April 19, 2018

BJP v. Regional Parties: A War Underway

Sitaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain,

Abhi ishq ke imtehan aur bhi hain,

Tahi zindagi se nahin ye fizayen,

Yahan saikdon karwaan aur bhi hain

-Iqbal

First of all big congratulations to the BJP are in order for a stupendous performance in the states. Apart from winning 60 seats in Assam (86 for the NDA), and ‘opening its account’ in Kerala, BJP has managed impressive gains in vote share in most of the major states that polled.

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It is said that Alexander the Great cried when he heard his astronomer Anaxarchus talk about infinite number of worlds in the Universe. One of his friends asked him what was the matter, and Alexander replied, “There are so many worlds, and I have not yet conquered even one”. The Bookkeeper believes that Narendra Modi is that Alexander whose true battle has only just begun. And the adversary in this one is the force of regional parties.

With BJP’s Congress-mukt Bharat plan proceeding as intended (Congress now reportedly controls only ~6% of India’s population), it is time for BJP’s strategists to turn their attention to the increasing threat from what are known as regional or state parties, that are growing at a rapid clip. Regional parties are generally state based and usually woven around a narrative of either Identity politics (DMK, MNS, NCP, MIM etc), or leadership legacy (AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal, Shiv Sena, RJD etc) or a quasi-regional equation (JDU, NC, PDP, TRS etc).

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It is beyond doubt that regional parties have come to enjoy considerable clout in national politics. As per some reports, regional or state parties now account for over 50% of the votes polled. Currently, these parties run governments in ten states (eleven, if the JDU/Congress-run Bihar is counted), and control over 42% of India’s population.

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Compare this with the 36% population controlled by the BJP and 6-7% controlled by the Congress. Notably, the states controlled exclusively by regional players, send 230 seats to the Lok Sabha (270 if Bihar is included) which accounts for nearly half of the total Lok Sabha seats.

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Another way to gauge the impact of participation of regional parties in electoral politics it the sharp decline in ‘margin of victory’ (sourced from a report done by the Carnegie Endowment). Margin of victory being the vote share difference between the winner and the runner-up. Margin of victory dropped from about 26% in 1977 to 9.7% in 2009. 1977 was considered a wave election when Congress lost power. If the Bookkeeper recalls correctly, the Congress lost nearly 200 seats and even Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi lost their seats. It must be noted that 2014 is also considered a wave election (Modi wave) and Congress’ losses have been even more dire. In absolute numbers, Congress lost about 160 seats and reached its lowest ever tally of 44. Its vote share dropped to just 19%, even in 1977 it had managed to retain 27% of the vote. Despite this comprehensive defeat of the main opposition party, that the average margin of victory could recover only to 15% is testament to impact of regional players.

margin of victory

It is clear to the Bookkeeper that the Congress is a spent force at this time, and the only credible threat the BJP faces is from these regional forces. It is the Bookkeeper’s view that the primary target of a regional player is the main national party of the time. This can be demonstrated in the case of Congress which up until 2010-12 was the main national party and was thus their target. The table below taken from a paper by S.Kumar of CSDS will make this clear:

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Looking at the five general elections since 1996, we see that the primary national party at that time (Congress) faced more erosion in its vote base in states where it competed with a local party, than in states where BJP was its primary opposition.

On an all India basis, in 1996 Congress had a vote share of 33.8% in BJP states* and 26.7% in local party states**. In 2009 their vote share in BJP states had actually gone up by nearly six percentage points but lost 3-4% of their vote shares where regional parties were the main opposition.

* states where BJP is the primary opposition; ** states were local/ regional/ state party is the opposition

The parochial nature of regional parties is underlined when one looks at caste electoral data. Among the Dalit votes Congress managed to hold its own against the BJP, even increasing its vote share by 2 percentage points between 1996 and 2009. But when competing with regional parties, its share of Dalit votes dropped from 31% to 23%. In fact, the only vote bank that the Congress had managed to defend successfully was the Muslim one. However, the Bookkeeper believes that this too will be under threat with religion-based parties like MIM making a national thrust. It can even be argued that the regional parties are at least as much responsible, as Narendra Modi, for the current state of the Congress.

This is not a battle that will be waged sometime in the future, but is being waged currently. It is not lost upon even the most casual observer of Indian politics that since the Modi wave of 2013-2014, the only major elections lost by the BJP are against regional players and the ones that have been won have been those against the Congress. This follows the pattern the table above revealed, i.e. the primary national party is more at threat from a regional force rather than from another national party.

