Regional roots of India’s national elections

NEELANJAN SIRCAR and RAHUL VERMA

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AS the election season kicks into high gear, a ragtag collection of regional parties1 have a chance to play spoiler for the two big national parties, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress. These parties have won enough vote share to be pivotal in forming almost every government since the 1990s onwards. But since its sweeping victory in the 2014 national election, a reinvigorated BJP has begun to assert itself in new parts of India and challenged the standard narrative of regional parties being kingmakers in Indian politics. In 2014, the BJP won 282 out of 543 seats, a majority by itself. What does the expansion of the BJP beyond its traditional regional bases portend for regional parties in India? How are centre-state relations being renegotiated as the party system in India is caught in shifting sands?

The Congress had traditionally been a dominant player in the Indian party system, but by the 1990s it had begun to weaken. At the same time, the BJP started to gain popularity, largely due to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs. In 1998, for the first time ever, the BJP along with its coalition partners, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed the government, signalling a bipolar system at the national level with the BJP and Congress (and allies) forming the poles.2 Despite the change in orientation of the party system, a significant share of the vote continued to go to regional and local parties.

 

The accompanying figure shows the vote share of the BJP, Congress and regional parties (coded as all parties other than BJP and Congress)3 for national elections from 1996 to the present. The year 1996 was chosen as the base year as the BJP for the first time in this election emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. The sheer stability of regional parties over this period, both in terms of vote share and seat share, is noticeable. Between 1996 and 2014, the regional parties procured between 47% and 52% vote share. By these standards, the recent 2014 national election was unremarkable as the regional parties procured 49% of the vote share. As described below in some detail, the BJP did not make much of a dent on regional parties in 2014.4 The major shift that took place in the 2014 national election was that the BJP gained vote share at the expense of Congress.5 Thus, while the BJP may be increasing in stature vis-a-vis the Congress, regional parties remain as relevant as ever in the Indian party system.

 

What explains the stability of regional party actors in Indian politics? While it is tempting to view these parties as ‘ground-up’ organizations, this ignores the extent to which present regional parties are born out of national parties or coalitions, and how this affects the ability of regional actors to bargain across the party system. Certain key regional actors like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Yuvajana Shramika Raithu Congress Party (YSRCP ) or Trinamool Congress (TMC) have explicitly broken away from the Congress party. Other parties like Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Samajwadi Party (SP), Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)], or Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)] were explicitly a part of the now defunct Janata Dal (as their very names suggest).

This background of engagement in national politics is important for regional parties, as it credibly signals their ability to negotiate in the national arena. In recent times, regional parties have commanded sufficient vote share to coalesce as a formidable group (as in the Janata Party) or to extract benefits from the national parties in exchange for support at the Centre.6

 

The capacity of regional parties to extract benefits from national party actors is appealing to voters who may have more regionalized or localized political preferences. Furthermore, regional elites have an incentive to use their position in regional parties to negotiate with national parties at a high level rather than trying to work their way up through national party ranks.7 This explains the staying power of regional parties.On the face of it, these regional parties are far more personality driven than the national parties, whether it be Mamata Banerjee in TMC, Naveen Patnaik in BJD, or Mayawati in BSP. What explains this tendency of regional parties to be headed by charismatic leaders?The configuration of a charismatic leader and a small coterie of party elites is a structure that is desirable for regional parties. First, this is a structure that minimizes factionalism in the party, which is important to maximize the bargaining position of the regional party. Second, it is a structure that tends to strengthen bonds between the voter and the party. Unlike the BJP, which derives some modicum of strength from its ideological disposition and organizational prowess, or the Congress, which derives strength from its long history and presence in all parts of the country, most regional parties rely on the charisma of their leader to mobilize voters.

In 2014, the BJP demonstrated an extraordinary ability to convert vote share into seats won. In practical terms, this means that where the BJP was competitive it won the seat, but otherwise had low vote share. A close analysis of 2014 election data is un-ambiguous about the the BJP’s commanding performance against the Congress and its relatively pedestrian performance against regional parties.

