What does the expansion of the BJP beyond its traditional bases portend for our politics? The BJP’s rise in the 1990s was marked by two distinct political developments: the decline of the Congress and the emergence of state-level parties in forming ruling coalitions at the national level. Buoyed by its comprehensive victory in the 2014 election, a reinvigorated BJP began to assert itself in uncharted parts of the country and challenged the narrative of regional parties, who were busy playing kingmakers in national politics.
The magnitude of the BJP’s victory in 2019—on both counts of popular vote and seat share—signals a transformation of competitive political space. The verdict has ensured the longevity of the BJP-led dominant party system, the marginalisation of the Congress, and a steady decline of regional parties.
The accompanying figure shows the vote share of the BJP, Congress and state-level parties (coded as all parties other than the BJP and the Congress) between 1984 and 2019. The Congress’s dominance began to weaken since then and the BJP started to gain popularity due to mobilisation on two socio-economic faultlines: religion (the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir movement) and caste (reservation for the Other Backward Classes [OBCs] in government jobs).
In 1998, for the first time, the BJP along with its allies, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed the government, heralding a bipolar system at the national level—with the BJP and the Congress (and its allies, or the UPA) forming the contrasting poles. Despite the change in orientation of the party system, state-level and local parties still managed to get a significant share of votes. The stability in the strength of the parties during this period—on the basis of vote and seat share—is discernible. They remained the bedrock of any government formation at the national level during this period.
The 2014 election was unremarkable as regional parties garnered 49 per cent of the vote share. The BJP gained vote share at the expense of the Congress, but couldn’t make much of a dent on the strength of state-level parties, except in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The 2019 election results, however, seem to have changed the balance of power due to the rise of a dominant national party and decline in the combined strength of state-level parties. The BJP’s victory in 2019 not only succeeded in limiting any electoral gains that the Congress could have made from its 2014 tally, but also the prospects of many state-level parties. The BJP—and to an extent its NDA allies gained at the expense of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) in Telangana. The BJP also continues to challenge the dominance of the ruling Trinamool in West Bengal and the incumbent Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha.
The BJP, thanks to its near-sweep in Karnataka, has managed to emerge as the single-largest party from south India, even though it still remains on the margins in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where anti-incumbent regional parties gained. For instance, the DMK alliance in Tamil Nadu rebounded against the ruling AIADMK and the YSRCP trounced the TDP in Andhra Pradesh.
Many of these parties had controlling stakes in ruling coalitions and influenced policy-making decisions during the fragmented party system between 1989 and 2014. But, in an era of a dominant party system, the bargaining power of the state-level parties would be on the wane.
There are structural and strategic reasons for the existence of many of these state-level players such as national parties failing to provide adequate representation to various regions or groups. Consequently, political entrepreneurs would continue to populate the competitive landscape by forming new parties.
Our political system has always been marked by multiple parties competing for space, even during the Congress-dominant rule of the 1960s. This is likely to continue, despite the dwindling strength of state-level parties.
Rahul Verma, a resident political analyst at Network 18, is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research
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