The outcome of the general election of 2019 is historic in more ways than one. While it is a vote for a second term for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, it also indicates that alliance arithmetic by itself does not guarantee a victory. This election saw a near presidential-style electoral campaign, making personal leadership the central focus. This placed the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at a decisive advantage and left the United Progressive Alliance and other State-based parties finding themselves on the back foot. This election is also a story of the success of one strategy of alliance formation over the other.
A desire for continuity
There was enough indication in the Lokniti’s pre-poll survey (reported in The Hindu ) of voters wishing to give the Bharatiya Janata Party a second term. The results are a clear confirmation of this. This election was clearly about the Central government. This also explains the rout of the Indian National Congress in three important States where it was voted to power last December — in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The vote last year was for a change of guard at the State level. The vote this time is an unequivocal endorsement of the claims of the BJP for another term in office.
This verdict also points to a clear difference in the intensity of the BJP’s victory. In north, west and central India (except Punjab) the election saw an entrenched BJP that swept the region. Where it was in direct contest with the Congress it did exceptionally well. Eastern and northeastern India saw an expanding BJP, with the party asserting its key role in the northeast and emerging as the key competitor to the party ruling the State in West Bengal (Trinamool Congress) and Odisha (Biju Janata Dal).
The south (except Karnataka) continues to elude the BJP . The battle to claim the lead Opposition space in Telangana is on with both the BJP and the Congress having halted the progress of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi .
Pointer to coalitions
Much was made of in this election of extrapolating the electoral arithmetic of alliance partners from previous elections. Many argued that the alliances formed against the BJP/NDA in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand would pose a stiff challenge to the BJP as the combined votes of the alliance were much higher in the previous Lok Sabha election. One needs to concede that this electoral arithmetic, which was simplistic, did not work for three reasons. The caste calculus could undergo dramatic shifts as in the case of U.P. and Karnataka.
Second, much water would have flowed under the bridge resulting in new sets of issues influencing the minds of voters; this was the case in the three States mentioned above. Finally, while leaders may have come together to form an alliance, the chemistry among workers and party supporters may not always be positive, resulting in a shaky alliance on the ground and limited vote transfer. While the jury is still out on whether the appeal of personalised leadership neutralises other equations and the days of caste/community coalitions being over, this election does suggest a fundamental change in the way such coalitions are likely to work.
This election has been testimony to the BJP’s success in stitching together an alliance (NDA) that worked on the ground.
The BJP bent over backwards to accommodate its allies in Bihar by agreeing to contest a less number of seats than what it won in 2014. In spite of its serious differences with the Shiv Sena, it was still able to form an alliance in Maharashtra. For the BJP, winning 2019 was a clear goal and if alliances needed to be formed to achieve this, nothing else mattered. On the other hand the UPA’s failure (except in Tamil Nadu) to ensure that the anti-incumbency vote did not split among different parties appears to have cost them dearly. The UPA and State-based parties opposed to the BJP seemed unclear on whether their primary focus was to defeat the BJP or protect their own political/electoral spaces.
Party face and vote
Finally, the leadership factor. It is clear that in the leadership sweep stakes, the BJP/NDA did much better than the UPA and the State-based parties. Not only did the BJP candidates canvas for votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the contenders from the parties in the NDA also made the Prime Minister the focus of their campaign. As reported in this series last week, while one of every three of those who voted for the BJP said that they would have voted differently had Mr. Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate, in the case of the supporters of the other parties in the NDA, a fourth said that if not for the Prime Minister they would not have voted for the party.
The campaign of the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi in 2019 was around the Rafale fighter aircraft deal and the campaign slogan, ‘Chowkidar chor hai’. Both seem to have had a limited impact on the voter. A high percentage of Mr. Modi’s supporters continued to view him as being honest. One of every four of those who felt that there had been wrongdoing in the Rafale deal wanted Mr. Modi back as the Prime Minister.
In December, many would have visualised it being a tougher battle for the BJP. The outcome indicates, therefore, that unlike the 2014 election, which was won by December 2013, the election of 2019 was won by the BJP mainly through what happened and how it conducted its campaign since January 2019.