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Deciphering the wave: Contextualizing BJP’s success

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-06-2014 Sarayu Natarajan

In interpreting the 2014 Lok Sabha verdict, it is crucial that debates on vote share are held in the electoral context. An assessment of national vote shares alone, as some analysts have done, suggests that the vote is fragmented.

However, a deeper understanding shows quite the opposite, although the context is more competitive than the past four elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won the highest average vote share per constituency in the last four elections. Its victory is significant as it highlights the efficacy of an organized cadre delivering a unified message of leadership, and a possible consolidation of votes. Any responses to this verdict among the defeated parties need to account for these factors.

Electoral context

Starting from 1999, the number of parties, including those with only one candidate, has seen a steady rise. Moreover, there were more candidates than ever, and consequently, more candidates per seat. The expectation is that even if the notional new candidate secures a few thousand votes, there would be fragmentation of the vote share.

These one-candidate parties, whose leadership comes from local social workers, caste, community and religious leaders and street leaders, cumulatively secured just about 0.6% of the overall vote, a notable drop from the 1% they secured in earlier elections.

These parties’ presence could explain fragmentation in the vote share, as they have strengths in a few constituencies in which they claim votes that may have otherwise gone to one of the top candidates. Sinister explanations suggest these parties are sometimes supported and funded by major parties seeking to cut votes from another party in perhaps an unsportsmanlike, but nevertheless legitimate, strategy.

Additionally, a variety of regional factors, including social movements and local politics, may operate to influence the competitiveness of the electoral contest. For instance, in many seats, especially in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was competitive despite some loss of face in Delhi. They secured an average 2% of the total votes cast in India (20% on an average in the above-mentioned regions).

BJP’s victory in context

It is in this context that the results need to be examined and constituency-level averages are useful here. Interestingly, on an average, there were more candidates in the seats won by the BJP than the Congress, an interesting phenomenon that occurred in all elections except 2004.

The BJP’s performance on an average at the constituency level has been better than its performance in 1999 and the Congress’ performance in 2004 and 2009. Winning BJP candidates have higher average vote share in their constituency than the BJP or Congress winning candidates ever. This election also showed the greatest gap between them and the Congress ever, more than even in their own 1999 success.

When one compares the difference between the seats won by the BJP and Congress, the story gets more interesting. Where the Congress won, with the BJP placed second, the difference between the Congress and the BJP was 9.8 percentage points. When the reverse was true, the BJP candidate secured, on average, 19.3 percentage points more.

In the somewhat bipolar contests of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, in Congress seats the difference was 7.6 percentage points, and 21.2 percentage points in BJP seats. This difference is unsurprising as multi-cornered contests have strong parties with entrenched vote bases.

Graphic: Prajakta Patil/Mint

Assessing performance

What explains the BJP’s remarkable performance despite the increased competition? It seems that some growth in the BJP’s votes has been at the expense of the smaller parties, alongside the much-discussed accretion of new and young voters. But that is not all. Assembly constituency leaders and campaigners within the BJP in Bangalore targeted small groups (and their leadership) strategically, aided and advised by a ground-level cadre and booth level agents, many a time from the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates.

In Bangalore, the BJP’s efforts in this direction were also aided by the support of large numbers of white-collar campaigners who were unfettered by the traditional caste and community boundaries in campaigning. This approach buttressed the strong presidential-style campaign, and has also possibly led to some erosion of Congress’ strength, which may have relied on fragmentation to push itself ahead.

Equally, the changing aspirations of people are relevant, as the BJP likes to argue. This election has seen discursive emphasis on development, aspiration and jobs. However, this aspirational change alone is a limited explanation. The election is equally an indication that voters don’t just vote their identity, but also strategically assess who is likely to win, indicated in the decline of smaller parties. The language that (Bangalore) voters use in assessing politics is indicative—they find proof in the Gujarat model and speak of Narendra Modi’s executive experience.

It is quite likely that this combination of factors enhanced the BJP wave. It speaks tremendously of the importance of leadership backed by a solid campaign, as well as some of the concerns of today’s voters. This resounding triumph must give pause to any party planning its response. Party campaigns and scholars can rue this result, and there is much to rue, or respond to it through a well-crafted repertoire of strategies and policies.

Sarayu Natarajan is a PhD student at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London.

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