging to the third sector of the party system thus comprise all the local, regional, ethnic and the small ‘national’ parties. These parties, of course, contested every election since the inception of India’s electoral system. They even registered a strong presence in the politics of some states. What has changed is the role they now play in national politics. Their entry into national politics in 1989 vastly upset the political balance the Congress party held until then. By 2004, these parties became a structurally integral part of India’s party system. They now hold the balance of power between the two major parties of the coalitional system.

Interestingly, the Congress and BJP together share a minority of total votes polled in the 2004 election. Compared to 51.2% vote for the third sector parties, the two parties leading coalitions enjoyed a vote share of 48.6%. Significantly, no unaligned party attained a double-digit score in its vote-share and no party that aligned with either of the coalitions crossed 15% of vote share. Note that BJP allies jointly scored 13.7% with the Congress allies, taken together, just about reaching a double digit of 10%.



The increased salience of the third sector parties is largely due to changed voter-party relationships. The organized structure of national parties at the grassroots has dissipated. Wherever they exist (as for the BJP) the communication channels transmitting the party’s mobilizational symbols and policy concerns work mostly in one direction, top-down. Here voter loyalties for the party are mediated through a nationalized discourse, by and large carried through the media. It is not surprising that, as the CSDS 2004 National Election Survey data show, the two major parties taken together draw their support more from voters exposed to media, are better educated, urban-based and upper caste.

On the other hand, the supporters of the small and territorial parties are less educated, poorer, rural-based and of lower-castes. These parties cultivate voter-loyalties directly on issues relating to everyday concerns of ordinary people. Their leaders are more accessible and also relate to people in many non-political contexts. They now increasingly link the local/regional and ethnic identities of groups of their supporters politically to their (supporters’) economic interest. All this has given a substantial social and cultural content to voter-party relationships. On the whole, the emergence and institutionalization of the third sector parties has brought the party system closer to society.

Fourth, the change in the party system has initiated a new politics of redefining and restructuring the concept of the ‘national’ and its relation to the local and the regional. In this process, the structure of the representative system is being adapted to the needs of a federal polity and a multiethnic, multicultural society.



The following elements of data drawn from the CSDS 2004 National Election Survey provide a glimpse of this change.

* In ordering their collective loyalties, 67% voters give precedence to their region over the nation (only 21% give precedence to the nation and 13% had no opinion).

* 32% voters favoured dividing large states into smaller ones.

* The performance of the central government mattered to only 23% of voters in the parliamentary election.

*41% voters felt that regional/local parties would provide better government in states than national parties (29% had no opinion).

* Significant in this context of increasing regional orientation of citizens is the fact that as many as 50% voters were against voting by caste or community considerations. Nevertheless, a significant number, 38%, believe that one should vote with one’s caste.

* With the emergence and growth of local, regional and ethnic parties, the nature of political identifications of Indian citizens have also changed. Since the 1989 election, voters increasingly identify with political parties and prefer to work in politics through civil society organizations. Over 51% voters today (2004 election), identify their politics and interests with one or the other political party. This figure represents a steep rise in party identification from the pre-1989 elections.

Even more interesting is the fact that as many as 13% voters reported membership of political parties. As against 3.3% claiming membership of caste and religious organizations, as high a number as 17.3% reported membership of secular (non-caste, non-religious) organizations. This again is a much higher figure than reported in earlier, pre-1989, election surveys. It seems that the direction of shifts that occurred in political identification of citizens during the political change that took place between 1989 and 2004 was from national to regional and from caste-ethnic to civil society groups. Put differently, in the politics of the local and regional parties, the caste-community identities are now increasingly linked to interests and demands of their supporters; the caste/community categories are being steadily transmuted into ethno-class categories.



Let us now focus specifically on the 2004 election and the implications of its outcome for the political system. The change of regime in 2004 was in no sense a routine event, involving a change of guard (like in a two-party system) even though this change was caused by marginal shifts in party preferences of voters.

In fact, the 2004 election is a classic case of a democracy functioning through an election as a self-correcting system. This correction came in the form of restoration of secular space in Indian politics which the majoritarian Hindutva movement had considered erased. The politics of the dominant coalition that grew in the wake of the 1999 election had pushed the secularist discourse to the margins. The idea of cultural nationalism had almost begun to represent the common sense of Indian nationalism. The BJP campaign, linked to the image of a Shining India, sought to make cultural nationalism an ideology that would knit together the well-to-do and subaltern voters of the BJP into what was then seen as a more durable and expanding social support base of the BJP.