 

In states like Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttrakhand the competition is largely between BJP and Congress. Consider the head-to-head battles where the BJP and Congress finished as the top two vote getters. There were 189 constituencies that fit this criterion, and BJP won 166 of them, an amazing strike rate of 88%. By contrast, the BJP broadly competed at par in the rest of its constituencies, where at least one of the regional parties was one of the top two vote getters, with a strike rate of 49%. When all was said and done, head-to-head battles between BJP and Congress constituted 35% of constituencies, but it yielded 59% of total constituencies won by BJP.

In the five states of Andhra Pradesh (now split into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh), Kerala, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the BJP had a paltry strike rate of 7%. In West Bengal, the BJP received its highest ever vote share at 17%. But it contested all 42 seats in the state, winning just two. It finished in the top two in just three other constituencies, suggesting that even with a significant vote share BJP was not a particularly competitive party in the state. Not only did the BJP fail to convert its vote share into seats, it wasn’t even close. This is likely to change now as the party has emerged as the major opposition party in West Bengal.

Similar patterns were seen in the remaining states. The BJP won 3 of 12 seats it contested in Andhra Pradesh, 1 of 8 in Tamil Nadu, 1 of 21 seats in Odisha, and none of the 18 seats it contested in Kerala. These states are dominated by strong regional parties (or parties with geographically concentrated support bases) that seemed largely immune to the rise of the BJP. In the case of 2014, the BJP’s performance is largely explained by a significantly stronger performance against Congress rather than against regional parties.

 

What are the structural reasons for the BJP’s ability to make more headroom against Congress than against regional parties? Much of it has to do with the way voters are mobilized on the ground. Usually, the variation in voter turnout in the national election is driven by differences at the state level. In 2014, the BJP won 69% of its seats from just six states: Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.8 In these six states, the BJP had a massive strike rate of 91%. If one takes the 15 largest states in India, it turns out that these are also the lowest turnout states in the country, and each of these states increased their voter turnout by at least nine percentage points between 2009 and 2014. Starting from a low base, these states provided a natural reservoir for the BJP to bring in new voters.

 

Contrast this with the five states named above in which the BJP fared quite poorly. If one looks again at the voter turnouts in India, those five states are among the six highest turnout states. They also registered little difference in turnout between 2009 and 2014 (with the exception of Odisha). Why might this be the case? The five states listed are dominated by regional party actors. Unlike the traditional Congress method of political mobilization, most of the regional parties have built strong party organizations (and cadres) to mobilize voters. With populations already mobilized through strong regional parties, and little existing electoral base, the BJP had little scope to mobilize a large share of new voters in these states.

The results in 2014 shed light on the challenges for the BJP to defeat the regional parties in India. The Congress has typically had a weaker ground-level organization, so the BJP could take advantage of its superior party organization in a way that was more difficult against regional parties. Furthermore, the BJP can compete against the Congress on ‘national narratives’, whereas in contests against regional parties it must win over voters that have been mobilized around regional identities and preferences.

Since the 2014 national election, there is a growing sense that the BJP has become the dominant party in the political system. Before the 1990s, one would typically view elections as ‘Congress vs the rest’, whereas it has now become ‘BJP vs the rest’. After BJP’s triumph in 2014 and its expansion in many parts of the country, how has the health of regional parties changed?

 

In a number of states, like Odisha and West Bengal, the BJP has all but emerged as the chief opposition to the strong regional party ensconced in power, e.g. TMC in West Bengal and BJD in Odisha. In Tripura, the BJP pulled off a victory in a recent state election that no one imagined was possible. In the 2013 Tripura state election, the BJP had procured less than 2% of the vote, but just five years later, in the 2018 state election, it formed government by winning 52% of the vote by consolidating many local parties against the Left Front. Most tellingly, the previous main opposition party, Congress, dropped from 37% vote share in 2013 to less than 2% in 2018.

