Four years after coming to power at the Centre, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is methodically crafting a new political hegemony. This new-found predominance, as argued by political scientist Suhas Palshikar in a recent issue of Economic and Political Weekly, is built on two foundational pillars: elections and ideology.
Ideologically, the BJP’s twin emphasis on Hindu nationalism and a “new developmentalism” has saturated the world of ideas at a time when the Indian National Congress’s legacy of secular nationalism has fallen out of favour. The popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has further propelled the BJP’s ideology into the national spotlight.
While Palshikar is principally concerned with the BJP’s nascent ideological hegemony, its progress in the electoral domain is equally important. In electoral terms, the BJP has become the central pole around which politics revolves. The decisive single-party parliamentary majority it earned in 2014 -- coupled with an impressive string of state election triumphs over the past four years -- arguably represents a critical juncture in the evolution of India’s party system. And while the party’s expanding footprint is unmistakable, equally stunning is its principal rival’s reversal of fortune. The Congress party’s loosening grip on state assemblies has coincided with a serious drop in its share of state legislators and representatives in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP and its allies, meanwhile, have been steadily picking up steam.
However, the BJP’s emerging hegemony should not be conflated with electoral invincibility. As recent elections have demonstrated in states such as Bihar, Delhi, and Karnataka, the party is fallible. Furthermore, its ability to replicate in 2019 the electoral rout it achieved in 2014 looks unlikely given the burden of anti-incumbency in India as well as the Modi government’s mixed economic track record. Future electoral setbacks are a distinct possibility. However, while the BJP’s political influence will certainly ebb and flow, it will not fade easily. Like the Congress before it, the BJP’s present position has a system-defining quality. Both state and national elections are regularly fought in reaction to the BJP (either in favour or in opposition).
Shifting state-level dynamics
The seismic changes heralded by the 2014 general election have quickly spread to state politics. Prior to the 2014 polls, BJP chief ministers ruled in five states (the BJP’s allies controlled another three), and the largest number of states the BJP had ever controlled was seven. As of September 2018, the BJP rules in fifteen of India’s twenty-nine states while its coalition allies call the shots in another five. During the BJP’s previous stint in power under the late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the number of states it directly controlled fluctuated between four and six.
Today, Congress chief ministers rule in just three states — the party’s smallest tally in history. Its previous low was four states in 1979 as it reeled from the aftershock of Emergency Rule. In India’s six most populous states — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Madhya Pradesh — the Congress has fallen out of favour. In the short run, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are the only two where the Congress has a plausible shot at returning to power. It is clear from the state-level data that the BJP’s gains in recent years have largely come at the expense of the Congress. Indeed, the two parties’ trends serve as mirror images. The footprint of other parties has been fairly stable at least since 2006.
State election results attest to the eroding power of the Congress party. In state assembly elections held between 1962 and 1967, the median Congress vote share was 41%; for elections held between 2016 and 2018, the median Congress vote share hovered around 29%.
This downturn has been exacerbated by a reduction in the share of seats the Congress contests. This share has declined as the party either has proved electorally uncompetitive or has been compelled to join hands with a local coalition partner in order to maintain relevance. In the early 1960s, the Congress contested as many as 95% of all assembly seats. Between 2011 and 2015, that figure dipped to 81%. In the most recent elections (2016–2018), that percentage had fallen even further to 63%.
In addition, some analysts have hypothesized that once the Congress falls to third place or below in a given state, it is never able to climb back up. This theory is largely validated using returns for assembly elections between 1980 and 2018. At the state assembly level, the Congress has dropped out of the top two vote-earners in 13 states at one point or another. In six of these states, the drop occurred in the most recent assembly election (hence, it is unclear if this is an aberration or the beginning of a longer trend). In five states (Bihar, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal), the dip has endured for two or more elections. There are two instances of the Congress falling below the threshold and recovering (Jharkhand and Sikkim), although in both it subsequently fell again. The data suggests that if the Congress does not bounce back quickly, it never does.
The BJP, by contrast, is gaining a foothold in state assemblies across the country. When the BJP began contesting elections in 1980 as a party, it was a bit player. For most of the 1980s, it accounted for a paltry 5% of all MLAs across India. During the early 1990s, when the BJP first grew in prominence, its share hovered around 20%. There was a clear pickup following the landmark 2014 general election and Modi’s ascent to power, when the BJP share grew to 25% and finally overtook the Congress. Within four years, it would cross 35%; the last time the Congress claimed that many state legislators was in 1993.
