It is deja vu all over again for the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi — their stunning victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election will go down in the annals of Indian history as the most impressive. The magnitude of the win, both in terms of popular vote and seat share, has altered India’s competitive space forever. The verdict has ensured the longevity of the BJP-led dominant party system, the marginalisation of the Congress, and the decimation of the Left Front.
Was this outcome inevitable? While the ruling National Democratic Alliance was expected to come within striking distance of a majority, especially since late January 2019 when the BJP seemed to have the upper hand as far as the election narrative was concerned, only few could have foreseen the scale of the BJP’s win.
In his first comments after the results, Modi added the phrase “sabka vishwas (everyone’s trust) to his slogan of sabka saath, sabka vikas. People’s faith in the Prime Minister seems to be unmatched, and the BJP banked on this trust factor to counter the rising tide against the party in 2018.
The data from two waves of the National Trust Survey conducted by Firstpost-IPSOS unambiguously showed that Modi’s popularity transcended geographical and social divides, whereas the party’s presence seemed to be constrained by these divisions. Trust, as Firspost wrote in its inaugural print edition, is the opening balance of every candidate before the first vote is cast. The bigger the opening balance, the better the chances of victory.
Our analysis of the second round of the survey data indicated that if the BJP managed to cash-in on Modi’s popularity, it could hit a home run even in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, where a strong coalition of opposition parties was challenging them. It wasn’t for no reason that the BJP played second fiddle to the Prime Minister’s positive perception among voters and Modi contested the election on behalf of his party.
What does Modi’s historic mandate mean for the trajectory of Indian democracy? By securing a majority on its own in 2014, the BJP had already moved the fulcrum of the Indian politics towards centre-right. This became evident in the run-up to the 2019 campaign. Lack of an ideological vision and the failure of its leadership have left the Congress high and dry.
The BJP surpassed the Congress in terms of seats in 1996, and votes in 1998. The 2019 election has added yet another stat: the BJP contested more seats than the Congress in a Lok Sabha election (graphics 1). This could not have been possible without the shifting of the ideological middle ground of Indian politics in favour of the BJP, its expanding political and social footprint, and the Congress’ structural decline since the 1980s.
While it may seem that the Congress managed to marginally improve its seat tally and won almost as many votes as in 2014, a closer analysis suggests that the party is at the lowest point in terms of the number of seats where the party held the top two positions (graphics 2). In almost 20 states and union territories combined, the party has not been able to win even one seat. Between 2014 and 2019, the Congress has further ceded space in eastern and Northeastern parts of the country. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Congress does not know the recovery route and may slip to oblivion in due course.
The BJP, on the other hand, has expanded to new territories. It has emerged as the main opposition party in West Bengal and neighbouring Odisha and is also showing signs of making deeper inroads into Telangana. The BJP’s entry into new pockets, the decline of the Left, and the rise of new forces such as the YSR Congress Party will lead to reorganisation of the competitive space in many states and, in turn, have a bearing on the national scene.
As with all historic moments, various opposing tendencies flow from its womb that can shape the course of the future.
As much as the 2019 election shows signs of deepening and maturing of the democratic process, it also carries a possibility of India becoming a democracy with majoritarian sensibilities. The Idea of India is a celebration of Ideas of India. Only magnanimity towards ideological adversaries and tolerance of dissent can complete the new idea of sabka vishwas.
Prime Minister Modi has the mandate to choose and influence the trajectory of India.
Rahul Verma, a resident political analyst at Network 18, is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research
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