May 23 saw Narendra Modi make history by becoming the first non-Congress prime minister to be re-elected. Not only that, the Bharatiya Janata Party became the first non-Congress formation to get back-to-back majorities in the Lok Sabha. The party won an impressive 37.4% of the vote, up by 6 percentage points from 2014.

The result ushered in a new age in Indian politics, with the BJP firmly installed as its central pole, much as the Congress had been till the 1980s.

Yet, only six months after this election, the BJP has shown poor results in the state elections of Haryana and Maharashtra. While it was able to form a government in Haryana thanks to support from another party, in Maharashtra, its chief minister Devendra Fadnavis gave way to a coalition of the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena.

That the BJP is India’s most dominant party is without doubt. Yet, as these results show, this dominance does not come without wrinkles.

States versus Centre

To better understand the BJP’s shaky dominance, have a look at a map of India’s states.

Credit: Nithya Subramanian

The BJP is currently the ruling party in 17 states – a fairly substantial number. However, more context is added when we look at the major states (population more than 20 lakh). In this list, the BJP’s tally falls to just eight out of 18 major states. Out of these eight, the BJP holds the chief minister’s chair in six. Coalition members from the National Democratic Alliance occupy the chief minister’s post in Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

The BJP and its coalition partners rule a little over a half of India’s population – 51% – using state governments. also looked at the BJP’s performance in assembly elections that were held close to the Lok Sabha elections. We took major state polls in 2018 and 2019 and compared them to how BJP did in those states in the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Credit: Nithya Subramanian

A clear pattern emerges. The BJP did much better in national elections than in state elections. Across seven elections in 2018 and 2019, the BJP’s Lok Sabha performance outstripped its state performance. In some cases, the gap was stark. In Telangana, the BJP’s Lok Sabha vote share was nearly three times is Assembly tally. In Haryana, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, the ratio was 1.5X in favour of the Lok Sabha vote share.

Shaky dominance

According to Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, the BJP’s rise since 2014 represents a new configuration in Indian politics. The first electoral configuration existed from 1952 to 1967 and featured unquestioned Congress dominance at both the Centre and in the states. From 1967 to 1989, the Congress was still dominant at the Centre but faced growing competition at the state level. From 1989 to 2014, India saw the age of coalitions – a federal system where there was no central pole and parties had to use coalitions to capture power.

Since 2014, once the BJP won a majority in the Lok Sabha and Modi became prime minister, Vaishnav argues, “India is in the midst of a new, dominant-party system”.

However, while the BJP might be dominant, its dominance is still some distance away from the Congress’s till 1989. “While there are some parallels between Indira Gandhi and Modi, there are also big differences,” explained political scientist and former professor at Savitribai Phule University, Suhash Palshikar. “At multiple moments in her career, Gandhi managed to control nearly all states. But Modi has never even come close.”

The Modi factor

What explains the gap in the BJP’s performance at the states and at the Centre? Palshikar explains that one reason could be that the voter is now more ready to try split-ticket voting: differentiating parties and candidates depending on whether it is a state or national elections. “The second reason could be that Assembly elections have many more players which naturally lead to a smaller vote share for a national party,” said Palshikar. “And the third is that the issues Modi raises – such as Hindu nationalism or national security – work better at the nation level over the state level.”

Rahul Verma, a political scientist with the thinktank Centre for Policy Research stresses that the BJP is still India’s dominant pole, even if the party no longer controls as many states it ruled in 2018. Verma explains the gap between the BJP’s national and state performance with the central role played by Modi’s image in the BJP’s performance. “At the Central level there is no one to match Modi and his persona,” explained Verma. “However, at the state level, the BJP leadership is often challenged by dynamic politicians leading regional outfits.”