Is 2019 a done deal? Not if you look at the numbers

In 16 state elections held since the 2014 General Election, the Bharatiya Janata Party has failed to win an absolute majority in 13 of them

Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ashis Ray

Failing to get an absolute majority in 13 of the 16 state elections held in India since 2014 after crossing the 50% mark in the Lok Sabha is the worst ever performance by a political party.

Admittedly, BJP emerged as the largest single party in three of the 16 states, where it formed governments; and also managed to seize power in as many—in two of them, Goa and Manipur, somewhat controversially.

25 months from now—unless Narendra Modi wishes to catch the opposition unawares—the outcome of the next Indian General Election will be known. Given BJP’s recent triumph in Uttar Pradesh, many seem to think the result is a forgone conclusion.

A careful analysis of the landscape, though, suggests that while BJP may presently be on course to mushroom as the largest single party, it is not yet certain to win an absolute majority.

In 2014, Modi and his alter ego, Amit Shah targeted the Hindi-speaking heartland and western coastal states, which had hitherto indicated a predilection for Hindutva and minority bashing. Against the backdrop of a beleaguered Congress-led ruling alliance, this yielded rich dividends. BJP’s national vote share amplified from 18% in 2009 to an unprecedented 31%.

The latest result in UP proves people stuck by Modi, regardless of his failure to fulfill the mountainous promises he made 35 months ago. He successfully weaned away sub-castes not identified with the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party. A section of Muslim women—allegedly swayed by the promise of abolition of the triple talaq system of divorce—also voted for him, held a section of the Indian media.

BJP returned to power in Uttarakhand, as well. But with its ally Shiromani Akali Dal, was heavily defeated in Punjab—where Congress made a notable comeback. In Goa and Manipur, Congress emerged as the largest single party.

In short, while public opinion in UP—which throws up more seats than any other in the Lok Sabha—cannot be ignored, BJP has suffered an erosion in support—as compared to its display in 2014—in 12 of the 16 states. Even in UP its vote share dropped from 42.63% to 39.7%.

Graphic: Percentage of votes won by BJP and Congress in general and state elections since 2014*

*Election Commission of India Figures; **BJP fought almost the double the number of assembly segments; ***BJP did not fight the election

A more minute inspection also reveals, Modi’s magic worked where there was anti-incumbency (as in Haryana, Assam and Uttarakhand) or fortuitous (such as the open warfare in the SP leadership in UP) factors. Pitted against popular stalwarts—like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, even newcomer Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi—he came a cropper. Furthermore, when the odds were against him—as in Punjab—he was obliterated.

Now has come the debatable appointment of Yogi Adityanath as UP’s chief minister. Therefore, how those who were deceived into voting for Modi's development plank will react, remains to be seen.

Marginal gains for the Congress

Not that Congress has set the Ganga on fire. Yet, the percentage of votes it attracted has risen in five of the 16 states.

Separately, data published by The Hindustan Times also establishes Congress’ showing has slightly improved since the depths of 2014. In a study of 10 states—Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, Delhi, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, UP and Punjab—which account for 58% (317/543) of Lok Sabha seats, it discovered that in state assembly segments Congress’ winning percentage has risen from 13% in the 2014 general election to 25% since.

In the general election, only 20% of voters preferred Congress in these states. In the assembly elections, 30% did. Congress obviously lost Maharashtra, Assam and Kerala, but overall, mathematically it is marginally in better shape than in May 2014.

Indeed, if Congress exemplifies efficiency and clean government in Punjab, this could become contagious in nearby states like Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi.

The law of cyclical fluctuations dictates BJP could be on a decline in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat by 2019. In Maharashtra, too, Congress may claw back, especially if BJP and its ally, Shiv Sena, abandon their seat adjustment. A recovery in the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh region is also not inconceivable.

Crystal ball gazing

As many as 256 of BJP’s 282 seats in the current Lok Sabha sprung from Hindi-speaking areas, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Of these, it could be relieved of at least 50 in the next general election. Even if it conversely gains in Odisha, that could still leave it 25-30 seats short of an absolute majority.

In effect, BJP would be left dependent on partners like Telugu Desam and Shiv Sena. As of now these two possess 16 and 18 seats respectively. If anything, such numbers could diminish.

25 months before the 2004 general election, a well-entrenched BJP-led government was fancied to remain at the helm. But a Congress-led conglomerate of secular parties inflicted on it a shock defeat.

A reincarnation of such a union could well transpire. SP and Janata Dal factions could join the club in addition to Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nationalist Congress Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Left and/or Trinamool Congress. If BSP enters this circle—notwithstanding Mulayam Singh’s motives—BJP’s parliamentary strength could sink below 200. In effect, rendering it difficult for it to form a Government.

However, it would be short-sighted of UPA3 to coalesce only to defeat BJP. For people to be impressed, it would need to agree on a common, inspiring manifesto and be convincing in redeeming its pledge.

Congress should be worried about its acute shrinkage in UP and as to whether it can regain ground in the event of disillusionment with BJP in other states. Clearly, it cannot compete with BJP on the money front, nor in terms of organisation in northern and western India.

Nonetheless, the next general election is far from being a foregone conclusion as some vested interests or unsuspecting pundits are making it out to be.

London-based Ashish Ray, former head of CNN in India, is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.

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