The problem

back to issue

THE BJP’s victory in 2014 was described as a black swan – a rare event that is unlikely to be ever repeated. To everyone’s surprise, the party returned to power with an even bigger mandate in 2019. The BJP’s success in improving upon its 2014 performance has indeed forced us to revisit our existing theories on how Indians vote. Thus, we need a paradigmatic shift to understand how electoral majorities are likely to be constructed in 21st century India.

For this, we have to begin with an acknowledgment that a victory of this scale could not have been possible without multiple things going in favour of the BJP. This issue of Seminar focuses on the advantages the BJP had in terms of its organizational machine, financial resources, control over the media narrative, with a leadership that is unmatched in terms of popularity, a clear articulation of an ideological vision, a more efficient welfare regime, among many other factors. This issue also draws attention to the changing contours of electoral politics in India.

While the 2014 election signalled the arrival of the fourth party system in India, the result of the 2019 election has cemented a BJP-led dominant party system in which the other national party, the Congress, was marginalized, the Left Front decimated, and many regional parties that had hoped to do well, lost further ground to the BJP in their respective states. Furthermore, the BJP-led dominant party system is marked by some structural shifts that are taking place and we need a better grasp over them in order to understand the changing political preferences of the Indian voter.

First, India is undergoing a massive demographic transition. There are many more Indians living in urban areas than ever before. Since the opening up of the economy in 1991, not only has the size of the middle class in an absolute sense gone up, but also the proportion of the population that identifies itself as the middle class has increased. Indians are more educated now with greater exposure to media platforms – television, newspapers and social media. These demographic changes have led to a larger ‘catchment pool’ for the BJP. The party, in the pre-2014 era too, drew more votes from urban, upper castes, middle classes, the educated and those with more media exposure. These rapid changes in India’s political economy and the information environment are being manifested through significant electoral consequences.

Second, the rise of the BJP over the past two decades has been marked by a transformation of the BJP’s social base. The share of the upper caste vote within the BJP’s Hindu social coalition has continuously declined over the past two decades, and the proportion of the OBCs, SCs, and STs voting for it have increased. Confirming a trend that became visible in 2014, the BJP now mirrors the old Congress, except that the BJP gets far less support from religious minorities. The BJP’s substantial gains in 2019 came from the lower castes, poor households, and rural areas. The changes within the BJP signals a realignment of the social basis of power. It also poses a challenge for the BJP in the future whose leadership structures still remain the preserve of the upper caste.

Third, the magnitude of the BJP’s victory in 2019 – on both counts of popular vote and seat share – has restructured the competitive political space in Indian elections. The BJP’s rise in the 1990s was marked by two distinct political developments: the decline of the Congress and the emergence of some new state-level parties. Many of these parties had controlling stakes in ruling coalitions and influenced policy-making decisions during the fragmented party system between 1989 and 2014. The rise of the BJP as the dominant pole of Indian politics means that the bargaining power of the state-level parties would be on the wane for some time. The BJP has gained new territories. It has emerged as the main opposition party in West Bengal and neighbouring Odisha and is also showing signs of making deeper inroads into Telangana. The BJP’s entry into new pockets, the decline of the Left, and the rise of new forces such as the YSR Congress Party, will lead to reorganization of the competitive space in many states and, in turn, have a bearing on the national scene.

Fourth, it seems that the opposition has not fully grasped the extent and emerging contours of an altered competitive space. It tried to mount a challenge to Modi and the BJP in 2019 in a very predictive manner. The outcome, as expected, is not surprising. The old rules that governed the framework of constructing electoral majorities need a new language. The current crisis within the main opposition party, the Congress, has all three elements that would lead to a decline of any political party – organizational atrophy, absence of credible leadership and an unclear ideological vision. Its future electoral success lies in whether it can develop a compelling vision for India, a vision that clearly distinguishes itself from the BJP and regional parties.

Fifth, the shift in favour of the BJP could not have been possible without the shifting of the ideological middle ground of Indian politics towards the centre-right. The BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi seemed better equipped to tap into the energies of changing voting preferences of many Indians who are more aspirational; can better differentiate between national, state and local elections; are better equipped than in the past to hold their representative accountable, among other such changes. Can opposition parties emerge as credible vehicles to articulate the energies of the new Indian voter?

Finally, what does Modi’s historic mandate mean for the trajectory of Indian democracy? As with all historic moments, various opposing tendencies flow from its womb that can shape the course of the future. As much as the 2019 election shows signs of a deepening and maturing of the democratic process, it also carries a possibility of India becoming a democracy with majoritarian sensibilities. The Idea of India, as Sunil Khilnani wrote, is a celebration of Ideas of India. Only magnanimity towards ideological adversaries and tolerance of dissent can complete Modi’s new idea of sabka vishwas.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a choice to interpret the nature and meaning of the mandate he has received in 2019. His interpretation of this mandate will not only determine the framework of electoral politics, but also the trajectory of Indian democracy.