Today, the Congress share of MLAs stands at 19% — its lowest level since 1980. In some regions, like the north-east, the Congress organisation has simply melted away. In 2013, the party won 25% and 37% of the vote, respectively, in Nagaland and Tripura. Five years later, its vote share stood at a startling 2% in both states and it won precisely zero seats.
The number of legislators belonging to neither national party is also at its lowest level in almost thirty-five years (around 45% in 2018). This decline is largely driven by changes in a handful of states. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, parties other than the Congress and the BJP had 328 MLAs in 2012 compared to 84 in 2017 — the same year that the BJP won a three-fourths majority in the state’s election. Bihar has also seen a sharp decline in the representation of regional parties in the last decade while Karnataka has witnessed a gradual decline since the 1980s.
The remaking of the Rajya Sabha
The BJP’s expanded presence in the states has obvious ramifications for the composition of the Rajya Sabha. When the BJP swept to power in the Lok Sabha in May 2014, it remained a distinct minority in the upper house, claiming only 17% of the seats to Congress’s 29% . In 2017, for the first time, the BJP’s tally surpassed that of the Congress. The BJP’s share has steadily risen to 30% while the Congress share has plummeted to 20%. The NDA together accounts for 37% of the seats compared to 27% for the UPA.
Despite the BJP’s improved standing, it still lacks a governing majority in the upper house. According to one recent analysis, the NDA will probably not achieve an outright majority until at least 2024. Of course, any predictive analysis of this type is invariably based on a number of uncertain assumptions. Suffice it to say that, with its recent gains, the BJP is in the strongest position it has ever been in the Rajya Sabha. If it is able to corral support from non-aligned parties, it would be positioned to enact legislative changes by a simple majority. However, constitutional amendments, which require a two-thirds majority, would still need broad, cross-party consensus.
A shock to the political system
The implications of this reshaped landscape for the political system at large are several-fold.
First, the BJP’s rapid pickup of states will provoke opportunistic alliances forged by desperate opposition parties. Indeed, that process has already begun. In recent by-electionsin Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party — bitter rivals that have vied for political dominance for a few decades — set aside their differences to unite in a successful effort to defeat the BJP. Other such marriages of convenience will likely arise in the run-up to 2019.
Second, the Congress faces two somewhat contradictory objectives as it looks ahead. Its first goal is to stem its electoral decline. And its second goal is to build up its emaciated party organisation. Unfortunately for party leaders, the two are in tension. In order to improve the party’s short-term fortunes in states with multi-party competition, the party has decided to forge alliances with key regional players. However, this likely means it will struggle to reclaim political territory it cedes to others. The party’s decision to form an eleventh-hour coalition government with the Janata Dal (Secular) after the May 2018 Karnataka assembly elections is a harbinger of things to come.
Third, the BJP has not been universally successful in expanding its footprint. India’s eastern seaboard (stretching from West Bengal in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south) remains relatively immune to the BJP’s charms. The party has placed significant emphasis on making fresh inroads in precisely these states in the coming election. BJP leaders hope that gains in these states could compensate for potential losses in states it swept in 2014 — a feat that is difficult to replicate.
Fourth and finally, the BJP’s hegemonic status cannot be easily separated from Modi’s own popularity. In nearly all states where the BJP has come to power since 2014, it has done so without formally projecting a CM candidate. Instead, it has campaigned on Modi’s own standing. This works well when the prime minister polls better than his party, but the time might come when Modi’s star dims. In May 2017, according to data collected by Lokniti[PDF], 44% of Indians named Modi as their preferred prime minister. One year later, that share had fallen to 34%. To be fair, in May 2014, when the BJP earned its historic general election victory, 36% of Indians surveyed named Modi as their top choice. So Modi has not lost much ground compared to four years ago, but if this percentage continues to drop further, it would ring alarm bells within the BJP.
The Congress party under former prime minister Indira Gandhi banked on a similar strategy during her heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. The long-term fallout of this strategy is borne out by the data presented here. Today’s hegemonic force in Indian politics would do well to learn the lessons of its predecessor if it wishes to avoid a similar fate.
Milan Vaishnav (@MilanV) and Jamie Hintson are with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Jayaram Ravi is a student at Stanford University. This article is part of the ‘India Elects 2019’ series, a collaboration between Carnegie and the Hindustan Timessource