Rise of the regionals

The biggest takeaway from the 2024 election is that regional parties, whose future had been written off during the saffron wave, are back with a bang.

Published : Jun 25, 2024 19:19 IST - 14 MINS READ

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav in New Delhi on June 5. The SP, which won 37 seats in Uttar Pradesh, played a crucial role in halting the BJP juggernaut.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav in New Delhi on June 5. The SP, which won 37 seats in Uttar Pradesh, played a crucial role in halting the BJP juggernaut. | Photo Credit: ADNAN ABIDI /REUTERS

What does the Election 2024 verdict tell us? The overarching message is that the Narendra Modi-led BJP lost the majority for the 18th Lok Sabha and the Congress recovered to an extent from two crushing back-to-back defeats. But over and above these two major outcomes, it is the performance of the regional parties that dramatically impacted the electoral outcome of 2024.

In this article, we analyse the performance of regional parties in the past and how they hurt the BJP in the 18th Lok Sabha election while helping the Congress regain some lost ground. At the same time, we will try to explain the variation in electoral performances of the regional parties.

This election presented two kinds of scenarios: some parties seemed effective against the BJP while others paid a heavy price and lost ground to it. We study why these two different outcomes coexisted despite a major blow to the BJP-dominant system. Also, the 2024 election was one of the closest bipolar elections in the past four decades in which any party that was not part of the NDA or the INDIA bloc was severely damaged.

History of regional parties

The significance of regional parties in India can be traced back to 1967, when the Akali Dal in Punjab and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu (then Madras) won the Assembly elections in their respective States and formed the government. This was also the year when the Congress won the Lok Sabha election. However, the electoral hegemony of the Congress was questioned for the first time on a large scale with the grand old party losing the Assembly elections in eight States.

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The late 1960s, therefore, can be termed as a watershed moment in the country’s electoral history, which underlined two things: there was a multi-party democracy beyond the hegemony of the national parties, and cooperative but different party systems existed in the Centre and the States. State elections in the late 1980s and in the 1990s reinforced this aspect while gaining significant relevance and raising the stakes of States at the Centre, thus creating pathways of cooperative federalism. This was steered largely by regional parties, who functioned within their respective States but remained equally important in crucial decision-making at the Centre.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu takes oath as a member of the Assembly on June 21. Naidu’s TDP won 16 seats and is now a key pillar of the NDA government at the Centre.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu takes oath as a member of the Assembly on June 21. Naidu’s TDP won 16 seats and is now a key pillar of the NDA government at the Centre. | Photo Credit: PTI

The ideological background of regional parties was, and is, rooted to certain identities such as caste, culture, language, or religion, but two specific incidents accelerated their growth. The first was the State reorganisation of the late 1960s and the 1970s, which boosted large-scale regional sentiment along linguistic and cultural lines. The second was the JP movement, steered by anti-corruption crusader Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as JP, against Congress misrule.

As a result of the imposition of Emergency by Indira Gandhi, an anti-Congress sentiment helped create a space for all the non-Congress parties to come together. The movement was successful, and Indira Gandhi was replaced by the Janata Party. However, this association of parties from across the ideological spectrum did not last long, paving the way for Round 2 of the rise of the regionals.

The difference between the two rounds was that the first was more rooted in regional identities while the second was more sociopolitical in nature. As a result, there were significant differences among the regional parties that grew in the two different periods. Parties such as the DMK, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Shiv Sena, and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) are more focussed on their State-specific questions, while many regional parties who emerged in the 1980s and the 1990s as splinters of the Janata Dal, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the Janata Dal (United), were centred on identity-specific issues.

Golden era

From the mid-1990s to 2014 was the period that can be called the golden era of the regional parties, as they dictated the terms of electoral politics. While both the BJP and the Congress led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) respectively, the regional parties held many key portfolios. Also, this was a the time when regional parties went beyond State-specific interests.

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The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw a major change in the outcome. The Congress was weakened, the BJP dominated, and the regionals became less significant despite getting a significant chunk of the vote share.

The overall picture in Chart 1 indicates a declining share of votes for parties other than the BJP and the Congress since 2009. It suggests that the non-BJP, non-Congress space has been consistently shrinking, and its vote share has reduced by up to 12 percentage points from 2009 to 2024. Despite this drop in vote share, these parties won 204 seats in 2024, against 188 in 2019 (Chart 2).

BJP’s rise and damage of regionals

The 2014 and the 2019 general elections saw the total dominance of the BJP but its gains came from two different sources in each election. In 2014, it was predominantly due to the failure of the Congress; the seat share of the non-BJP, non-Congress parties did not see a drastic change from 2009.

In 2019, in addition to the Congress’ dismal performance, the BJP severely damaged the regional parties. The 2019 election was the first since 1989 when the seat share of the non-BJP, non-Congress parties went below 200.

