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Decoding the Indian Elections

As the world’s largest democratic exercise draws to a close, analysts from India and across the world are trying to figure out the reasons behind the BJP’s remarkable victory. Some have suggested a wave of nationalism following the Balakot airstrike, while others point to the image of Modi as a strong and decisive leader. I argue that it would be difficult to single out one issue as the primary reason for the BJP’s victory. Rather, it is a combination of multiple factors ranging from nationalism, the image of Modi, the opposition (or the lack of it!) and a general change in the way Indians vote among several other factors. The key to making sense of the election results lies in taking into account multiple factors that worked in the BJP’s favor.

The Opposition to the BJP

One look at the vote count from 2014 and 2019 paint a telling picture about the state of the opposition. In 2014, the single largest party, the BJP, had 282 seats. The second largest party was Congress, with 44 seats, a gap of 238 seats between the largest and second largest party. The story is similar in 2019. As of 24th May, the BJP has won or is leading in 302 seats. Congress has won or is leading in 52. The gap between the largest and second largest party is 250, 14 more than the last elections.

These numbers clearly demonstrate that no opposition party is in a position to challenge the BJP. After the 2014 elections, multiple opposition parties like the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh and Congress and JDS in Karnataka formed alliances to take on the BJP jointly. The challenge was that all these alliances had only one agenda, to defeat the BJP. Apart from this one point goal, there was no ideological foundation holding the opposition alliance together. A campaign, devoid of any ideological depth or long-term vision, faced a near-impossible task of taking on the BJP.

Modi’s Image

Campaigning for the 2014 National Elections, Modi positioned himself as a strong and decisive leader, with a vision for economic development. While the economic development aspect of the narrative may have been missing in 2019, the image of Modi as a strong and decisive leader was very much present. After Indira Gandhi, Modi is one of the few leaders who has built a pan-India larger than life image. This strongman image attained greater significance when faced with a divided opposition lacking an ideological vision.

The BJP’s Election Machinery and Regional Political Parties

A close look at the state-wise results paints a telling story. The states where there was strong opposition to the BJP were; West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Punjab. In 5 out of the 7 of these states, regional political parties give a strong challenge to the BJP. Be it the TMC in West Bengal, the YSRC in Andhra Pradesh, TRS in Telangana, DMK in Tamil Nadu or the BJD in Odisha. Regional parties, therefore, are better placed to challenge the BJP when compared to Congress. Therefore, Congress’ failure to forge alliances with regional political parties in UP, West Bengal and Odisha cost them dearly. In Tamil Nadu, they partnered with the DMK, which allowed them to pick up a few seats in that state.

Alongside the failure to forge meaningful alliances with regional parties, Congress was up against the BJP’s formidable election machinery. The BJP probably has one of the best electoral machines in India. Along with a strong contingent of volunteers at the local level and a clearly defined chain of command, the BJP’s election machinery made extensive use of social media. This enabled them to connect to millennials and first-time voters. It isn’t a surprise that several surveys have found strong support for Modi amongst voters between 18 and 35.

The Changing Nature of the Indian Voter

These elections are also a reflection of the changing nature of the Indian voter. Despite the presence of the BJP’s muscular Hindu Nationalism, regional issues tend to hold greater traction amongst voters. The BJP’s own campaign, for example, focused on various issues that were region specific. In West Bengal and Assam, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was central to the political discourse. The issue of a ban on cow slaughter, which forms an important part of the BJP’s ideological narrative was given little mention in its campaigns in the North Eastern states. This is because beef is an important part of the people’s diet in these regions.

In states like West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, it was regional political parties that provided a tough fight. In Punjab and Kerala, two states where Congress did well, it’s regional leaders were empowered to run the campaign. Therefore, despite the nature of the BJP’s victory, the Indian voter tends to vote based on regional issues. In states where there were viable regional alternatives, the BJP faced a tough fight.

As the dust settles, it is apparent that we cannot single out one factor as the reason behind the BJP’s victory. It is apparent that it was a combination of various factors ranging from the fractured state of the opposition, Modi’s personal image, the BJP’s election machinery and the changing nature of the Indian voter. Moving forward, any opposition to the BJP in the coming years will need to tune their discourse to the various regional narratives. Taking on Congress’ own experience in Punjab and Kerala, empowering regional leaders will prove to be a decisive factor. It is in the best interest of any democracy to have a strong opposition. Looking ahead to the 2024 elections, it would be interesting to see if Congress is able to reinvent itself and form meaningful alliances with regional parties. This would hold the key to taking on the BJP