Further, the communal face of the Hindutva ideology was successfully hidden by coalitional rule in which the BJP shared not just power but social-support bases which would otherwise not have come naturally to the Hindutva party. The BJP, particularly after the Gujarat massacres had begun to appear, both in its ideology and politics, an exclusionary party for the minorities, and a patronizing, if not subordinating force, to the lower castes and classes.



This politics would probably have returned the BJP-led NDA to power despite the thinner and truncated alliance structure it had on the eve of elections. But two elements in their campaign seem to have upset the BJP applecart. As it turned out, despite all the help from the spin doctors, sections of the media and a highly competent campaign machine, the party could not undo the consequences the Gujarat massacres had produced for it at this election.

It seems that the India Shining campaign was in large measure conceived to counteract the possible consequences of Gujarat on the elections. Viewed from this perspective, the ‘normality’ of the 2004 election had an abnormal underside, i.e. the effort to cultivate amnesia about Gujarat in sections of the electorate who may have been disturbed by this ugly and violent face of Hindutva. The shifts, even though small in size, became critical, producing a fairly coherent action on the part of BJP’s own voters. Those supporters of 1999 who found it difficult to accept the fact that their own party had violated the limits (maryada) of Hindutva politics in Gujarat – belonging mostly to the dalits, tribals, and lower OBCs who were attracted to the Hindutva party as they saw in its politics the possibility of their upward economic and social mobility – deserted the party in 2004. To put it differently, they had taken Hindutva at face value – as an inclusive cultural, nationalist ideology – until they saw its exclusionary politics of violence in the Gujarat massacres.

Another section of voters was attracted to the BJP not for its ideology of Hindutva, but what they saw as a party ‘with a difference’. They were particularly enamoured of Vajpayee’s leadership and the promise of economic reforms.



A close look at the 2004 survey data reveals that the marginal loss of support for the BJP allies, and the consequent loss of power, was mainly due to two types of voters deserting the BJP: (a) the dalits, the tribals and the lower OBCs who felt that they did not belong to the BJP’s newly formed exclusive ‘feel good club of India’. Its formation instantly sent a message to the vast number of these subaltern supporters of the NDA that they were not entitled to the new, transcendent identity that the club membership projected; (b) a significant section of BJP’s conventional middle class supporters who endorsed the party’s economic policies also turned away because they felt that the majoritarian politics of hate and reforms do not go well together. These included significant sections of urban, upper caste Hindu voters as well most upper class members of minority communities who had supported the BJP and its allies in 1999.

The data presented below show how what looked like marginal shifts which produced an ambiguous verdict and denied a clear majority to the Congress-led coalition, in fact aggregated and produced a cumulative thrust in the form of a clear and unambiguous denial of mandate to the ruling NDA coalition.

* The drubbing that the BJP got was mainly from its own supporters of 1999. A large number of 1999 BJP voters (14.1%) just did not turn up to vote for the party they had supported earlier and another 19% turned out to vote against the BJP. These losses were not adequately compensated by the overall gains that the BJP made through inter-party shifts.

* The NDA had secured 40.8% of the popular vote in 1999; this came down to 35.9%, registering a 5% swing against the BJP. The BJP on its own lost 44 seats in 2004, securing 138 seats compared to its earlier tally of 182. The BJP allies lost even more seats compared to 1999. They came down to the figure of just 51 seats in 2004 as against 114 in 1999. The NDA as a whole was reduced to 189 seats against its impressive tally of 300 in 1999 – a net loss of 111 seats.



These changes only appear marginal when we focus on the figure of 5% swing in votes against BJP. More importantly, the fact that about 14% of its 1999 voters abstained from voting and that its allies lost a substantial number of seats cannot be understood if we view 2004 as a normal election involving inter-party shifts that mostly cancelled each other out and produced an ambiguous mandate. In fact, the big loss in seats that the BJP allies suffered was to a large extent due to the fact that certain sections of the 1999 voters – the minorities, the lower OBCs, the dalits, the urban and rural poor – deserted them largely because the BJP’s Gujarat odium was passed on to them. Earlier, the support of these groups to the BJP allies had complemented the gaps in the BJP support bases caused by the structural and ideological deficiency intrinsic to the BJP. This electoral complimentarity of allies was more or less abolished by the 2004 election.



