DisFact #27: The return of Modi, in numbers (Part 1)

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This is the first of a multi-part series analysing the 2019 Indian election. In today’s issue, I focus on the final results: what happened?

Verdict 2019, explained

Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi decisively won a second term with full majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. 

The BJP won 303 of the total 542 seats that went to polls, improving its 2014 tally of 282 seats. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 351 seats. The victory is historic: for the first time in nearly half a century, the same leader has won consecutive majorities as Prime Minister. 

Here are nine key points:

1. Record vote share jump for the BJP

BJP’s vote share increased from around 31% in 2014 to 37% in 2019, a 6% point swing. This is significant: in the history of Indian elections, no incumbent government had increased its vote share at this scale

This huge jump in BJP’s vote share also led to a decline in vote share of non-BJP non-Congress parties. Their share in total votes dropped to 43%, the lowest since the 1984 election. 

Why it matters: Since 1989 to 2014, India saw coalition governments at the Centre, coinciding with the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP. The trend hinted that single-party dominance — like the Congress enjoyed post-Independence—is over and regional governments may play a pivotal role in forming government at the Centre. BJP’s two consecutive majority victories go against that trend: BJP has firmly established itself as the focal point of the Indian political landscape.

Bigger margins: Not only did BJP win more seats, but it also won them by bigger margins. BJP’s median margin of victory jumped from 16% in 2014 to 20% in 2019. 

2. BJP: India's new national hegemon

Barring South India, BJP won more than 60% of the seats in every part of the country, effectively sweeping its strongholds in the North and the West, continuing its rise in the North East, and making inroads in the East, especially West Bengal and Odisha. Here is the region-wise breakup:

3. Saffron party’s eastward expansion

Odisha and West Bengal were the most looked after states in the pre-election analysis: BJP’s gains in the two states, it was expected, would offset losses in other regions, especially in the Hindi heartland. 

That indeed happened: the saffron party significantly increased its seat share and vote share in both states. 

West Bengal: The BJP won 18 of the 42 seats in West Bengal, up from just 2 in 2014. The rise of the BJP, a right-wing party, ironically, comes at the expense of the left parties, which were decimated in this election. BJP is now the principal challenger to the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress in the state. 

Odisha: BJP won 8 of the 21 seats, up from just 1 in 2014, and has replaced Congress as the main opposition party to the Naveen Patnaik led Biju Janata Dal.

4. The decline of the Congress party

Congress increased its total tally from 44 to 52, but that doesn’t capture how bad 2019 turned out for the grand old party. Three points, from my India Today piece:

  • Congress in competition: “In 2019, the Congress was in a competing position — either winner or runner up — in 262 seats, six down compared to 268 in 2014 and 350 in 2009.”

  • Margin of victory: “In the 52 seats the Congress won in 2019, the median margin of victory was 8.6 per cent, five percentage points lower than the 13.6 per cent for the 44 seats in 2014.”

  • BJP-Congress head-on: “Look at the seats where the BJP and Congress fought head-on. In 2014, both the national parties were in a direct fight — in position one or two — in 189 seats: BJP won 166 of those seats, a strike rate of 88 per cent. In 2019, there were 192 such seats, and the BJP won 176, that is 92 per cent of the seats, meaning BJP further improved its performance in a head-on contest with the Congress party.”

5. State assembly election results didn't matter

2018 was not a particularly good year for the BJP. In December 2018, the BJP lost assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The momentum picked up by the Congress party was expected to hurt the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha election. That did not happen. BJP won 61 of the 65 seats in the three states. 

How did the situation change in just five months? The most plausible explanation is that people voted differently in state and national elections. Local factors and state-level anti-incumbency did not matter as much in the Lok Sabha election. And 2019 was primarily a referendum for Mr Modi—not local MPs. 

6. The social base of the BJP is getting transformed

BJP is no more a Brahmin-Baniya party, nor is its popularity limited to urban pockets, nor to the rich. 

Data from the India Today-My Axis India post poll study shows that the BJP got support across demographic cuts. Here is the caste-wise voting breakup:

Rural/Urban: 49% of urban respondents voted for the BJP as compared to 44% respondents in rural areas. In fact, BJP’s greatest gains and highest margins of victory came in the most rural regions, according to an analysis by political scientist Neelanjan Sircar published in the Hindustan Times

Income: Breaking down voting preference by family income doesn’t show much difference. Rich or poor, it didn’t matter: voting preference did not change with income classes, meaning BJP is no more a party that gets the bulk of the support from the rich.

