(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
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
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
other major state. Its vote share fell from less than one percentage
point in Punjab,
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
Thirdly, the BJP attracted new
social groups during
its phase of expansion. It expanded from urban to the rural areas. From
an upper caste party, it cultivated a major base among the lower OBCs.
major strides towards capturing the adivasi vote in middle
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)