The BJP added to its state count and seat count in Sunday’s election results. However, in the last three years, the number of states that it rules has dropped from 20 to 16, and its share of MLAs across India has fallen from 36% to 33%.
As the latest round of state elections wraps up, it can be said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained—and it didn’t. It retained Assam, as it was expected to. It also made notional vote share gains in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The party added Puducherry to its kitty through an ally. However, in its ambitious project of a national footprint, this election is a setback, having failed to win its prized goal of West Bengal, which was key to furthering its ambitions.
Seen over a longer time-frame, the BJP juggernaut is stuttering. During its golden phase, the party expanded its portfolio from having 25% of all 4,030 MLAs in India at 2014-end to 36% at its peak in May 2018. Since then, the party has ceded ground in several large states and its seat share has dropped to 33%. By itself and through its nationwide network of allies, the BJP was in power in seven states in 2014. This rose to 20 in March 2018, but is now down at 16.
The BJP seemed set to add 70 assembly seats nationally as counting progressed on Sunday, but its failure to wrest West Bengal means it could be on the back foot. The party’s handling of the covid-19 crisis won’t help.
Sunday’s results are also a reminder that regional parties matter, be it at the state or national level. Despite losing seats and power to the BJP, other parties control 45% of assembly seats across India. With the Congress stumbling, it is the regional parties that are presenting themselves as a stronger counterpoint to the BJP juggernaut.
BJP in retreat
A central plank of the BJP’s march since 2014 has been that of breaking new ground. A good example is how it went about the North-East, tying up with regional parties and forming governments. Of the 251 Assembly seats gained by the BJP between 2014 and 2020, as many as 156 came from states in the North-East, on the back of wins in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Tripura.
Elsewhere, the first part of this seven-year period was marked by decisive mandates in the BJP’s favour in large states. The three-fourths majority in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 was a prime example. However, in the second part of this period, the party saw losses, such as in Rajasthan, or got outsmarted by the opposition, such as in Maharashtra. West India is where the BJP has lost the most. On occasion, the party formed governments not through elections, but only by breaking the opposition, as in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
Meanwhile, the other significant national party, Congress, has stagnated. In these latest elections, its notable achievement has been to win seats as a junior partner to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. It lost Puducherry, finished second in Kerala and Assam, and failed to win even a single seat in West Bengal. Its all-India assembly seat share has dropped from 22% in December 2014 to 21% now.
What’s changed is the distribution of those seats. The Congress has made gains in western and central India, notably returning to power in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra. But these are offset by losses in the south, where it lost out to regional parties in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It has also seen a sharp and consistent drawdown in its bastion, the North-East, which also corresponds to the BJP’s rise. In 2014, the Congress, through its alliances, was in power in nine states. Now, it’s in power in six.
However, it would be foolhardy to write off the BJP and its relentless pursuit towards a national footprint. Take Assam. Between 1996 and 2011, the BJP’s vote share in the state hovered at 10-12%. In 2016, it poached Himanta Biswa Sarma of the Congress, hit a 30% vote share, and formed a government in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad. Even in the 11 states where the BJP has never won, or has not been a significant player on the winning table, it’s been chipping away. In nine of these, its vote share has increased over the last two elections. In Odisha and, now, West Bengal, it’s the number two party.
The next big electoral test for the BJP is, however, protecting territory in Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for 10% of all assembly seats in India, in 2022. Judging by Sunday’s results and the mounting deaths due to covid-19, the juggernaut won’t have it easy.