Deep changes are taking place in the arena of competitive politics
One might be tempted to dismiss the NDA’s feat of winning two parliamentary elections in a row by pointing out that even the UPA government, without a towering Prime Minister, returned to power. Such an assessment would obviously be a mistake. What the BJP has achieved, both in 2014 and 2019, goes much beyond winning parliamentary majorities. In explaining the 2014 verdict for the readers of The Hindu, the Lokniti team had described it as a new phase. We cannot but overemphasise that 2019 has consolidated that phase.
What are the features from 2014 that have made an impact on this outcome as well? One, clearly the era of single-party dominance seems to have stabilised quite comfortably. Two, the relation between national parties and State parties continues to be reworked, possibly to the disadvantage of State parties. The additional votes polled by the BJP are at the cost of the State parties rather than the Congress. Three, the results have left the Congress in disarray. It may have added a few more seats to its total tally this time, but the losses in State after State practically make the party ineffectual. An extraordinary feature of this election was the fact that everything began and ended with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In short, the 2019 election was a replay of the 2014 election — deep changes are taking place in the arena of competitive politics and in the political process generally.
Churning of the polity
This churning of the polity has three dimensions. One, the nature of political competition has changed. This election began with the appearance of a strong fight by the Congress which could have ensured a somewhat bipolar political competition in the future. While the Congress failed, the non-BJP alliances too had limited traction, except in Kerala where the alliance continues to work and even barred the BJP’s entry. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK alliance worked, but more because of the mild assertion of Dravidian exceptionalism. This aspect of the churning is evident in the increasing instances of modified ‘ticket splitting’. While voters in Odisha voted more or less similarly overall for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan voters quickly shifted to the BJP after having voted the Congress to power in last year’s Assembly elections. In Telangana, the TRS won big in the 2018 Assembly election, but had less cause to celebrate this time as voters returned to a more competitively shared outcome. Thus, in States where elections to the State legislature are not happening along with elections to the Lok Sabha, voters are abruptly shifting away from one party and towards another.
The second feature of this political churning has to do with the social bases of parties. Traditional ways of estimating or explaining outcomes on the basis of social demographics has (at least temporarily) lost its salience. It has also rendered political strategies of constructing alternative social coalitions somewhat ineffective, as shown by the limited success of the SP-BSP coalition in Uttar Pradesh. In a multi-party competition, for the BJP to poll 50% of the votes is remarkable, more so as the party saw many hiccups in the nineties. To properly understand the BJP’s performance would require many more analytical prisms. Our write-ups point to a few trends. One, the geographical expansion of the BJP has been remarkable. Two, many non-BJP voters were persuaded to vote for the BJP because of the leadership factor. Three, support for the party got consolidated through the construction of a nationalist narrative that did not perhaps become very visible despite the Balakot issue.
But above all else, the BJP is now becoming a new umbrella party replicating the Congress of yesteryears — though this umbrella does not have room for non-Hindu sections. As the piece on religious divide shows, the rise of the BJP corresponds with a probably unprecedented religious polarisation. Hindus and Muslims polarising around the BJP and the Congress, respectively, is a dangerous development that is attendant on this outcome. Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP also means that apart from the religion factor, the BJP’s voter base lacks any sharp social character. Yes, young, educated men do vote for the BJP a little more. Yes, the BJP is on the road to becoming a party of upper and backward Hindu communities propped up by critical support from Dalits and Adivasis. But despite these fine points, the big story is in the Hindu consolidation that has been achieved through the outcomes of 2014 and 2019.
A temptation to be avoided
The BJP’s success in building a broad Hindu coalition takes us to the third feature of the churning brought forward by the outcome of 2019: how to read the mandate. Certainly, this feature will keep unfolding as we go along. As our data on ‘issues’ pointed out, the campaign brushed under the carpet many issues which people thought were critical. Now that the elections are over, this allows the victors to interpret the outcome as a mandate for something larger than governance and well-being. The debate over Hindutva is sure to continue, but it would be well for the BJP to remember that however ambiguous it may be, voters identify the party with development. Moreover, the majoritarian tendency among voters has remained fairly stable over the past five years — the 2019 National Election Study suggests that nearly half the respondents approve of the statement that ‘in a democracy, the will of the majority community should prevail’. So, the BJP will have to take a call on the political direction to be adopted.
Comfortable victories always have the possibility that the victors will read their own dreams as endorsed in the contingent verdicts produced by weary voters. This is a temptation that needs to be consciously avoided.
(Suhas Palshikar is the co-director of the Lokniti programme and chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’; Sandeep Shastri is the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Jain University, Bengaluru, and the National Co-ordinator of the Lokniti network; and Sanjay Kumar is co-director of the Lokniti programme and Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)
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