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While perhaps it is only academic to describe the genesis of regional politics, it may be worthwhile to understand the reasons for its rapid growth. The biggest advantage that these parties have is that they have a very limited and well identified voter base they cater to. As such their vote gain policy is very clear, appease the one or two sections of the population they target, and win big. The second advantage that a regional party will have is a grassroots connect. Since it is a local party, it has usually risen ground-up and is able to retain a better connect with the people than the national parties and is more responsive to daily hurdles of a common man. I do not remember the last time the BJP MP from my area visited it again after victory to find out how things are progressing, or not progressing.

What makes the growth of regional parties worrying however is that they have the political convenience of being completely parochial. They do not have to think about things like the ‘big picture’ or ‘foreign policy’ when making their speeches or promises in their manifestos. So while a DMK can carry out a virulent anti-brahmin campaign, or an NCP can bat almost exclusively for ‘Marathas’, a BJP cannot (and should not) do so. Not just because of its ideology, but also because it would not be politically expedient on a national level. Also, without the worry of managing the country’s finances as a whole, regional parties are capable of being fiscally irresponsible. For example, Tamil Nadu was recently referred to as the ‘freebie capital of India’ in a March 2016 Financial Express article. That government apparently spends a staggering 56% of its own revenues on subsidies and freebies as per the same article.

A study done by the Public Policy Research Centre in 2014 looked at a slew of performance indicators for states run by BJP, Congress, Regional Parties and the Left. The Bookkeeper appends only an illustrative snapshot below of some of the data, to allow the reader to judge the intent and performance of regional players:

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It is evident that states run by regional parties are unable to provide infrastructure or curb corruption to the levels of even Congress. In terms of subsidies however, these governments are at levels nearly twice that of the BJP.

Even considering electoral politics, handling the threat of regional parties is key to sustain BJP’s position. Consider the table below:

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In 2014, BJP won a total of 282 seats, a majority on its own. But looking at it closely one can see that from the six states that send 164 seats to the Lok Sabha, BJP won a measly 7 seats. A win ratio of only about 4%. So in effect, BJP won its balance 275 seats from just 379 seats, a win ratio of 73%. The Bookkeeper believes that while the Modi wave helped BJP in achieving this, it is also true the BJP has milked whatever performance it could from these seats. E.g. BJP won 70 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, can such a performance be repeated?! By the time 2019 rolls around there will be seat loss due to incumbency and other factors. Unless BJP is able to compensate for this seat loss through the six states mentioned above, it will be difficult for Narendra Modi to continue to operate effectively, if at all. BJP should target to win at least 60 seats from this untapped 164.

It is the endeavour of the Bookkeeper to highlight to the BJP, the devastating impact a regional force can have on a national level player. BJP here has a great opportunity to learn from the missteps on the Congress to avoid a similar outcome. The Bookkeeper sees three main avenues for BJP to pursue to avoid the fate of the Congress:

1) Improve grass-roots connect of your leaders. Encourage every MLA and MP to hold Jan Sabhas to remain in touch with the people, not just your party workers. Encourage party workers to help people with daily things of need, a lost passport, an electricity bill that seems incorrect, school admissions, problems of eve-teasing, etc. This help should be offered in a structured and not a proprietary manner, so people know how to approach you for help. Right now, I believe that regional parties are doing this much better than the BJP.

2) Create state level leadership. What BJP sorely lacks in many states today, is a strong state leader. In places where BJP competed without a strong face, i.e. Delhi and Bihar, the results are for all to see. In Assam the BJP was blessed with two well-known faces, Sarabnanda and Himanta Biswas, which allowed the workers a focal point to rally around. It should be BJP’s endeavour to ensure that at the next hustings, Nitish Kumar, Jayalalitha, Mulayam Singh and other regional satraps are competing with a well regarded local face rather than the Prime Minister himself. The BJP managed this with Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, and should do the same in other states.

3) Stop depending on regional allies. Regional allies are independent parties who have their own survival and growth to think about. The Bookkeeper had alluded to this point in an earlier post and wishes to reassert the same again. Regional parties are seeing this trend of national parties being challenged by them. The ‘third front’ has now become the primary opposition in many ways and it is only a matter of time and opportunity when some of these players band together and make a play for the Prime Minister’s office. Whether they can last together is a story for another time, but in the meanwhile BJP should aggressively push into states on the base of its own cadre. Whether it is Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, it is in BJP’s interest to make an independent foray here. It is unlikely that the ‘ally’ in a state will be giving BJP a fair share of seats or even the best seats to win. The Bookkeeper has seen this happen in Maharashtra, and hopes that BJP takes a similar aggressive posture in other states as well.

In conclusion, the Bookkeeper believes the efficiency with which the BJP manages to neutralise the threat of regional parties will determine its 2019 success.

Picture Credit: News18.com


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About The Bookkeeper 14 Articles
An intrepid accountant, investment analyst, ex fund manager, jyotish student, traveler and observer. Zinda hoon zindagi ka talabgar nahin hoon, Bazaar se guzra hoon, khareedar nahi hoon.