An analysis of data from assembly elections in 30 states and union territories shows that the Congress has a wider reach in India than the BJP.
The Congress party’s rout in the recent assembly polls, except in the union territory of Puducherry where it attained a simple majority, gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) machinery an opportune moment to aggressively pursue its “Congress-free India” campaign. Right after the Assam victory, BJP president Amit Shah told the national press that the country is two steps closer to its aim of creating a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ by 2019, making the larger point that the national footprint of the Congress has diminished and that the BJP is leading this political transformation in India. His conflation of the BJP’s goal with that of the nation aside, Amit Shah gave another statement, which points to a larger political message: “After seeing the results, no one will dare to ally with the Congress. Whoever has tied up with the Congress has lost,” he said.
Read together, Shah’s statements throw considerable light on the BJP’s future political course of action. Firstly, the BJP realises that if the party has to grow further, its progress can come only at the cost of the Congress and not any other party. In the last few years, the BJP’s rank and file have sought to replace the Congress; the party has abused, vilified and trolled the Congress party and its leaders like never before.
Secondly, and more importantly, the BJP understands that for it to emerge as a pan-Indian party, like the Congress, forming tactical alliances with regional parties is the only way forward. Shah’s statements, therefore, communicated more to the regional parties than they did to the general electorate. At one level, he positioned his party as the only substitute for the Congress and, at another level he warned the regional parties about the repercussions they may have to face if they ally with the grand old party. He hinted that if the regional parties needed some kind of national traction that may be benefit them in their respective states, allying with the ruling BJP is their only option. The BJP is clearly playing the good cop-bad cop game with regional parties.
Political observers believe that the BJP’s dependence on regional parties has reflected in the party’s canvassing. Nowhere in its electoral campaign it has gone full throttle against regional parties. As an electoral ploy, its attack against state parties like the Trinamool Congress, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Telengana Rasthra Samithi, Telugu Desam Party or Biju Janata Dal has been measured and, at best, mellow.
So how dependent is the party on the regional players? And how depleted a force is the Congress after the recent assembly elections? Could Shah’s dream of a ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat‘ become a reality? A data analysis of electoral figures paints a vivid picture of some answers to these questions.
Impact of the the recent state assembly polls
Three charts illustrate how the BJP’s dream is far from reality. Undoubtedly, the BJP has made significant inroads into many of the Congress’ strongholds, with the latter experiencing a substantial dip in its vote share, but claiming that the BJP can substitute the Congress by the 2019 parliamentary elections is a rather far-fetched argument.
Both in terms of total votes polled and vote shares, the BJP is some notches below the Congress in all the four states and the union territory that went to polls recently.
Despite an improvement in vote shares, the BJP has negligible presence in all these states. One can only agree that the party is growing across India, but it is still nowhere close to the Congress. Even in Assam, where the party won 60 seats and emerged victorious, its vote share is lower than the Congress, which won only 26 seats. This signifies that the BJP was heavily dependent on its two allies, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front. The Congress fought the election alone. Together, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance did better than the Congress in Assam.
Out of 822 constituencies that went to polls in all four states and Puducherry, the Congress won 115 as opposed to the BJP’s 64. This suggests that the Congress still has a wider presence in India and the BJP may have to do a lot of hard work before it displaces the Congress from its position as India’s biggest national party.
The national picture
Despite substantial weakening, the Congress is still a bigger force than the BJP if all Indian states are taken into account. An analysis of the last assembly elections in all the 30 states and union territories shows that the BJP has polled more number of votes than the Congress. However, it is still trailing the Congress by almost seven percentage points in average vote shares. This discrepancy is because the BJP has performed better than the Congress in larger states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, etc. These states have a much bigger share of voters than southern and north-eastern states where the Congress has comprehensively outperformed the BJP.
The figures also suggest that the spread of the Congress across all the regions in India is much wider than the BJP, which is concentrated mostly in north India. Despite this, the BJP, along with its allies, is ruling in 14 states as opposed tothe Congress’ seven because of the first-past-the-post electoral system in India.
A comparative look at the vote shares of the BJP and the Congress shows this spread well enough to demonstrate how the reach of the Congress cannot be ruled out. The Congress has retained double-figure vote shares in the majority of states despite suffering erosion. It has greater presence in states where regional parties have been dominant. In comparison, the BJP is only a marginal force in such states, meaning that the BJP would desperately need regional allies to gain any foothold in them.
However, the figures also suggest that the dominant regional players will naturally be more inclined towards the Congress because of its traditional vote bank in many pockets of India. The coalition mantra, therefore, gives a definite edge to the Congress over the BJP. The Modi government’s rhetoric of co-operative federalism and its decisions to increase states’ shares in collected taxes and to drastically reduce social sector expenditure are, if viewed in this context, desperate moves to appease regional parties.
Quite understandably, Amit Shah’s message to the regional parties was disguised as both a plea and a caveat. The combined vote shares of other parties, a substantial chunk of which is claimed by regional parties, is weighty enough to compel both the national parties to keep the regional parties in mind while drawing out their political strategies before the 2019 general election. Shah is therefore leaving no stone unturned in wooing the regional parties that sway the largest number of votes in their strongholds. However, as of now, his dream of a ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’ seems distant.