The data further suggests that there is a degree of attitudinal and caste-class homogeneity among those who deserted the BJP and its allies. A large number of the NDA deserters and vote abstainers credited the government with providing good government, able leadership, curbing corruption and reducing the threat of terrorism but did not favour the ruling coalition with their vote. Many were concerned about Hindu-Muslim relations and declining work opportunities. Evidently the proposals advanced by the BJP and its allies to canvass votes failed to enthuse a large number of their supporters to go to the polls with substantial numbers even deserting and voting for other parties.

* Considering that the BJP and its allies (the NDA) got only 33 seats less than the UPA, and the BJP only seven seats less than the Congress party, it is clear that the NDA ruling coalition was defeated primarily due to a loss of confidence and erosion of loyalties among the voters in areas that have been BJP’s conventional stronghold. It can be argued that had the BJP retained the 12 seats which it lost in Gujarat and Delhi (six in each), it would have emerged as the single largest party. Similarly, by dropping allies in Jharkhand, Haryana and some other states and by changing allies in Tamil Nadu, the BJP lost about 26 seats.

To conclude, it seems the BJP could not live down Gujarat at the 2004 polls, and the India shining antidote proved counter-productive, producing a refracted effect on its allies causing all round seat-losses. Further, the loss of its own 1999 supporters proved critical, as it prevented the party, by a small margin, from emerging as the single largest party.



The other, more important, systemic consequence this election produced was what may be appropriately characterized as a structural change in the party system that was shaped in the wake of the 1999 election. By giving a stable majority to the winning coalition, and widely allocating to all other parties difficult to aggregate and fragmented vote shares, the 1999 election had produced a one-coalition dominant system. The Congress particularly came out of it as a much weakened party at the national level. The other parties outside the NDA coalition, even the Left, appeared minor players compared to the salience they had during the 1989-96 period. It then appeared that a one-dominant coalition system was slated to be the durable and institutionalized form of the Indian party system. At least the BJP wanted to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own politics.

It is today amusing to recall BJP leaders like Arun Jaitley and Parivar ideologues like Tarun Vijay shedding tears on public platforms and TV channels on the possible demise of the Congress party at the 2004 election. Ostensibly, their concern was the ‘health of the system’ and ‘the future of democracy’ for which they wanted a strong Congress contending the might of the BJP. The 2004 outcome, it seems, amply fulfilled their expressed wish.

Anyone who followed the campaign carefully, especially Lal Krishna Advani’s electoral speeches, realised that the not-so-secret desire of the BJP was to consolidate a coalitional system in the image of the erstwhile one-party-dominant system. Their dream of establishing political supremacy of the kind the old Congress system enjoyed, they assumed, was only an election away. This desire was also induced by the Parivar’s long term agenda of establishing the political and cultural hegemony of Hindus and making Hindutva a common sense idea of Indian nationalism. This could become a reality only if BJP were to get rid of its allies and emerge as a single party enjoying a massive and durable majority. Hindutva politics, whatever the ideological and cultural gloss the BJP leadership may give to it, has been practiced as a means of converting a religious majority into a permanent political majority.



The 2004 outcome has frustrated this BJP-Parivar design of establishing a one-dominant coalition system so as to eventually transit to one party rule. Seen in this context, the recovery of the Congress at the national level, and the emergence of two competing coalitions representing more or less equal political strength, may prove to be the beginning of a two-coalition system, without doubt a positive development for democracy.

The outcome of the next election, hopefully after the present government completes its full term, will determine whether or not the two-coalition party system will be institutionalized as a structurally integral part of India’s multicultural and federal polity. The present arrangement is marked by serious fault lines – both major parties leading their respective coalitions face declining support. If this trend continues, say for a couple of more elections, there is a real danger of disintegration of the party system and thus to the future of our democracy.


* I am grateful to Yogendra Yadav and the Lokniti team at the CSDS for sharing processed electoral survey data and analytical insights.