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Is it the end of the age of alliance politics in India? Yes, for now

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In the 2014 General Election, the BJP won 282 seats with Narendra Modi as its PM candidate. This was the first occasion since 1984 that a party had secured a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own. In 1984, the Congress party had secured an unprecedented mandate when it won 415 seats under Rajiv Gandhi's leadership. This was after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated.

The BJP surprised most politics watchers once again in 2019, when it actually improved its 2014 tally by winning 303 seats in the Lok Sabha. While India seemed to have moved to a phase of alliance governments between 1984 and 2014, the last two general elections suggest a different reality now. Is the age of alliance politics over?

INC v BJP in Lok Sabha

The BJP first contested Lok Sabha elections in the year 1984. Its previous avatar, Bharatiya Jan Sangh had been merged in the Janata Party which won the 1977 General Election. If we compare the BJP’s journey between 1984 and 2019 with the journey of the Congress party in the same period, we can see a broad decline of the Congress party and the growth of the BJP. 

In the years 1996, 1998 and 1999, the BJP had more Lok Sabha MPs than the Congress party but this was not true for vote share. In fact, between 1952 and 2009, the Congress party was the single largest party in terms of vote share in all the elections, except 1977. This situation changed in 2014, when the BJP not only won a majority on its own, it also won more votes than the Congress for the first time. 

It added 93.2 million votes to its kitty in 2014 over its 2009 number. This staggering growth in votes propelled it to the majority mark. It added a further 57 million votes in 2019, taking its total to 229 million. This accounts for 37.4 per cent in vote share.

In terms of vote share, the INC and BJP comparison in 2019 seems to be a reversal of the 1991 positions. INC had 36.4 per cent of the votes in 1991 against the BJP’s 20.1 per cent. This similarity between 1991 and 2019 is not reflected in the number of seats, however. In 1991, the Congress had 244 seats while the BJP had 120 but the situation in 2019 is completely different, with the Congress nearly decimated in terms of number of seats.

Data clearly shows that 2014 marked the end of the Age of Congress and the beginning of the Age of BJP in Indian politics as the saffron party not only won more seats but also had more votes. The 2019 result confirms this shift. From being the main political party in India till 2014, the Congress has been relegated to a poor second. 

Is it the end of the road for alliance politics?

India saw eight alliance governments being formed over six general elections between 1989 and 2004. If we look at the seat and vote share data for the leading party in each election and compare it with the seats and vote share for the runner-up party, we find no patterns that can lead us to say that a particular data points to an alliance government in India. 

There are no discernible patterns in differences in seat count or vote shares between the leading and runner-up parties. 

For example, the BJP achieved a clear majority on its own in 2014 with a 31.3 per cent vote share. So, can we argue that a party getting more than 30 per cent of the votes on its own leads to a clear majority? We cannot, as the data from 1989 and 1991 says otherwise.

In the years 1996, 1998 and 1999, the BJP emerged as the single largest party but had fewer votes than the Congress. This could be explained by the decidedly smaller geographical footprint of the BJP vis-à-vis the INC (especially the saffron party’s absence in East and South India).

While it is true that the BJP has won two elections in a row with a clear mandate, it could be perhaps be explained by another factor.

The X Factor

The year 1984 was the last time India elected a government with a clear majority before giving a clear mandate to Narendra Modi in 2014. What changed between 1989 and 2014? This could be explained by the absence of a larger-than-life, charismatic leader who could convert the election into a presidential style poll.

Between, 1952 and 1980, the Congress party was led by charismatic leaders such as Jawahar Lal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and the 1984 verdict was also due to the sympathy wave after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In 1989, however, Rajiv Gandhi's personal popularity was on the decline and he faced three strong challenges in the form of V P Singh, Mandal politics and the early stages of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement.

The BJP increased its seat tally from 161 in 1996 to 182 in 1998 thanks to the X factor that was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It increased its votes by 26 million in 1998. It couldn’t however, scale the majority mark owing to a smaller geographical footprint as mentioned earlier. 

In 2014 and 2019, Narendra Modi was the undisputed charismatic figure supported by a strong party apparatus which brought a clear verdict in favour of the BJP. In a presidential style election in 2014, BJP increased its votes by 93 million (up 118 per cent). Similarly it increased its votes by 57 million (33 per cent) in 2019. Narendra Modi and BJP’s success in 2014 and 2019 can also be attributed to their mastery over caste arithmetic in different states. 

The reincarnation of the politics of charisma has trumped the politics of the alliance. For now at least. Twitter: @bhayankur



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