A Crucial Social Mix That Is Drifting Away From the BJP

Barely a year after the election of the Narendra Modi government, farmers are seething with anger in North, Central and Western parts of India where the BJP had got over 90% of the Lok Sabha seats. The NDA’s mishandling of the farm economy and its over enthusiasm about pushing the amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill have not gone down well at all with the people in the northern and central states.

The BJP itself has become acutely aware of this. Newspapers have reported a meeting held last fortnight at a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh run school in Ghaziabad where 40 top officials of the Sangh and the UP unit of the BJP discussed the party’s prospects in the state assembly polls in early 2017. The meeting, which was also attended by top central party leaders in charge of UP, concluded that the BJP was in a bad shape in the state. Its image had taken a severe beating among the farmers because of the land ordinance. A more important conclusion of the gathering was that the social coalition of upper castes, OBCs and Dalits which had came together to vote for Modi in 2014 had now possibly dissipated.

This potential splintering of the new social base created by the BJP under Modi will likely be the most important political phenomenon which could occur in the Bihar state election later this year as well as in the elections to the UP Assembly in 2017. The first signs of the OBCs and Dalits moving away from the BJP’s fold came in the Delhi elections where about 40% of the voters are from Bihar and UP and belong largely to the non-upper caste sections. Till a month before the Delhi elections the BJP was confident that these sections continued to be totally loyal to Modi as they were during the general elections. That, however did not happen—their large scale support to the Aam Aadmi Party came as a shock to the BJP.

Some other early glimpses of the erosion of this social coalition which had backed Modi was seen in a recent by election to an assembly constituency in Maharjganj where the BJP came in at the third position after Samajwadi Party and Congress! In UP the BJP has lost – convincingly – most of the 12 assembly elections held in the last 9 months. The Panchayat elections in UP during October-November may give a clearer picture of this phenomenon.
The BJP-Sangh introspection as to why this coalition of the subalterns is cracking so early in the day should produce some interesting answers. The greater surprise actually lies in the swiftness with which Modi appears to be losing his sheen among these classes.

This coalition of various backward groups is important because it is their support that propelled the BJP to a whopping total of 282 seats in Parliament with just 31% of the national vote. The party’s performance in North and Central India, that includes UP and Bihar, was primarily due to the full fledged support of this coalition of dalits, backwards and upper castes.

Compare the BJP’s 282 seats with 31 % vote to the 283 seats won by the Congress in 1967 with a 40.8% vote share. This works out to about 7 seats for every 1% vote received by the party. The big wave election of 1977 saw the Janata Party sweep to power with 295 seats with 41.3% of the total votes polled. The vote to seat conversion here again works out to about 7.2 seats for every 1% vote.

The biggest wave election in India’s electoral history happened after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in November 1984. The Congress got a massive mandate of 414 seats in Parliament and bagged 48% of all votes polled. The vote share to seats conversion in this overwhelmingly one-way election was 8.7 seats for every 1 % of votes polled in favour of the Congress.

In 2014, the BJP bettered the Congress record of 1984 with vote to seat conversion ratio of 9.1 seats for every 1% vote it received.

This is what makes the BJP’s vote to seat conversion ratio most interesting. It appears that the BJP did very well on converting its votes into maximum number of seats because of the mathematical magic of the new social coalition which came together to  back Modi.  There is an inherent risk here- even a partial splintering of this social coalition could reverse this trend dramatically. The BJP could lose a disproportionately large number of seats if its vote share reduces by just a few percentage points—the BJP has very little headroom here.

In the Assembly elections to Bihar later this year and in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 if the support of the backward classes and dalits moves away from the BJP, as it seems to be happening, the BJP could lose disproportionately large number of seats relative to what the Lok Sabha patterns might suggest for the assembly poll.
If the Lok Sabha voting trends replicate in the state elections, the BJP should end up with over 85% of the seats in Bihar and UP. But this is clearly not going to happen going by the Sangh’s own conclusion that large sections of the backward classes and dalits may have moved away from the BJP. Modi may have to pull off another magic of social engineering to win them back. Modi himself realizes that the tall promises he has made to the poor are impossible to fulfill so quickly. As former BJP minister Arun Shourie put it recently,”People will not see the 5 good things done by the government but will focus on the big gap between promise and delivery”. Modi will always carry this burden.