To look at the micro level performance of regional parties, this analysis focusses on 14 medium and big States where regional parties remain major players (Chart 3).

These are: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Assam, Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir (now a Union Territory), Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. Together, these States have 397 Lok Sabha seats. In 2014, the BJP won 170 of these seats and the Congress won just 28. In 2019, the Congress’ performance did not improve; it barely managed to get 30 seats. But the BJP gained big, winning 191 seats, which helped it improve its national tally in comparison to 2014, and helped it cross 300 seats on its own for the first time.

Since 2009, the share of regional parties has been coming down but in 2024, the regional players turned the tables significantly in these 14 States. They not only gained themselves but also helped the Congress regain seats. The BJP lost 53 seats in these States.

DMK leader M.K. Stalin with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at an election meeting in Coimbatore on April 12.

DMK leader M.K. Stalin with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at an election meeting in Coimbatore on April 12. | Photo Credit: J. MANOHARAN

The regionals gained 16 seats, but the Congress, benefiting from alliances, gained 37 more seats than its 30 in 2019. It is important to note that the Congress gained just 10 seats more than 2019 from States where it was in direct contest with the BJP.

Hindi-speaking States and others

For further analysis, we separate these States in two categories: Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi-speaking. Since Assam and Karnataka have become a largely BJP versus Congress contest, we excluded these two from further analysis and also dropped Jammu & Kashmir because of its Union Territory status. At the same time, we added Delhi, since the AAP is in power there.

In the Hindi-speaking States we grouped Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, which together have 151 parliamentary seats. In the other section are Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and West Bengal, the seven non-Hindi States, with 205 parliamentary seats.

At an aggregate level, we do not see much change in terms of vote share, but the devil lies in the details. To look at the details, this analysis divides the parties into five categories: BJP, Congress, Left parties, Independents, and Others.

Four kinds of changes occurred in 2024 in the Hindi-speaking States where regional parties have major stakes (Chart 4).

First, the performance of the Left parties and Independents has not changed since 2014. Their vote share remains stagnant at around 5 per cent.

Second, the Congress has posted a gain in votes from 10 per cent in 2019 to 14 per cent in 2024.

Third, the BJP’s performance seems to have peaked in the Hindi-speaking States in 2019. After consistently gaining vote share since 2009, it lost a significant 7 per cent vote share in 2024. From 2009 to 2019, the BJP’s vote share in these States more than doubled: from 18 per cent in 2009 it grew to 39 per cent in 2014, the major reason it swept the election that year.

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Of the 151 seats in these States, the BJP won 119 in 2014, while in 2009 it had won just 30. In 2019, its vote share rose by five percentage points, going from 39 per cent in 2014 to 44 per cent, but its seats came down from 119 in 2014 to 107. The loss of seats despite gaining votes in 2019 was a result of the SP-BSP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh alone, the BJP posted a 9 per cent gain in votes, but lost 9 seats.

  • The 2024 Indian election saw the BJP lose its outright majority in the Lok Sabha, while the Congress managed to recover some ground from its previous losses.
  • The performance of regional parties significantly influenced the election outcome, particularly in 14 key States. They not only gained seats themselves but also helped the Congress improve its position, collectively damaging the BJP’s dominance.
  • In Hindi-speaking states, regional parties like SP in Uttar Pradesh made significant gains, challenging the BJP’s stronghold.

Double jolt for BJP

The 2024 election brought a double jolt for the BJP in the Hindi-speaking States, where regional parties are key. The BJP lost a significant share of both votes and seats. Its vote share fell to 37 per cent from 44 per cent in the previous election. Also, it lost 42 seats, winning only 65 of the 151 from these States.

What were the changes in the performance of regional parties in this election? At the aggregate level, their vote share improved marginally, from 43 per cent in 2019 to 45 per cent in 2024. However, their seat share jumped from 41 to 70.

The regional parties in the Hindi belt, namely the SP in Uttar Pradesh and the RJD in Bihar, challenged the BJP more emphatically this time than in the past despite many observers indicating their decline owing to their focus on local and family-centric politics. For the first time, regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, and Jharkhand received more than 40 per cent of the vote in the seats contested in their respective States.

Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray after the party’s victory in the election, in Mumbai on June 5.

Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray after the party’s victory in the election, in Mumbai on June 5. | Photo Credit: DEEPAK SALVI/ANI

Uttar Pradesh surprised everyone, since it is the State the BJP has been dominating in every State and national election since 2014. Akhilesh Yadav’s SP dealt a shocking blow to the saffron party. The SP, which has always polled around 30 per cent of the vote, crossed the 40 per cent threshold this time, polling 43 per cent in the State. In the 2017 Assembly election and the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when it was in an alliance with the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) respectively, the party faced bitter losses. This time, it won more seats than the BJP.

