The outcome of the 2016 Assembly elections and the further decline of the Congress have led many commentators to state that the Bharatiya Janata Party has now emerged as the only national party. BJP officials have been quick to point also at the expansion of their organisation in regions outside its traditional area of influence.
It is true that the BJP victory in Assam breaks the image of it as a party confined to the Hindi belt and that the BJP has progressed in Southern states compared to the 2011 Assembly elections. But the BJP of 2011 – before the rise of Narendra Modi and the hold of Amit Shah – is quite different from the BJP today. In many ways, the 2014 general elections offer a more pertinent point of comparison.
How has the BJP fared in the last three elections? The first data to look at is the vote share. If we compare 2016 to 2011, the differences are quite dramatic. The BJP increases its vote share by more than three times in Assam and by more than two in West Bengal. The popular support for the BJP in Kerala increases from 6% to 10%. The progression is more timid in Tamil Nadu, where the BJP garners only 2.8% of the votes.
If we compare 2016 to 2014, the results are actually contrasted. The BJP loses ground in Assam (-6.4% of vote share), in West Bengal (-6.7% of vote share) and in Tamil Nadu (-2.7% of vote share). It maintains its vote share in Kerala.
Of course, these are not exactly comparable elections. The BJP is bound to perform better in a general election than in assembly elections in state where it does not have a ground presence. The more local the election, the more local the concerns and the issues that drive voters.
Given the competition and the first-past-the-post electoral system, the progression of the BJP has unsurprisingly hardly translated into seats, except in Assam. It has in fact lost the few seats it had in West Bengal and in Tamil Nadu. The fact that the BJP “opened its account” in Kerala with the lonely Nemon seat in is quite frankly more anecdotal than symbolic.
But again, if we compare the 2016 data to 2014, there are some surprises. In 2014, the BJP led in 69 assembly segments in Assam, 24 in West Bengal, four in Kerala and seven in Tamil Nadu, quite a different performance, notably in West Bengal.
If we want to be more precise in the assessment of the BJP’s performance, we should look at strike rates, that is the ratio of seats won to those contested.
Despite its relative slump in Assam, the BJP actually increases its strike rate from 59.5% to 66.4%, which makes sense since the BJP contested in an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People's Front this time. Its strike rates have collapsed in West Bengal and in the South, but on a very small basis to start with.
Regardless of those nuanced figures, the BJP’s numbers in the 2014 polls show that it can envisage further expansion, even though it is unlikely that it will be able to challenge the regional parties in the Southern states and in West Bengal any time soon.
Rather than being a problem, this is actually an opportunity for the BJP, which understands now its limitations and acknowledges the fact that regional parties cannot be by-passed in many significant parts of the country. Should this understanding translate into a more conciliatory attitude towards regional actors, the BJP could consolidate the ground for a second term in 2019. As the BJP is bound to decline at some point, garnering the support of regional parties to hamper the possibility of a third front is the only way to sustain its current domination.
Both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Trinamool have shown in the past that they have no qualms partnering with any party susceptible to help them further their regional interests. The same goes for some of the less reliable segments of the so-called third front, such as the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh. The BJP will in all probability still be able to count on the support of the Akalis in Punjab and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
One could make the argument that the BJP has become the only national party more by default than by significant conquest. This question actually hardly matters since the rise of the BJP on the national stage has far more societal and political impact than the gleaning of a handful of seats or of some more vote share in the South. The expansion of the BJP outside its traditional stronghold may remain somewhat limited, its lonely occupation of the central stage of national politics makes it de facto a major player in state politics, regardless of its actual regional strength.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Rajkamal Singh contributed to the data preparation.