Analysing the BJP's performance

Print edition : March 21, 1998

IN the elections of 1998, the Bharatiya Janata Party's share of the national vote was 25.5 per cent, or 5.2 percentage points more than its national vote-share in 1996. It won 178 seats, up only 17 seats from its national total in 1996. Yet the party comes to the twelfth Lok Sabha at the head of an alliance of 252 Members of Parliament, with hopes of being able, in the words of its spokesperson, to "rope in" even more members. It has done so despite substantial losses in States of relative strength, such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan, and relative stagnation in the two States that give it 42 per cent of its MPs, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

A combination of factors brought the BJP and its allies to the Lok Sabha in such large numbers. Of them, the most important is undoubtedly the alliances the BJP struck in different parts of India after the elections were announced. And of these, the most important new alliances were with the AIADMK and its allies in Tamil Nadu, the Lok Shakti in Karnataka, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal. It added these alliances to its longer-term ties with the Samata Party in Bihar (extended to Uttar Pradesh in 1998), the Haryana Vikas Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (the alliance was established after the 1996 election) and with the Shiv Sena, its most natural ally, in Maharashtra. The BJP in 1998 was a substantial beneficiary of the splits in the Janata Dal and the nation-wide decline of that party, particularly in two States in which the Janata Dal had a substantial presence - Karnataka and Orissa. In some States the BJP benefited directly from disunity among the forces opposed to it. This was the case, most importantly, in U.P., and also in Gujarat.

In establishing electoral alliances, the BJP was in a class of its own. In its bid for government, it decided that it would not be constrained by any inhibitions of principle with regard to whom it chose as allies. Thus, in Tamil Nadu, it allied with the leader of what was arguably the most corrupt State Government in independent India, in Karnataka it allied with a person who was conducting concurrent negotiations with the Congress(I), and in Orissa it allied with a party named after a secular politician who consistently opposed the BJP. The list, of course, is by no means complete (see 'Stability is an 18-headed ostrich', Frontline, January 23, 1998). The BJP at one time attacked the United Front as being a 13-headed monster; the number of heads in the BJP alliance hit 14 some time ago and, with its new post-poll alliances, the country is still counting.

These alliances did, however, bring immediate electoral advantage. In the southern States, out of 50 seats won by the BJP alliance, only 20 were won by the BJP itself. The alliance's vote-share in these States was 33.9 per cent; the BJP's individual share was 16.6 per cent. (The "South" here refers to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh; Kerala remains the only major State never to have sent a BJP candidate to the Lok Sabha.) In the East (Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar), of 53 seats won by the BJP alliance, only 27 were won by the BJP. (Of them, 19 were won in Bihar alone.) The vote-share of the BJP and its allies in this region was 37.4 per cent; the vote-share of the BJP alone was 16.6 per cent.

The most extraordinary gain for the alliance came, of course, in Tamil Nadu, where it won 30 out of 39 seats. The victory of the alliance here was also perhaps the most serious reversals suffered by the U.F. in the elections. (Indeed, Jayalalita can well be considered the major victor of Elections '98, with Sharad Pawar as runner-up.)

At the national level, the seats the BJP won through alliances in the South and East were crucial compensation for its losses in Maharashtra and Rajasthan and its relative stagnation in U.P. Apart from gains in terms of seats for the alliance as a whole, the alliances brought other political gains for the BJP (although it remains to be seen how lasting these gains are). Thanks to its alliances, it has established political and organisational beach-heads in new regions, particularly in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. And it has gained, through joint campaigns, access to sections of the Indian people to whom it had no such access even a few months ago.

The decline of the Janata Dal at the all-India level has, of course, weakened the United Front, and the BJP has moved in to benefit from this decline in Karnataka and Orissa. The data on the three States - Bihar, Orissa and Karnataka - in which the decline of the Janata Dal has been most significant after its many splits are interesting. In 1996 in Bihar, the vote share of the Janata Dal was 32 per cent. In 1998, the Janata Dal's vote-share was 7.9 per cent and the vote-share of the RJD 24.1 per cent, a combined total of 32 per cent. In Orissa, the Janata Dal's vote-share in 1996 was 13.0 per cent; in 1998, this fell to 5.0 per cent, with the BJD winning 27.8 per cent of the popular vote.