The change in Uttar Pradesh

What changed in Uttar Pradesh? The BJP had managed to consolidate the Hindu vote bank in a State like Uttar Pradesh whose political landscape was always fragmented along caste lines. As the numbers show, this social alliance helped the BJP gain significantly, with parties like the SP or the BSP, which are dependent on specific social coalitions, losing out. This changed in 2024.

The SP clinched an alliance with the Congress, not for the first time but with clever ticket distribution this time. The SP tried hard to move beyond its traditional social coalition, the Muslim-Yadav (MY) equation, and explored new caste alignments by providing greater space for non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Scheduled Castes (SCs).

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For example, in a seat like Faizabad, which accommodates the Assembly constituency of Ayodhya, home of the Ram temple, the SP gave the ticket to Awadhesh Prasad, who belongs to the socially marginalised Pasi community (SC) and won the election. With the Congress in the alliance and a weak BSP going it alone, the Muslim and other anti-BJP votes shifted smoothly to the INDIA bloc. Ticket distribution was just one reason, the bigger issue was that the people started questioning the Modi government about its failure to curb inflation and its inability to generate jobs. Apart from this, the narrative that the BJP would “change the Constitution” impacted the BJP most in Uttar Pradesh.

During fieldwork in early May in Uttar Pradesh, this writer met many people from oppressed castes. Their fear of a change in the Constitution was clearly visible. They said the Constitution empowered them and affirmative actions such as reservation in jobs and education enabled them to move up in their social and economic hierarchy. The Pasis, who account for a significant share of the SC population after the Jatavs, voted en bloc for the SP after a long time. The SP’s alliance with the Congress also helped it win over the fence-sitters among the depressed castes.

The clear and well-communicated methodology of a regional party like the SP, which experimented beyond its traditional sociopolitical base to challenge the Hindutva-orchestrated social engineering of the BJP, proved successful in this election. This opens a space for interesting debates on how regional parties can take a gamble and evolve their sociopolitical discourse over time.

Southern story

South of the Vindhyas, in the non-Hindi regions, which has always been a tough turf for the BJP, the party’s vote share increased but its seat share did not improve. There are some States where the BJP gained significantly.

The non-Hindi speaking States account for 205 parliamentary seats, and this has been the weakest region for the BJP. However, the party’s votes have been continuously rising since 2009, the share tripling from 9 per cent in 2009 to 27 per cent in 2024. Its seat share, however, has not improved. In fact, it dropped to 52 seats in 2024 from 55 in 2019.

In Tamil Nadu and Telangana, the party’s performance in terms of votes was impressive. In Telangana it gained significantly in the number of seats as well. But where the BJP surprised everyone was in Odisha, a State where the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has been in power for over two decades.

INDIA bloc leaders after a meeting in New Delhi on June 5.

INDIA bloc leaders after a meeting in New Delhi on June 5. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

While the curve suggests a continuous growth for the BJP, it is not spread evenly across the seven non-Hindi speaking States where regional parties are major contenders to power. In Punjab and West Bengal, the BJP lost seats.

While the Congress could not improve much in these States, being in an alliance in Tamil Nadu and in power in Telangana helped it gain some seats.

Also Read | How the DMK-led alliance has swept Tamil Nadu, thwarting BJP’s perception battle

Chart 5 suggests a decline in vote share of regional parties in the non-Hindi speaking States, but there are some important observations to be made here. In many of these States, there are two major regional players—for instance, the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the AAP and the SAD in Punjab, and the two factions of the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra—and each of these parties has a strong vote base.

The BJP has been able to attract anti-incumbency votes in many of these States but the party’s votes have not crossed the winning threshold and, therefore, its seat share has not improved much. In Telangana and Odisha, the BJP gained significantly but in Maharashtra and West Bengal, the party lost significantly.

New social engineering

In conclusion, the BJP lost single-party majority in the lower House because of the strong performance of some regional parties, but it was able to form the government with the help of other regional parties. The electoral dynamics in the country have changed again, and State-based parties are not just regaining their place, they are expanding their support base. The nature of their reclamation is also different.

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The SP gained through its new social engineering and the Shiv Sena (UBT) rode the sympathy of Marathi asmita (pride) as a result of the politics of factionalism encouraged by the BJP, but not all State-based parties were successful at the ballot box. Some parties, such as the BJD, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), sustained severe losses, losing their base to the BJP.

What is common to the BJD, the BRS, and the YSRCP is that all three were not in a formal alliance with either the NDA or the INDIA bloc, but their legislative practice shows that they have not been against the ruling BJP either. Unlike in the past, parties that chose to stay away from the two major poles were severely damaged.

This election has sent out a clear message: the regional parties have not lost their electoral base, but the country’s polarisation is such that being indifferent is not an option any more. The electorate seems to be asking them to take a clear position in the bipolar polity of these times.

Ashish Ranjan is an election researcher and co-founder of Data Action Lab for Emerging Societies.

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