The electoral dominance of the BJP

The theory that the BJP steamrolls Congress in a direct fight while it struggles against regional parties is now open to question


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The lotus has been surging ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) overwhelming victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The latest set of local election results in the states of Maharashtra and Odisha confirm the expanding presence of the party. The BJP has more than doubled its tally from 31 to 82 in the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) that governs Mumbai. While this figure fell just short of the Shiv Sena’s 84, the BJP’s performance is indeed commendable as it was directly squaring off against the Sena, its hitherto senior partner in the municipal body since 1997.

The performance was even more impressive outside Mumbai: The BJP finished at the top position in eight of the nine other cities. It nearly tripled its seats across the 10 cities to score more than the combined numbers of the Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In addition, the BJP finished at the top of the pile in both the zilla parishad as well as the panchayat samiti seats that went to polls in Maharashtra. And in the 851 zilla parishad seats of Odisha, the party increased its tally more than eightfold since last time to finish at 294 seats—second only to the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

While the BJD is still the clear winner with 467 seats, its numbers came down substantially from the 651 seats it had won in 2012. The Congress, the principal opposition party in the state, has been pushed to a distant third in these local elections. And now, the authority of the BJD’s Naveen Patnaik, who has had an unbeaten run in the chief minister’s office for 17 years, is set to be challenged by the BJP in the 2019 assembly election. These election results broadly follow the same pattern as other state and local elections since 2014. The two major exceptions were the state assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar.

What do these results suggest about the evolving political landscape of the country? One, the theory that the BJP steamrolls Congress in a direct fight while it struggles against regional parties is now open to question. Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had argued in April 2015 (goo.gl/fRS5qG) that a weaker Congress may not necessarily help the BJP if there are strong regional alternatives. However, the BJP has been able to notch remarkable numbers in Maharashtra in the face of strong regional adversaries such as the Shiv Sena and the NCP. In Odisha, the BJP has been impressive in turning the BJD-Congress fight into a BJD-BJP contest. The election result in Uttar Pradesh, politically the most prized state in the country, will lend further clarity as the BJP is up against two strong regional parties in the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Two, the language of politics has undergone significant change since the economic liberalization of the 1990s. The high growth figures achieved especially since the turn of the century have had a discernible impact on the incomes of the citizenry. In a 2015 paper, Vaishnav and Reedy Swanson found a significant positive electoral dividend for state governments delivering economic growth during the period 2000-12. This has accompanied a rise in the politics of aspiration even if the politics of identity still remains. In the ongoing Uttar Pradesh election, for instance, the incumbent chief minister Akhilesh Yadav is aggressively projecting his development credentials to change the image of his party, the SP, which is seen as a hidebound practitioner of identity politics. The BJP has mastered the art of using “development” as the primary calling card in election campaigning. The Congress has still to come to terms with this new language of politics.

Three, the BJP has succeeded in raising a crop of regional leaders who can hold their own in the face of local competition. The recent success in the Maharashtra local election can largely be attributed to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, a rising star in Maharashtra politics. Fadnavis’ was no overnight success; Abhiram Ghadyalpatil of Mint has given a perspicacious account in this newspaper (goo.gl/5mFxqa) of how Fadnavis has worked steadily to undermine Sharad Pawar’s NCP empire, built around the sugar-cane industry, credit societies, agriculture produce market committees and irrigation contractors. Fadnavis is the latest addition to a strong set of regional leaders in the BJP like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh.

The erosion of regional leadership in the Congress can be dated to the split caused in the party by Indira Gandhi in 1969. But it is the current leadership which has presided over the most systematic decimation of state party cadres. There is almost no scope for a Govind Ballabh Pant or a K. Kamaraj to rise through the Congress ranks in the time of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

The last, and an overbearing, factor in current Indian politics is the personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has been successful in building the image of a self-made man, a crusader against graft and a leader who delivers governance. It is under Modi’s leadership that the BJP has reached its peak political success. If the BJP wins Uttar Pradesh, Modi will have a huge psychological edge going into the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

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