How did the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power in 2014? In this article, we show there was a clear mandate in favour of the BJP. The more important question is what led to such a massive support. In the second part of the article, we show that there was a large ‘Modi effect’ that propelled the BJP to victory. The party’s victory was also built on an unprecedented coalition of social groups, the upper castes, OBCs, and tribals with many Dalits supporting it as well. With this singular victory, the BJP has clearly replaced the Congress as the system-defining party. The BJP, not the Congress, is likely to become the focal point of electoral alignment and re-alignment in the coming elections.
The verdict in 2014 has clearly made the BJP a national party with significant presence in almost all parts of the country. The party virtually swept the polls in its traditional strongholds of northern, western and central India. More notably, it made significant advances in many parts of the country that were not the party’s traditional bastion. Without the support of any ally, the BJP won a large chunk of votes in Jammu and Kashmir (36.4 per cent), West Bengal (16.8 per cent), Assam (36.5 per cent), Manipur (11.9 per cent), Arunachal Pradesh (46.1 per cent), and Orissa (21.5 per cent). In Andhra Pradesh (Telangana and Seemandhra) and Tamil Nadu, the BJP has made important inroads with the help of alliance partners.
The BJP’s single-handed majority in the Lok Sabha is noteworthy for two reasons. First, no party has achieved this feat after 1984. Second, no party has received more than 30 per cent of the total votes after the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. Since the fragmentation of party system in the 1990s, even a small plurality of votes has been sufficient to obtain large majorities in the number of seats held by a party. For example, in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won a majority in 2007 with just 30 per cent vote share and the Samajwadi Party (SP) won a majority in 2012 with just 29 per cent of the votes.
A more careful look at the data shows the remarkable nature of the BJP’s victory. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP contested only 428 seats. The party won more than 50 per cent votes in 137 seats, and in another 132 seats it won more than 40 per cent votes. This is very unusual and unexpected given India’s recent electoral history. The data presented in table 1 indicates how big the BJP’s victory was. The average victory margin during the 2009 elections was 9.2 percentage points. In 2014, the average victory margin increased to 15 percentage points largely because many voters turned to the BJP. In many constituencies, the BJP-led NDA’s vote share was greater than the vote shares of the first and second runner-ups combined.
The BJP won more than 50 per cent of the total votes in States which have a two-party competition system (such as Himachal, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Chhattisgarh). In many States with multi-party competition, the BJP-led coalition was far ahead of its nearest rivals. For example, in Uttar Pradesh the BJP-Apna Dal coalition won more votes than the combined vote shares of the SP and the BSP. Similarly, the NDA coalition won more than 50 per cent of votes in Maharashtra. In Delhi, BJP’s vote share is only marginally lower than the combined vote share of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In Bihar, it would take the combined votes of the entire political spectrum the JD (U), the Congress, and the RJD, to get past the NDA’s vote share.
The aggregate election returns suggest quite clearly that the BJP won a mandate and this mandate cannot be attributed solely to the Congress voters shifting their vote to the BJP.
Who voted for BJP?
Why did voters gravitate to the BJP? There are two interrelated reasons for the electoral success of the BJP. The first, and the most commented upon reason is Narendra Modi. Survey data shows that most citizens preferred Mr. Modi as Prime Minister. Except in Kerala, Mr. Modi led his nearest rival Rahul Gandhi by a huge margin when voters were asked whom they preferred as Prime Minister. Mr. Modi was preferred by more citizens than those who wanted Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Manmohan Singh as prime minister put together
We use a statistical model to assess the influence of various factors that led citizens to vote for the NDA. The result reported in Figure 1 is the difference in the probability of voting for the NDA between the most likely and least likely category of each variable (except the caste-community). To determine the influence of ‘the Modi factor’, respondents were asked whether they give importance to local candidates, State-level leadership, or the PM candidate while voting. The results reported in Figure 1 show that the probability of those who gave importance to the PM candidate while exercising their franchise are twice more likely to vote for the NDA compared to those who valued local or State-level leadership. Respondents were also asked if they would have voted any differently had Mr. Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate of the NDA. One in every four respondents who voted for the NDA said they would not have voted for the coalition had Mr. Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate. And the odds of this were higher in States like Assam, Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Karnataka. It is Modi, not the BJP that won this election.
Social barriers fall
Second, the BJP appears to have broken social barriers just enough to make it victorious. So far the party has been associated with urban dwellers, upper castes, middle classes and the educated. As in the past, the BJP did win a larger percentage of votes and seats in predominantly urban constituencies. However, its success in semi-urban and rural constituencies is extraordinary.
In addition, the BJP not only held on to its social base but managed to attract a large number of voters from other communities. There was an unparalleled consolidation of upper castes and middle classes behind the BJP. A large number of non-traditional BJP voters such as Scheduled Tribes and the poor have voted for the party this time. Nationally, the BJP leads the Congress among both Adivasi and Dalit voters by a wide margin.
Furthermore, NES pre- poll data suggests that the high-level of dissatisfaction with the UPA government and the popularity of Mr. Modi drew new voters to the NDA. Thus, first-time voters, urban, educated, with high media exposure, upper caste, and economically well off were more likely to vote for the NDA. The biggest effect, however, remains associated with caste. It is the upper castes, the OBCs, and the tribals who together propelled the BJP to victory. This is an unprecedented alliance of social groups and is a winning coalition under any circumstances. The only parties who managed to stand up to the BJP wave in this election — the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Biju Janta Dal in Odisha, and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu — managed to retain a large chunk of the upper castes and OBC votes.
How did the BJP build this winning coalition? It is certainly not a vote for economic liberalisation. Figure 1 makes it clear there is little support among voters of the BJP for economic liberalisation. In our view the upper castes, OBCs, and tribals voted for the BJP in large numbers because of the policy failures of the UPA including the politics of handouts that seem to have run their course.
As the governing party, the BJP is likely to gravitate towards ideological centre. This is likely to add to the woes of regional parties and the Congress who compete for a share among the Dalits, Muslims, and upper OBCs (like Yadavs and Kurmis in north India, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, Nairs in Kerala, Maratha-Kunbi in Maharashtra). Due to the shrinkage in their voter base, these parties will find it hard to compete against the formidable social coalition that the BJP has stitched together.
The challenge for the BJP would be to make sure that it continues to expand geographically, give the party an identity separate from Mr. Modi, deliver on the promises closely tied to him and to keep its winning coalition together.
(Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma are with Lokniti-CSDS, and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, U.S.)