People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 21

May 31, 2009

 


Portrait Of A Party In Retreat

 

ALTHOUGH the Bharatiya Janata Party did not start this election as the favourite, the scale of its defeat must still come as a shock. It posted its lowest vote share since it first exploded on the national stage in 1989. It won just 116 seats, down from 138 seats it had last time. Its vote share of 18.8 per cent was 3.4 percentage points down on 2004. This is the third successive election that its support base has shrunk since the high watermark of 1998.

 

While the Congress did not enjoy a positive vote swing all over the country, the BJP suffered a negative swing in nearly every state. Despite picking up the odd seat in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh thanks to an increased share of the vote, the party saw its support base shrink in every other major state. Its vote share fell from less than one percentage point in Punjab, Bihar and Kerala to a whopping 12.4 percentage points in Rajasthan. It shrunk in places where it had previously been strong and also in places where it was weak. This did not always translate into a loss of seats; in Bihar and Jharkhand, it was able to pick up an extra seven seats apiece. But these were rare success stories. The party managed to defend its seats in Karnataka, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh though even this came at the expense of a loss in votes. In U.P., the BJP on its own has been relegated to the fourth place behind the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress.

 

A retreat of this scale cannot be explained by the kind of factors the popular media attributes it to. Yes, the BJP did make some mistakes during the campaign — attacking a prime minister with a clean image, bringing up Narendra Modi’s name half-way through the campaign, supporting Varun Gandhi, and so on. But the BJP was not the only party making such mistakes. On balance, the BJP’s selection of candidates and campaign strategy was, as always, a shade better than that of the Congress. A defeat of this kind challenges the idea that this election was lost during the campaign.

 

The BJP needs to reflect not so much on the election campaign and strategies as on its overall political direction. The BJP’s rise to power through the 1990s involved three kinds of expansions, all of which faced a reversal this time. First of all, it involved extending the party’s support base to new states. The big strides that the party made in the South and the East in the early 1990s soon came to a point of stagnation, much before the party could cross the threshold of viability.

 

This election marks a point of retreat in this project. The BJP is no longer the small but crucial player that it used to be in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Despite paying a good deal of attention and adopting unorthodox tricks, the BJP is in retreat all over the North-East. Secondly, the BJP expanded its bandwidth on the political spectrum by acquiring new allies. The NDA of 1999-2004 represented the pinnacle of the BJP’s political expansion. Since then it has been downhill for the party. From the peak of 41.1 per cent share of the national vote, the NDA slipped to 35.9 per cent in 2004 and has fallen to just 24.1 per cent this time. Big allies such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party, the Trinamool Congress have dumped the BJP, because they found the cost of losing minority votes higher than the gains the alliance brought. This time the BJP did win back some old allies like the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam and the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana, but it is possible that they may reach similar conclusions. The manner in which the Biju Janata Dal dumped the BJP and got away with it could give ideas to the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. As the BJP’s own strength declines, and its capacity to accommodate diverse interests decreases, it becomes less attractive to existing and potential alliance partners.

 

Thirdly, the BJP attracted new social groups during its phase of expansion. It expanded from urban to the rural areas. From being an upper caste party, it cultivated a major base among the lower OBCs. It took major strides towards capturing the adivasi vote in middle India and started securing some votes among non-Hindus. By 1999, the BJP was in a position to claim power by adding these newly acquired votes to its core bloc of the socially privileged.

 

This election represents a stagnation or reversal in all these respects. Except Karnataka, the BJP does not appear to be cultivating a new social base anywhere. In this election, the BJP’s hitherto upward trend among adivasis and Muslim voters has been reversed and its expansion among the lower OBCs halted. The BJP faces a threat in its core constituency too. Though it continues to be the first preference of upper caste Indians, the only social group where the BJP is ahead of the Congress, the party has faced a sharper than average erosion in this group.

 

The BJP trailed the Congress among ‘middle class’ urban voters. All this confirms the picture of a party in retreat.  These three reversals underline the basic limitations of the political strategy the BJP has been employing. It is a party with a smaller catchment area, a declining capacity to reach out to newer groups, and a lower ‘coalitionability.’ It takes an exceptional situation such as Kargil, an extraordinarily accommodative leadership  as that of A B Vajpayee, and an extra large coalition such as the NDA of 1999 to carve out a victory from this base. Otherwise, it faces a permanent disadvantage. Perhaps it is time for the party to ask the big question: aren’t these limitations related to the narrow and divisive approach the party has espoused? The BJP is still the largest opposition party, runs many state governments (and reasonably well by the prevailing standards), and contains a second rung leadership. It is in a position to ask the big question that it needs to.

 

(From the special supplement How India Voted 2009, published in The Hindu, May 26, 2009)