Voters are moving away from the national parties to regional parties even for the Lok Sabha elections.
India is a hyper-cauldron of politics and political parties. There are seven national parties, 24 regional parties and over 2,000 registered parties.
Churn is the new mantra. Voters are moving away from the national parties to regional parties even for the Lok Sabha elections. The voteshare of the six national parties declined from 67 per cent (1999) to 61 per cent (2014). This diversion of votes boosted regional parties. The Trinamul Congress — a regional party of West Bengal — is one such example which got recognised as a national party in 2016.
National parties tend to become disconnected from the immediate concerns of voters. Regional parties, possibly, better address granular concerns; provide higher levels of accountability and credibility by delivering their election promises. They are the aquifers which refresh political accountability. This is hypothesis one.
The combined voteshare of the BJP and the Congress was 78 per cent (1999) of the total voteshare of the national parties. It spurted to 84 per cent in 2014 primarily because of the BJP. The share of the other national parties — Bahujan Samaj Party, the two Communist parties and the Nationalist Congress Party — shrank correspondingly.
How real is the assumption that the two main national parties — the BJP and the Congress — will reign supreme?
Using the metric of a minimum voteshare of 25 per cent in each state or Union territory as signifying the substantive presence of a party, the BJP shows a strong presence in 22 states, comprising 68 per cent of the electorate. The Congress is strong in 22 states. But these comprise only 40 per cent of the electorate. Despite a strong presence in the same number of states, the aggregate voteshare of the BJP is higher at 31 per cent, versus 20 per cent for the Congress (2014) because it is strong in bigger states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Will this trend hold or intensify in 2019? Either outcome seems unlikely even if the BJP goes on to eventually form the government. The desperate desire of the BJP to win in 2019 forces it to form regional alliances and give away seats to its partners. This puts on hold the expansion of its core voter base beyond its dedicated supporters drawn to it by Hindutva, national pride or those with an aversion to dynastic politics.
Conversely, the "Fear Factor" amongst the business and political elite of assisting in creating an unbeatable BJP juggernaut, with all its traditional downsides — heightened communalism, centralisation of authority and upper caste orientation — will play in favour of the Congress and the other national parties. Hypothesis two is that the BJP will lose voteshare in 2019.
Another outcome of this faceoff between the two "biggies" is that the regional parties will benefit by expanding their voteshare. Uncommitted voters faced by a rising, strident BJP on the one hand and a diffident, poorly-led Congress on the other are likely to drift to the regional parties, like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi; the Telugu Desam or the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh; the Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Telangana; Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal in Odisha; Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress in West Bengal; Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. Tamil Nadu is already fully regionalised, while Kerala is a play between the Congress and the Communists. Hypothesis three is that the major regional parties will gain in voteshare in 2019.
However, voteshare does not automatically translate into seats won. The BJP won 52 per cent of the seats in 2014.
The Congress had eight per cent, other national parties just three per cent, while the regional parties together won 37 per cent of the seats.
Our electoral laws encourage vote splintering. The candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins. This rule permits party election managers to trade-off the cost-benefit between working to enlarge the voteshare — a long term, cadre intensive option - or the unsustainable but quick-fix option of splintering the vote and thereby lowering the bar for getting elected.
So why does voteshare matter anyway? Having more committed voters, across states, helps not just to attain power but also to retain it. It dilutes the risk of attracting floating voters for every election with specific poll promises in each state. Conversely, if adverse, near-term events, like drought, kick in, just prior to an election, the “recency” bias (voters remember recent events most vividly) can push floating votes away.
More important, a party’s ideology only evolves over time. Short-term risks impose the need for transactional tactics, which might be contrary to such ideology. The BJP distinguished itself from the Congress Party by being unafraid of offending Muslim sentiments while conducting its foreign and security policy. Their “hard line” approach requires all religions to toe a common civil code. Only a dedicated voter base, carrying them through three sequential elections, can achieve this.
The clash between long-term goals and the urgency for contrary short-term transactional tactics is best illustrated by the recent "Hindu appeasement" line adopted by the Congress Party. By doing so, the Congress abandoned its traditional strategy of “inclusion” —which must necessarily lean in favour of the marginalised. Being even handed, when all glasses are not equally full, perpetuates the imbalance and marginalisation.
Transactional tactics keep political ideology undifferentiated across governments. Each government carries forward the policy bundle they inherit from their predecessors, at best, with marginal changes. Political ambivalence is why a “New Deal” has never been struck in India.
The good news is that such policy ambivalence is also at the heart of policy stability, leading to economic growth since Independence. This makes life great for elites — the top one per cent of population with their subalterns occupying the next 49 per cent. The bad news is that all parties strive to preserve this status quo. This stretches out, over generations, the transition from hellish, sub-human conditions to acceptable welfare standards for the bottom 50 per cent of the population. Irrespective of the 2019 election results, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.