But there is a lesson in all of this. Whether one speaks of West Bengal, where until recently the Left Front ruled, Odisha or Tripura, the BJP has gained at the expense of Congress. It has not removed, or rendered irrelevant, any major regional party over this period.+ Thus, as the BJP expands its national footprint, it would be wrong to say that regional parties have been weakened – rather, the opposition national party has been replaced in many cases. The BJP may continue to perform well in national elections in the future, it is likely do so at the cost of the Congress and less so the regional parties.

While the 2014 election saw a single party gain a majority, it is unlikely to happen in 2019. As regional parties explore pre-electoral coalitions with other regional players and the Congress to keep the rise of the BJP in check, it is likely to reorganize the competitive space in many parts of the country. For example, the two archrivals in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP have joined hands to challenge the BJP. The Congress is not part of this coalition. On the other hand, regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Telengana have allied with the Congress party for the 2019 elections. The Congress party’s alliance with the NCP in Maharashtra, DMK in Tamil Nadu and several local players in Kerala has been there for a while now. As these state level formations gain some stability, the negotiation game within the emerging party system will witness new dynamism.

 

In the recently concluded state elections in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the BJP performed well below expectations. During this time, most of the BJP’s allies in the NDA saw an opportunity to revolt against the BJP for a more desirable power sharing agreement. The BJP acquiesced to most of these demands. For instance, although the BJP won 22 seats in Bihar in 2014, it has agreed to contest only 17 seats in the 2019 national election in the state – allowing less popular ally JD(U) to contest 17 seats in addition to other smaller parties contesting the rest. For as dominant as the BJP may seem, the party walked an extra mile to consolidate its alliance with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Akali Dal in Punjab, and many small regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and North-eastern states.

As long as the structural advantages exist for regional parties to negotiate their positions with the national parties, they will continue to be an indispensable part of the Indian political system.

 

Footnotes:

1. There are many definitions of ‘regional parties’. For the purposes of this article, regional parties are taken to mean any party with highly geographically concentrated bases of support, rather than any claim about the types of ideological preferences being asserted. For instance, this article would consider the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a regional party due to the clustering of support in Uttar Pradesh, even though its articulations on behalf of Dalits may not be explicitly ‘regionalist’. In practical terms, regional parties in this article will come to mean any party other than Congress or BJP.

2. Balveer Arora and K.K. Kailash, ‘The New Party System: Federalised and Binodal’, in Ajay K. Mehra (ed.), Party System in India: Emerging Trajectories. Lancer InterConsult, 2012, pp. 235-261.

3. While other parties, like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were defined as national parties, they were in practical terms restricted to certain geographies. They have thus been coded as regional parties, but the graph does not change much with alternate definitions of regional parties.

4. For more detailed discussion on BJP’s performance vis-ŕ-vis regional parties, see, K.K. Kailash, ‘Regional Parties in the 16th Lok Sabha Elections: Who Survived and Why?’, Economic and Political Weekly 49(39), 2014, pp. 64-70.

5. Louise Tillin, ‘Regional Resilience and National Party System Change: India’s 2014 General Elections in Context’, Contemporary South Asia 23(2), May 2015, pp. 181-197.

6. This is an elite driven perspective of the behaviour of regional parties. See, Adam Ziegfeld, Why Regional Parties? Clientelism, Elites, and the Indian Party System. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016.

7. K.K. Kailash, ‘Institutionalizing a Coalitional System and Games Within Coalitions in India (1996-2014)’, Studies in Indian Politics 2(2), December 2014, pp. 185-202.

8. It should be noted that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh do have strong regional parties. The difference in these states is that the BJP had a significant political history (and organization) in each state. Throughout much of the 1990s, the BJP was the strongest party in Uttar Pradesh owing to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Until 2013, the BJP was actually a part of the government in Bihar until Nitish Kumar and JD(U) decided to break ties.

9. A possible exception here is the Left Front in West Bengal, but this weakening process took place well before the rise of the BJP in the state.

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