Explore more: If you want to dive deeper into voting patterns by demographic cuts, play with the interactive graphic I made using India Today-My Axis India post-poll study. For 20 major states, the study provides a detailed breakdown of voting preferences across seven key demographic parameters: gender, geography, family income, education, occupation, community/caste and age. Click here.

7. Religious polarisation?

Many are claiming that the resounding verdict is proof that religious minorities voted heavily for the BJP. That is not true. Look at the previous chart: Only 10% Muslims voted for the BJP in 2019, according to India Today-Axis My India data—not much of a change from previous elections. 

Data from CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey reports similar figures, and authors of the study argue that the “2019 verdict is a manifestation of the deepening religious divide in India”:

If the Hindus were on one side, the minorities were clearly on the other, indicating a deeply polarised verdict. Only 8% of Muslim voters nationally ended up voting for the BJP, the same as last time. Christians and Sikhs too largely kept away from the BJP. Among Christians, 11% voted for the party. Among Sikhs, the number was the same (the Akali Dal, the BJP’s ally, got 20%).

This lack of enthusiasm for the BJP among the minority communities is also evident in the party not being able to perform too well in minority-concentrated States like Kerala, Punjab and Goa. (The Hindu)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that religious polarisation was the core reason behind BJP’s massive victory (more on that in the next issue).

8. Was there a Modi factor?

Yes—very much.

  • Vote for Modi: According to post-poll data from Lokniti-CSDS, 32% of BJP voters and 25% of BJP’s NDA allies voters said that their voting preference would have changed if Modi was not the prime ministerial candidate. That basically means: Modi won 2019. Other BJP MPs tagged along.

  • PM candidate or Local MP? Data from the India Today-My Axis India post-poll study shows that for 37% of the voters, the Prime Ministerial candidate was the most important factor while casting their vote, while 25% voted on the basis of the local candidate — indicating the Presidential nature of the contest. I don’t have historical data to check how this compares with 2014 figures. 

  • Rahul vs Modi: Wide gap in popularity of the two leaders. 53% wanted Modi to be the next Prime Minister and 28% wanted Rahul Gandhi, according to India Today-My Axis India polling data. Here is the state-wise breakup:

Political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta highlight this point in an op-ed for The Print:

It is important to note that PM Modi’s personal popularity remained high even during the learner period of 2018, with a high possibility of the 2019 elections becoming plebiscitary in nature. The opposition offered no alternative vision, no message of hope, no consistent line of attack on the Modi government, and no new credible promise. This sharpened the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor and the reports from the ground were unequivocal about “Modi ke alawa kaun hai (who other than Modi)”. During our limited fieldwork, it became evident that it is not the BJP but PM Narendra Modi who is contesting the election on behalf of his party.

9. Indictment against democratic dynasticism? No: dynasty is not dead.

“While prominent dynasts of the Congress party and other regional parties have bitten the dust — including of course Rahul Gandhi himself in his fiefdom of Amethi — the dynastic factor has not been absent in this election at all. If anything, the phenomenon has increased,” political scientists Gilles Verniers and Christophe Jaffrelot wrote in the Indian Express.

Who is a dynast: “any candidate or MP having a relative who in the past or in the present has served or serves an elective mandate, at any level of representation. It also includes candidates with relatives who serve or have served prominent positions in party organisations.”

How many dynasts in 2019? “30% of all Lok Sabha MPs belong to political families,” according to data collected by a team of researchers of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (Ashoka University) and CERI (Sciences Po).

According to another study quoted in the piece, a “quarter of Indian parliamentarians were dynastic, on average, between 2004 and 2014”, suggesting that more dynastic MPs won in 2019.

Party-wise: “Congress remains the most dynastic one, with 31% of its candidates belonging to a political family. But the BJP is catching up with 22% of dynast candidates.”

Read the full piece: Verniers and Jaffrelot explain why political parties field dynasts.

What next: In part-2 of the series, I will explore the factors that led to Modi’s victory, and share insights about voter behaviour that help make sense of the verdict.

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