Previously, in these spaces, we discussed the thumping victory that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured in the recent General Elections. We had noted that the BJP significantly enhanced its reach in India, signaling the continued advance of BJP’s ‘saffronization’ of India. As things stand at the moment, it appears that, going forward, the BJP is poised to continue its expansion. Now, we will attempt to draw a map of the next frontiers that the BJP’s will look to surmount as it seeks to expand its influence.
We will note, as we move forward, that the BJP has broken new ground for itself, winning not only a larger number of seats, but also securing important footholds in previously BJP-free states. In yet other states, the BJP has dramatically increased its seats share, often at the expense of the Indian National Congress (heretofore, theCongress), smaller regional parties and, at times, its own allies.
Even so, expansion of influence alone does not account for the BJP’s fortunes. In some cases, the current dominance of the BJP actually rests on shifting ground. In yet others, the BJP’s influence has reduced or is hinged onto fickle allies.
In the current article, therefore, we will look at the states where the BJP’s hold is comparatively fragile. These will be treated as ‘swing states’. In our next article, we will look at states where BJP’s main national-level rival, the Congress, and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA), have actually gained ground (and they have!), thus presenting important stumbling blocks to the BJP’s advance in India. These will be treated as ‘contested states’. Finally, in the third article, we will map the states where the BJP has relatively smaller or fresh footholds, or has no presence at all, marking regions where the BJP will look to expand in the future. These will be treated as ‘frontier states’.
Before we move forward, one will do well to take a good look at a map of India to orient oneself. Next, one should also quickly review such a map of India tas represents results of the 2019 General Election. For now, in general, and as a simple rule, one should know that the BJP rules the ‘core’ of India. Opposition and non-BJP hold-outs are clustered around the ‘fringes’ of India – in the west in Punjab; in the south and south-east in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh; in Telangana and Odisha in central India; in West Bengal in the east; and, generally in the far northeast. Finally, one should mentally prepare oneself to digest a heady mix of party and politician names that comprise the diverse complexity of Indian politics.
At around 220 million, the population of Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone dwarfs that of Pakistan. The state sends 80 legislators to the Lok Sabha, making it the largest contributor to the parliament – which, in turn, makes UP a crucial state to watch. In more recent times, the state has been dominated by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Both of these parties have built their political fortunes on caste-based politics, with Mayawati championing rights of the lower castes and scheduled tribes in particular. Of these, the larger Samajwadi Party won a landslide victory in the state assembly elections as recently as in 2012.
Be that as it may, in the present decade, the BJP has been gaining ground in UP. A turning point came in 2014, when a Narendra Modi-led BJP stole 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats. It cemented its victory in 2017, when the BJP tore into the votebank of the SP and BSP, scooping up 325 seats of 403 in the state assembly. Interestingly in 2019 General Election, the above trend seemed to reverse marginally. The BJP won 62 of 80 Lok Sabhaseats. This is actually a reduction of 9 seats since 2014.
Generally speaking, Uttar Pradesh is shifting ground for the BJP. From its perspective, the BJP needs to stabilize the UP front, consolidate its hold in the state and claw back the seats it lost. However, its main opposition in the SP and the BSP banded together in the 2019 General Election and pushed back against the BJP. Between the two of them, they won 15 Lok Sabha seats. Overall, the performance remains a far cry from one that could upturn the BJP hold. In run up the elections, proponents were predicting the alliance to win close to 60 seats! In itself, performance of both parties, taken together or individually, is a weak shadow of their erstwhile dominance of the state politics.
Yet, if you sift through the numbers, you will see that the two parties polled more than 37% of the UP vote. This means that these two remain potent players in the UP electoral game. The caste, tribal and religious minorities (including Muslims) that both parties claim to represent comprise more than 40% of the UP population. Both parties need to reinvent their politics and rethink their strategies to remain relevant, if not make a comeback. The next state election is due in 2022 and should be watched with interest. Big reversals may portend a general reversal of the BJP’s fortunes in the state. The BJP needs to stall exactly this whereas its opponents need to ensure the same. For now Uttar Pradesh remains under a BJP stranglehold, but one that may be broken. Will the 2022 state election be the opposition’s Waterloo, or the BJP’s Stalingrad, remains to be seen.
The BJP has often been viewed as a ‘North Indian’ or ‘Hindi-belt’ party. Indeed, the BJP has striven to break into central, southern and northeastern India. Now, its most spectacular victory in the South has come in the 2019 General Election. Of the 28 seats Lok Sabhaseats up for grabs in Karnataka, the BJP won a staggering 25. This is, in fact, not the first time the BJP has won a majority of Lok Sabhaseats in Karnataka.
However, what does make Karnataka a swing state is its state-level politics. Karnataka has, historically, given hung assemblies at the state level. Its most recent state elections were held in 2018. In these elections, the BJP emerged as the largest party with 104 seats in a house of 224 – but lacked a majority. It should have formed the state government except for a brilliant political coup staged by the Congress. With 82 seats in the assembly, the Congress maneuvered smartly, allying with Deve Gowda’s 37 seat-winning Janata Dal (Secular), to crown its own government.
What the above tells you is that Karnataka has the potential to proffer surprises, including political upsets. Several important players remain in play in the state, creating room for the anti-BJP parties to push back harder, including by banding together. In addition, it offers an opportunity to other parties to attempt to roll-back the BJP’s influence by out-performing them.
At the same time, the large numbers in the state assembly offers the BJP opportunity to stymie Congress-Janata governance and mobilize anti-incumbency vote. All in all, Karnataka remains in play and will form an interesting battleground to watch.
Bihar is, actually, a very interesting story. The state has been ruled generally by two regional parties, one led by the famous Lalu Prasad Yadav and the other by Nitish Kumar. The former has been allied with the Congress and the latter with the BJP. Whereas, Yadav held sway from 1990 to 2004, Nitish Kumar, and his BJP allies, have ruled since.
Of the 40 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs, the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar won 16 seats in 2019, up from just two in 2014. The BJP won 17 seats, just one more than the Janata Dal, recording a reduction of five seats since 2014. Herein lies the Bihari conundrum. Even though the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won in Bihar, the BJP’s own share in Bihar’s Lok Sabha pool has shrunk.
Now, we should note that the BJP and the Janata Dal share a love-hate relationship overall.The latter has been in and out of the NDA, and has, in the past, even formed alliances to fight against the BJP. Indeed, the most recent state elections held in 2015 saw the Janata Dal form an alliance with the Congress and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, and defeat BJP-led NDA by a margin of 120 seats.
Thus, Bihar remains a critical state-in-play for the BJP. It must seek to regain its share in Bihar, while at the same time playing a delicate act to keep the Janata Dal (United) within its orbit. The opposition, meanwhile, should hope to push back, targeting the upcoming 2020 state elections. In this, it can mobilize the anti-incumbency vote, attack NDA performance and try to forge a united front against the same. The Bihari conundrum may get resolve, one way or another, in about a year’s time. Let’s watch closely.
In our next article, we will look at some states that remain far more divided than the above, and that will, naturally, pose tougher challenges to the BJP.