The political events in India during 2019 have left observers slightly confused. The year brought both good and bad news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as for many non-BJP parties.
In the Lok Sabha elections, the saffron party not only got a massive mandate, it managed to improve upon its electoral performance of 2014, winning 303 Lok Sabha seats with 37% votes. This strong performance made some believe that the party was invincible. But, soon after that, the BJP lost power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand and failed to get a majority in Haryana.
Now, these defeats once again have started discussions on whether the party is on the decline or, at a minimum, whether this is the beginning of a decline. Questions are also being asked if the protests across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would lead to a shrinking of the party’s Hindu support base.
The truth is that the verdicts at the State level do not give any indication of the BJP’s declining popularity at the national level. A recent Lokniti-CSDS survey in Jharkhand did indicate that there was a reduction in the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but that was limited to just one State — Jharkhand. It is also not clear if this decline could accelerate further or if it could be halted as the Central government might engage in some course correction in coming months. However, if the anti-CAA protests continue, they might have a negative impact, with even some favouring the CAA turning against the party.
Now, let’s put the fact in a plain and simple manner — the BJP lost power in many big States during last one year, beginning November 2018. The party is in power either alone or in an alliance with other parties only in 16 States. It has a government of its own only in Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, while it is part of the ruling coalition in nine other States. The BJP has also accepted the role of a junior partner of the coalition government in many States of North-East.
However, this alone does not suggest that the popularity of the BJP in general is falling at the national level. Take the case of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the party lost power last year. The party’s fortunes saw a turnaround just six months later as it won 62 seats of the total 65 seats in these three States in the Lok Sabha elections.
Coming to Maharashtra and Haryana, though the BJP failed to form a government, it still emerged as the single-largest party. In Jharkhand, it managed to win 33% of votes.
Still strong at the national level
These results show that the BJP, and to a greater extent Mr. Modi, still remain a popular choice for voters in the Northern and Central parts of the country. But what could be safely concluded from the somewhat contrasting pictures presented by the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections is that voters’ choices are diverging in the two scenarios. The verdicts in the last one year indicate that the BJP is no more the only choice of voters when it comes to choosing a State government. In that regard alone, Mr. Modi’s ability to pull votes for the BJP has been challenged.
The Delhi Assembly elections due in early 2020 would be a significant test of Mr. Modi’s ability to mobilise votes for the party against a popular State government. Further, the party would face another challenge when Bihar goes to poll in late 2020. Finally, the BJP’s CAA narrative would be tested when Assam and West Bengal go to the polls in mid-2021. However, at the moment, the saffron party is certainly stronger than its political opponents at the national level.
Sanjay Kumar is currently the Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal