Published June 9-12, 2022
BJP in 2019
In about two years, Indian voters will elect a new Lok Sabha. The past two elections have seen majorities for the BJP. What do the trends portend for the next election in light of the recent state elections in five states – of which the BJP won four, and AAP won one? Will it be a hat trick for BJP? Is there any challenger who can dent the numbers? Is the Congress done and dusted? Can a third front emerge? Or is the real Lok Sabha battle only going to take place in 2029?
I like doing election analysis. I had created an election data website, IndiaVotes, as early as 1998. I had even created an “Indian Political Stock Exchange”. Both those were when I was running IndiaWorld. After I sold the business to Sify in late 1999, my direct interest in elections data waned. It was only in 2009 that I got interested again. In 2011, I wrote a blog post suggesting a path that would get BJP to a majority in the 2014 elections. Later that year, I bought the domain IndiaVotes.com, and (re-)launched it as a website with in-depth data on all Lok Sabha elections since 1952 and all State elections since 1977. While the site probably needs a refresh, it remains one of the best sources for data and some basic analyses on Indian elections.
To look ahead to 2024, I decided to examine the 2019 Lok Sabha elections data. There were some fascinating insights that came up:
- In the Hindi states (and what I call the Hindi+ states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), BJP and its allies had a success rate of 90%: 270/304
- In the states where BJP fought directly against the Congress, BJP and its allies had a similar hit rate of 90%: 151/166
- In the states where the BJP fought directly against regional parties, it had an 85% success rate: 153/180
- BJP’s success rate dropped only when it fought in non-Hindi states against regional parties.
Here is the detailed analysis:
The 6 options I have taken above cover 523 Lok Sabha constituencies for a total of 543. (I have not included states and Union Territories with less than 4 seats; I have excluded Ladakh from J&K since it became a Union Territory with 1 seat.)
- Hindi states where the BJP and allies (referred to as BJP+) fights directly against the Congress: 117/124, a win rate of 94%
- Non-Hindi states: where the BJP+ takes on the Congress directly (Karnataka and Assam): 34/42, with a win rate of 81%
- Hindi states where the BJP takes on regional parties as the primary Opposition: 153/180, with a win rate of 85%
- Non-Hindi states where the BJP primarily fights against a regional party (West Bengal and Orissa)
- Non-Hindi states where neither the BJP nor the Congress are strong
- Non-Hindi states where the Congress is strong
In the table above, column AC classifies the state into one of the 6 options. Columns AD to AI have the total number of seats in the state. Columns AL to AQ have the total seats won by the BJP (and its allies).
The first three categories (1, 2 and 3) together comprise 346 seats, where BJP+ won 304. Of these the BJP won 262, with 44 seats being won by allies (Apna Dal 2 in UP, JDU 16 and LJP 6 in Bihar, Shiva Sena 18 in Maharashtra). A note: since the 2019 elections, LJP and Shiv Sena are no longer BJP allies.
If the BJP repeats its 2019 performance, it means that it can almost get a majority in the Lok Sabha by just focusing on the first three categories of states, which account for just over 60% of the seats. The rest of India with nearly 200 seats does not matter much.
Another interesting factoid: BJP won 230 of its 303 seats in Lok Sabha with a voteshare of greater than 50%.
The key takeaway from the 2019 analysis is this: If the BJP (or its ally) fought in a Hindi state or directly against the Congress, the win rate was 85-94%. This kind of electoral dominance is unprecedented in Indian politics. States like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Punjab just did not matter in the eventual outcome.
What this means is that for an alternative to the BJP, a new party needs to dent their fortress in Hindi states or where it is a direct BJP-Congress fight. This is the challenge that India’s Opposition faces in 2024.
So, the two questions to ask are: What is the risk the BJP has in 2024? What can the Opposition do? A third question we will cover later is on the possibility of a startup challenge in 2024.
Before we take up these questions, there is one more useful analysis that can help. This is about the BJP’s vote share as a percentage of population.
In the table above, column C shows the total number of seats in a state, while column E shows the seats won by BJP (and its 2019 allies). Column F shows the BJP+ vote share, column G shows the turnout, and column H derives the BJP vote share as a percentage of population.
To simplify: in the states where the BJP wins big, it typically gets 50-60% vote share and turnout is 60-70%, thus giving it a 30-40% share of the total voting base. This is a remarkably dominant position. But it also means that 60-70% of the electors are not voting for the BJP: they are either not voting or voting for an alternative. In other words, for every one person among the eligible voter base supporting the BJP, one is not voting and one is supporting someone else.
BJP’s 30-40% voting base as a percentage of population comprises two constituents: the core BJP base (I estimate this to be 20-30%), and the floating vote (about 10% additional). This non-aligned floater votes on the basis of the hawa, and thus it becomes very important to create the feeling that the BJP is winning because many of these voters like to go with the flow and vote for the winning party rather than waste their vote.
A better view of the electorate in the BJP strongholds can be seen as thus:
- Core BJP base (who will vote and only vote for the BJP Lotus symbol; the candidate is irrelevant): 25%
- Core non-BJP base: 15%
- Non-voters (NV): 30%
- Non-aligned voters (NA): 30%, of which
- Floaters who will typically vote for the winning party: 15%
- Wasters who will vote for small parties or Independents with no hope of winning: 15%
In short, BJP 25%, Opposition 15%, NANVs 60% (split equally between NA and NV).
If 65-70% of the electors are voting, a party/candidate will need 40-45% of those voting to be certain of victory. So, for the BJP, its core base combined with the floaters can put it on a path to victory. That is why creating the feeling that the BJP is the inevitable winner is very important to ensure a high success rate in its strong states. The path to victory is narrow. It needs to win 250+ in the 350-odd seats in these states. Even as the party is working to expand its footprint nationally, converting vote share to seats will take time.
So, the game plan for the BJP is straightforward:
- Turnout the core base
- Persuade the floaters
- Maximise divisions among the non-BJP vote to lower the bar for victory
The first two require a good ground game to get the vote out and an air game to create the feeling that the BJP is the only party that is likely to win. Much of the focus in an election is focused on the air game, but a good ground operation is also important. The BJP tends to do much better than the other parties on both counts.
For the non-BJP parties, the challenge is much bigger. The Congress is not seen as a viable challenger. So even as it has a (diminishing) core base, that is not good enough to take it past the post to win. Any alternative to the Congress (as the AAP is attempting to do) will take time to emerge. In fact, it is possible in the near-term that the Congress and AAP both fight for the non-BJP vote and make the task of the BJP even easier.
For regional parties who have relied largely on caste calculus, it is not going to be easy. The SP has probably maxed out on what it can get in Uttar Pradesh, and unless the BSP vote swings towards it, winning enough seats to dent the BJP will not be easy. At this point, the regional parties remain perhaps the only formidable challenge for the BJP unless something dramatically changes in the mass perception towards the Congress. The best hope is still the 1:1 strategy – where the BJP is made to fight a single united Opposition candidate to ensure the non-BJP vote is not divided. This can make BJP’s task a bit harder, and if there is general distress, there could be an anti-BJP vote. But given the politics of faith and fear, and very little correlation between economic sentiment and voting behaviour, it is BJP’s game to lose.
Taken together, it does look like 2024 can be another walkover for the BJP. Which brings us to the third question. Is there any other possibility for a challenge to the BJP?
The opening against the BJP comes from the 60% NANVs (non-aligned and non-voters). Remember that the BJP core base is 25% while the non-BJP core is 15%. Of the rest, 30% are not voting and 30% are split between floaters and wasters. If half of the 60% NANVs unite, it could pose a challenge to the BJP. Of course, this has never happened before in Indian politics, so what follows is simply an intellectual exercise about what is possible but perhaps not probable. (I have written about these ideas in my writings about Nayi Disha and United Voters of India previously.)
The starting point has to be focused on the non-voters. Very little has been discussed about why people don’t vote, and what would make them vote. Of the 30% non-voters, my belief is that about 5-10% (a sixth to a third of the non-voters) do not exist; there are errors in the electoral rolls which have not been corrected. That still leaves a substantial 20-25% of the eligible voter base as consciously deciding not to vote. The question to ask is: what will persuade them to vote?
Another group not discussed is those in the 18-24 age category who have not registered to vote. This would be about 6-7% of the population. If they can be persuaded to register, the non-voters tally goes back to 30% or so.
So, the first two tasks for any challenger have to be:
- Identify the non-voters and persuade them to turnout
- Identify the non-registered young voters (who will vote for the first-time) and get them to vote
This aggregate is large enough to match the BJP core base, assuming all of them can be united and persuaded to vote as one. That then leaves the non-aligned voters. Wasters need to be persuaded that their vote can be more effective if they vote for this united coalition – because they are obviously not convinced by the BJP or the other parties. And the floaters will probably follow once they see that this new vote bank has the requisite strength to win since they are keen to be on the winning side.
So, numerically, it is possible. Can it be done in reality? I think a combination of a new political platform (not a party) organised as a bottom-up movement, the use of digital to spread the message and get the registrations, and a message around a better economic future (Nayi Disha’s economic agenda with Dhan Vapasi at its core) could perhaps be a people’s alternative in 2024. If there can be money without a bank (Bitcoin), can there be a Lok Sabha without the politicians and their parties? This is the startup opportunity for political entrepreneurs who seek a different future for India – one based on limited government, economic freedom, prosperity and an open society, rather than big government, extreme welfarism, perpetual poverty and social divisions.