Last week, the world’s largest democracy concluded its elections. For the first time since 1971, Indian voters re-elected an incumbent Prime Minister, granting him an extension on his mandate. The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi managed to secure 303 out of 543 seats, with the National Democratic Alliance (which the BJP is part of) receiving a total of 352 seats. Meanwhile, the key opposition party, the Indian National Congress was reduced to a mere 52 seats.
The election delivered two particularly interesting shifts worth inspecting.
First, back in 2014, BJP managed to get 281 seats with a vote share of about 31 per cent. Interestingly, in the previous election held in 2009, the Congress party managed a similar vote share (~ 30 per cent), but got only 206 seats.
The difference between Congress and BJP was that in 2009, the former’s votes were spread across India and the latter’s votes were concentrated in just 11 states. As a consequence, in 2014, BJP won about 89 per cent of the seats it contested in those 11 states. This contributed to BJP managing to secure a majority in the lower house (Lok Sabha) for the first time in three decades. But it also cast a shadow upon BJP’s performance in the 2019 elections.
How does a party replicate a near perfect performance?
To everyone’s surprise, the Modi-led BJP not only managed to replicate its performance across these 11 states; it also did so by a greater vote share. On average, BJP’s vote share across these states went up by about 10 per cent. In total, they are now securing about 50 per cent of the vote share.
For the past few decades, owing to the first past the post system in a multi-party democracy, often the winning candidate (and party) needed just about a third of the vote share to win a seat. In 2019, BJP has exceeded that – it is not just winning elections, it is doing so by some margin.
And this takes us to the second shift. India got its independence in 1947 and for the first four decades of its democratic existence, it was essentially a one-party state. Barring a brief three year interlude, the Congress party ruled India from 1947 to 1989.
The breakdown of this one-party system followed a certain trend. First the Congress would lose a particular state to some regional party, but the electorate would continue voting for it (to some degree or more) during national elections. Eventually, even during the national elections, Congress started losing to its regional competitors.
The end result was the arrival of coalition politics at the national level. Congress still retained a sizeable number of seats at the national level, but needed regional allies to govern. Even when the BJP managed to form the government for a brief period of six years (1998-2004), it did so with the help of regional allies.
But more strikingly, the dominance of the single party (Congress) had ended and various regional parties controlling different states were challenging Congress. On a political level, the states were the predominant challenger to the systemic single party rule.
Interestingly, the rise of BJP followed a similar trajectory. It first managed to expand its presence at the state-level and then consolidated its presence in those states to emerge as a national challenger to the Congress party.
Congress’s single party dominance ended in 1989. Thereafter India was characterized by a political system where Congress and BJP fought to dominate over some states. And these parties fought with other regional parties to gain a foothold across the rest of the states. It was as elaborate an “electocracy” as one can get.
The recent election results have effectively ended that system. Indian politics appear to resemble a single-party system once again.
As things stand, it seems nearly impossible to defeat BJP at the national level. Though with a lot of sustained efforts and some plausible blunders by the BJP, it is still possible to defeat it at the state-level. But most importantly, as aforementioned, BJP’s vote share is not stagnant and is actually expanding at the national level.
As Shekhar Gupta of ThePrint pointed out, the combined vote share of Congress and BJP went up from 50.3 per cent in 2014 to 57 per cent in 2019. Regional parties are losing their vote share to these two national parties.
Political scientists might quibble with this labeling of India under Modi as a one-party system. To avoid those conflicts, I suggest another term that tries to capture this moment: what the Indian polity is undergoing is the nationalization of politics.
Congress did it back then and the BJP is doing it now. This is evident in how BJP’s presence has grown in Eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha, where it traditionally has had no presence (not even in 2014).
As a friend of mine, Ria Ghosh, who studies anthropology, remarked, the Indian republic has finally shed all its colonial legacies.
Congress was the key political party behind India’s struggle against the colonial rule. It leveraged that to dominate the political system for four decades after independence. BJP rose as India’s first post-independence national party and emerged as Congress’ main challenger.
Today, the BJP increasingly resembles the Congress party at its peak. India’s first indigenous party has now become the dominant party of the republic.
Through centuries, the Indian subcontinent has oscillated between single-kingdom dominance and the division of the entire landscape between several competing kingdoms. The recent BJP victory is just another similar shift in the long sweep of Indian history.
At least in terms of electoral politics, nearly after four decades, the Indian republic is making a turn towards a single-party rule. What the BJP manages to do with this hard-earned power will go on to define India for the next few decades.
Edited by Catharina O’Donnell.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image via Obama White House Archives