Decider in the Hindi belt

For any student of politics in the future, the general elections of 2014 would be seen as a watershed moment in the study of Indian electoral history. The BJP not just created history by winning a simple majority on its own (the first party do so since 1989), it also changed the trend of Indian politics at the centre. Since the 1990s, the country witnessed an era of government formation purely through the means of coalition formation. While the combined vote share of the BJP and Congress remained at almost 50% throughout this period, the only path towards Delhi went through backroom dealings with allies. The rise of Narendra Modi transformed the campaigning style from parliamentary to presidential and changed the way voters made their choices. Now the question of who led the country mattered more than any local party affiliations and ideologies. Thus, the ongoing general can be viewed as a referendum on this new form of politics. Keeping this context in mind the question remains— how hard is it for the BJP to come back for a second term?

Many consider BJP’s victory in the 2014 general elections as the party’s greatest achievement to date. However, many also believe it to be a one-time achievement. Looking at the seat distribution, one clearly saw that the BJP had in fact performed too well by its own account. For the saffron party, the Hindi speaking states of UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Haryana are considered its traditional strongholds. At the moment, the entire party machinery is working towards sweeping these states in the coming elections. The party’s over-dependence on the Hindi belt is evident as 90% of its seats came from the region in the previous elections. However, as is the case in the Indian context, the dreaded anti-incumbency effect has made the BJP nervous.

While many pollsters and academics have been debating about the supposed effect of anti-incumbency within the Hindi belt, speculation this late into the game may prove to be futile. What should be noted is that even if the BJP loses 40% of the seats in this region, which it can thanks to the current rural distress and the lack of jobs, it will lose almost 90-100 seats.

The greatest threat at the moment for the BJP is the unlikely yet effective alliance of Akhilesh and Mayawati. Out of the 80 seats in UP, the BJP won an extraordinary 71 on its own in 2014. And for the first time breached the 40% vote share barrier in the state. For both SP and BSP, this is an election of survival. In the case of BSP, the stakes are even higher. The party is the unfortunate victim of India’s first past the post electoral system. Since 1996, it has maintained a stable vote share of 20% and above with wildly disparate results. In 2014, it secured an unwanted political duck as the party was unable to win even a single seat in the state. This was due to the counter-mobilisation of backward castes by the BJP outside the voting base of SP and BSP. It defeated both these parties by borrowing from their playbook—caste arithmetic. By the same principle, this time the SP along with BSP aims to simply add to their vote banks and share the spoils in UP. The combined vote share of the BSP and SP was more than that of the BJP in 41 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. But alliances are not just a simple sum of votes polled by each party. Hence, the overall impact of this alliance would depend on the level of coordination between both parties, how they channel their combined resources and transform it into an effective vote catching machine. The alliance tested this strategy in the recent by-polls of Gorakhpur, Phulpur, and Kairana. It seemed to work as the SP-BSP coalition had a higher vote share than the sum of their individual vote shares in these constituencies in the 2014 elections. In the end, whether the alliance will be able to pull this off across the entire state is a question that will be answered on the 23rd of May.

Despite all this uncertainty what we can safely say, as political observers, is that the 2019 elections just like the one in 2014, will prove to be as important if not more, in transforming Indian politics. The BJP will lose a substantial chunk of its seats, but what would be interesting to note is the quantum of that loss.

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