Has the BJP become invincible?
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New Delhi: Nobody can defeat Narendra Modi in 2019,” Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said at a press conference last week, explaining his decision to ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Kumar’s decision and his choice of words have lent the BJP an aura of invincibility, but it is just that: an aura. While there is no doubt that the BJP is the dominant pole of Indian politics today—and by a bit—the party is not really invincible, a Mint analysis of voting patterns over the past three decades shows.
In the last Lok Sabha elections held in 2014, the BJP was able to win 51.9% of seats based on a vote share of 31.3%. In a first-past-the-post system, there is no guarantee that the BJP will be able to maintain the same vote-share-to-seat-share conversion rate in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
A look at India’s election history is instructive. In the 1989 and 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress party had a vote share of 39.5% and 36.4% respectively. This is more than what the BJP had in 2014. Yet, the Congress could not get a majority on its own in either of those elections. The 1989 elections are especially remarkable. A decline (from 1984) of 8.6 percentage points in the Congress’s vote share led to a 40% point decline in its seat share.
It is worth noting that even in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections—which the BJP swept—the party could not surpass the vote share it had in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Simply retaining the 2014 vote share in 2019 would not make the BJP invincible.
Whether or not a party leverages its core support base smartly by building effective alliances can have a large effect on its ability to convert votes to seats. The BJP has mostly outdone the Congress in this regard. The BJP’s 2014 performance is the best in terms of conversion of votes to seats by the two major national parties since 1984. Even in terms of strike rate—seats won as percentage of seats contested —the BJP has performed better than the Congress in most elections after 1984. This includes the 2004 elections, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance suffered a shock defeat. Only in 2009 did the Congress outperform the BJP on both these counts.
The fact that the Congress has ruled the country for the longest period has helped the BJP in building alliances. Given that most regional outfits took birth and grew on a steady diet of anti-Congressism, it was easier for the BJP to find common ground with these parties.
Now that the BJP is dominating the political landscape, it could be challenged by other parties, which are unwilling to toe its line. Even if one discounts the Congress, this is a sizeable bloc. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, non-Congress and non-BJP parties commanded almost 50% of the popular vote.
The big question is whether the opposition is up to the task. The history of Indian politics is testimony to the fact that there are no permanent friends and enemies. But it also tells us that dislodging strong rulers requires both chemistry and arithmetic.
Both the 1977 and 1989 electoral campaigns—they led to the defeat of strong incumbents by a motley group of parties—were led by charismatic individuals leading focused campaigns. In 1977 the focus was against the Emergency. Most of India’s current political leadership is a product of that struggle.
In 1989, it was an anti-corruption plank under V.P. Singh who had walked out of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. In 2014, then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi himself revived the BJP’s fortunes after two successive defeats in Lok Sabha elections by leading a spectacular campaign celebrating his governance model against the corruption-ridden Congress regime.
Any successful campaign and coalition-building exercise against the BJP in 2019 or beyond would require a powerful narrative, and sharper strategizing than that of the BJP. As of now, no opposition party or leader seems to be able to do so.
The BJP’s future victories may well result from the ineptitude of its opponents rather than its own inherent invincibility.