Regional parties now smell blood after a tight contest in Gujarat, BJP failing to form government in Karnataka and by-poll results. They see the era of hung Parliament and truly coalition governments returning to power which would enhance their bargaining power. Even some right wing columnists like Minhaz Merhant, Swapan Dasgupta, and recently Rajesh Jain have voiced their apprehensions about a Modi sweep of the scale of 2014 being repeated in 2019.
I have been saying this for long since BJP has peaked / hit the roof in many states it is difficult to maintain its previous tally. Neither is there enough scope to compensate for loss of seats. This means we are staring at a depleted BJP in Lok Sabha in 2019, though it may continue to be the single largest party, as things stand today. Recent polls from ABP and Times Now also predict a hung house.
BJP allies also foresee this and have started to chart out their own course to keep their options open. Shiv Sena which has 18 MPs in Lok Sabha has already announced that it would contest all future elections on a standalone basis. TDP which has 15 MPs has left NDA. Akalis, the oldest allies have also voiced concerns advising PM Narendra Modi to practice Atal coalition dharma. BJP has also dumped Nagaland People’s Front for newly floated party NDPP. The Tamil Nadu partners of BJP have also left the NDA. Some of the allies are apprehensive of BJP’s ambition to grow in their backyard and fed up with their arm twisting tactics. Modi and Shah are no Vajpayee.
The performance of the regional parties have been stable over the years. Since 1952 to 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the aggregate vote share of the two parties Congress and BJP have averaged 51%, while that of regional parties and independents have averaged 49%. While Congress maintained its centrist position in Indian polity in earlier years after Independence, parties like Akali Dal, Bangla Congress and DMK demanding regional autonomy sprang up to challenge Congress party’s dominance.
In 1967, out of 21 states, non-Congress governments were installed in 9 states (43%). This assault was massive and hit at the core of Congress’s one party dominance since its formation in 1885. The seeds of a first non-Congress government at the center were sown in many ways in 1967 and in a decade’s time, country saw its first non-Congress PM when a united opposition consisting of many regional parties contested under Janata Party banner. The entire east coast from West Bengal to Orissa to Andhra to Tamil Nadu, except for Karnataka has been a den of regional parties for years.
Vote Share of Congress, BJP & Regional Parties in Lok Sabha Elections
- Bhartiya Jan Sangh has been used as proxy for BJP during 1952-1971.
- In 1977, Bhartiya Jan Sangh merged with Janata Party, its standalone vote share has been assumed as BJP vote share. Same for 1980.
From 1989 to 2009, regional parties played a key role in each government formation at the center as any party failed to get a majority. Regional parties have recorded 220 odd seats in all elections except for 1991 when Congress got a boost post Rajiv’s assassination during elections. So not only have they maintained their vote share but also seat share. BJP + INC combined seat tally has been in the range of 280-320 except for 1991.
Regional parties usually want to be in the good books of the powers that be at the centre. That’s why we have seen many parties jumping ship from NDA to UPA and are now back in NDA. NDA was formed just before the 1998 Lok Sabha elections and comprised of 14 parties. This increased to 17 parties in 1999. In 2004 in similar conditions allies started to desert NDA – Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and DMK. Many parties changed sides after Vajpayee’s loss, prominent ones being Trinamool Congress, JMM and RLD. After NDA lost in 2004 and till mid of 2013, before Modi’s announcement as PM candidate, it was reduced to mere 3 parties – BJP, SHS and SAD. With conditions building in favour of Modi and BJP in the run up to the elections the number of parties in NDA again swelled back to 20+ parties.
In 2014, after 30 years, a single party, BJP, got an absolute majority ending 2.5 decades of influence of regional parties on governance. NDA allies were left disappointed. Though allies have been allocated ministries, BJP is running the show without consulting them on key issues. This has been brought to the fore by the two oldest allies Shiv Sena and Akali Dal who have stood rock solid behind BJP for all these years.
Though, power centre across India has moved from Congress to the BJP, the increase in BJP’s vote share has largely been at the expense of Congress. The two parties together bagged 50.8% vote share in 2014, which is similar to their combined long term average of 51%. Regional parties and independents won 49.2% near to their long term average of 49%, with independents having a small share of 3.2%.
While BJP and Congress bagged approximately 27.8 crore votes in 2014, serious regional players bagged 23.6 crore votes with independents at 1.7 crores and hopeless contestants recorded the balance 1.7 crore votes. The sheer size and diehard vote block of regional parties shows that they may play a key role in government formation at the center in 2019.
Everybody accepts that Congress performance is likely to improve in 2019. This is likely to be largely at the expense of BJP, going by the past trends. A hung Parliament cannot be ruled out, though it is difficult to ascertain the degree of shortfall. It’s because of this arithmetic that regional parties see themselves as kingmakers again.
BJP should be nervous, start treating allies with respect and keep them in good humour. As Naresh Gujral recently quipped, ‘It is in BJP’s interests not to ride roughshod over the interests of its allies.’ Allies are not life-long partners and itching to hit back.