In Karnataka as well, it is clear that the alliance with the Lok Shakti was crucial for the BJP. The Janata Dal's vote-share in Karnataka was 34.9 per cent in 1996; in 1998, the Janata Dal's share fell to 21.7 per cent, while the Lok Shakti won 11.5 per cent of the vote (the combined total, 33.2 per cent, is again very close to the 1996 vote-share of the Janata Dal). While the Congress' vote-share increased from 30.3 per cent in 1996 to 36.2 per cent in 1998, the BJP's vote-share rose only marginally, from 24.8 per cent in 1996 to 27.0 per cent in 1998. Once it had formed the alliance with the Lok Shakti, however, a split vote ensured that it won the single largest block of seats in the State. (If, on the other hand, Ramakrishna Hegde had chosen to jump from the fence to the Congress, the Karnataka scene is likely to have been very different.)

THE DECLINE of the Congress has been identified as a major factor in the BJP's electoral gains of the 1996 elections. In 1998, although this factor did (or may have) come into play in certain States - for instance, in U.P., Bihar, Orissa, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh - it is perhaps a less significant factor than in 1996. Significantly, Congress consolidation in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, particularly the former, handed out the most serious reversals of Elections '98 to the BJP. In Maharashtra, the combined vote-share of the Sena-BJP combine remained close to stagnant (38.6 per cent in 1996 and 41.6 per cent in 1998).

Holding its ground, however, was not enough for the alliance. Sharad Pawar worked early to bring the Republican Party of India and the Samajwadi Party into alliance with the Congress, and the Congress fought the election with a degree of unity rare in the Maharashtra unit of the Congress. The party's vote-share rose from 34.9 per cent in 1996 to 43.5 per cent in 1998, and it dealt the Hindutva combine a blow whose strength few would have dared to predict.

In Madhya Pradesh, although the BJP improved its position in terms of its share of the vote (41.3 per cent in 1996 and 45.9 per cent in 1998) and seats (27 in 1996 and 30 in 1998), its gains were small and are not based, as in the past, on a decline of the Congress vote. The Congress' vote-share in Madhya Pradesh increased from 31.0 per cent in 1996 to 38.4 per cent in 1998.

In Gujarat, despite the split from its ranks of the Rashtriya Janata Party, the BJP's vote-share fell only marginally, from 48.5 per cent in 1996 to 47.7 per cent in 1998. The BJP's gains in the current election were clearly helped along by the division of votes between the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Party. The Congress share of the vote remained almost the same - 38.7 per cent in 1996 and 37.9 per cent in 1998 - and the RJP, a new entrant in the 1998 elections, won 9.4 per cent of the popular vote.

Uttar Pradesh is at once the BJP's strength and its weakness. It is its strength because it has 55 MPs from the State, nearly a third of its total in the Lok Sabha. It is its weakness because, first, despite all its efforts and the decline of the Congress, its vote-share is relatively stagnant (33.4 per cent in 1996 and 36.4 per cent in 1998). Secondly, the BJP remains utterly vulnerable if non-Congress non-BJP unity were to be achieved. The combined vote-share of the S.P. and Bahujan Samaj Party in 1998 was 49.6 per cent (28.7 per cent and 20.9 per cent respectively). The data in this context are quite dramatic: the combined total of the votes polled by the BSP and S.P. were higher than the votes polled by the candidates of each other party in about 64 constituencies in the State. The BJP gained more votes than the combined total of the S.P. and BSP in 19 constituencies. Quite clearly, if the electoral unity between the S.P. and BSP that had been urged by the Left before the elections had been achieved, U.P. would have seen very different results.

Bihar is another interesting case of BJP vulnerability. Unlike Orissa and Karnataka, Bihar was not a State where the BJP took away the winnings when the Janata Dal split. In point of fact, BJP's vote-share has been stagnant (20.5 per cent in 1996 and 21.3 per cent in 1998); so too has been the share of its allied the Samata Party (14.4 per cent in 1996 and 14.6 per cent in 1998). Although both parties have made gains in the number of seats they have won, there can be little doubt that the BJP's performance in the State fell well below its expectations.

THE 1998 election results indicate that, for all its public pronouncements that it is a party whose time has come, the BJP is, electorally speaking, a strong but peculiarly vulnerable party. Its strength in the twelfth Lok Sabha is based, first, on alliances with parties whose reasons for allying with the BJP are at least as self-seeking and opportunist as the BJP's reasons for allying with them, and, secondly, on seats won in States - U.P. is the prime example - where its strength seems to have peaked and where it is now dependent on the disunity of its opponents for sustenance.

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