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Towards 400 Paar? Significant Vulnerabilities, Surplus Strengths

Radhika Desai and Natalie Braun
May 24, 2024
Not only are economic issues higher on people’s agenda than in post-Balakot 2019, but the Mandir effect more far more muted than the BJP expected and the stench of electoral bond corruption hangs on the BJP, and the opposition is more united.

As the long-drawn-out Lok Sabha election trundles towards its sixth phase, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to insist that it is headed to an NDA tally of ‘400 paar’ and a BJP tally of 370 or more, while a growing crescendo of opposition voices are predicting that the BJP will fail to get a majority (273), let alone nearly 100 seats more than that. How might one judge these opposed claims?

Major pollsters are betting on the BJP, giving it a low of 335 seats and a high of 393 seats. However, predicting elections is iffy everywhere, and certainly in India. Pre-election polling got 2004 hopelessly wrong, while few predicted the scale of BJP victories or Congress routs in 2014 and 2019.

However, there are other grounds for questioning the realism of ‘400 paar’. The CSDS Lokniti pre-poll survey, which does not predict seats but seeks a granular understanding of voter motivations before the election, indicated considerable difficulties.

While 40% of those surveyed favour BJP (and 21% Congress), satisfaction with the Union government is lower than in 2019 when it had needed the Balakot strikes to secure victory. Rising inflation, unemployment and poverty are top reasons for dissatisfaction with the government. Finally, the Ram Mandir is a major source of satisfaction for only 33% of NDA voters and only 23% of the electorate as a whole, rather poor electoral bang for the big political, publicity and propaganda bucks spent on the politically-timed January consecration.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Against these headwinds, 400 paar requires the BJP to add 67 seats to its 2019 tally of 303 when, in that election, notwithstanding the stunning Balakot effect, it added a mere 21 seats to its 2014 tally. Moreover, fewer respondents to the survey (44%) answered yes to the question, ‘Should the government get another chance?’ than did in 2004 (48%) when the BJP went down to electoral nemesis after its hubristic ‘India Shining’ campaign, and far short of the 55% that anticipated UPA victory in 2009.

The BJP rode to victory in 2014 on a three-steed chariot of a UPA government in crisis, the anti-corruption movement and unprecedented corporate political and financial backing. In 2019, there were opposition disarray, even more corporate backing as the electoral bonds were added to channels of willing corporate funding, and the Balakot strikes. However, even with these advantages, Modi’s BJP won parliamentary majorities only because the first-past-the-post electoral system interacted toxically with opposition disunity to give the BJP 51.4% and 55.59 % of Lok Sabha seats on the strength of the votes of 20.6% and 25.2% of the Indian electorate as a whole (including non-voters) in 2014 and 2019 respectively. Almost 80% and 75% of India’s electorate did not vote for Modi’s BJP in those elections.

Talk of BJP replacing Congress forgets that even considering the BJP’s vote share among those voting in 2014 and 2019, 31% and 37%, compare poorly with Congress majority governments of the early years of independence with vote shares above 44%, reaching over 47% in 1957, before dipping to 40.70% in 1967. Thereafter the Congress vote clocked in at 43.68% and 42.69 in 1970 and 1980 before reaching its all-time high of 48.12% in 1984.

To advance to 400 paar, the BJP must cast its campaign seeds on pretty stony ground. Not only are economic issues higher on people’s agenda than in post-Balakot 2019, but the Mandir effect more far more muted than the BJP expected and the stench of electoral bond corruption hangs on the BJP, and the opposition is more united.

Cumulatively, these factors could reverse the BJP’s 2019 advances outside its northern and western strongholds, such as in Karnataka or West Bengal when, in fact, it needs to advance in the South and East.

We can gauge the scale and structure of this difficulty in BJP’s vulnerable seats and in its strongholds.

As the chart below shows, while the BJP won 60% (183 seats) of it seats in 2019 by margins over 15%, it won 40% (120 seats) with lower margins, making them vulnerable in elections where swings of 5-10% are normal and can be much higher, especially the ten seats it won by a margin of less than 1% and the 32 seats won by less than 5%.

As the following map shows, the bulk of these vulnerable seats, won with margins of under 1% (10 seats), 1-5% (32 seats), 5-10% (42 seats) and 10-15% (36 seats), lie stretched along the BJP-resistant belt stretching from the south to West Bengal, precisely the areas in which it needs to advance.

A notably high number of vulnerable seats are in UP, widely considered a BJP bastion. However, partly thanks to the ‘mahagathbandhan’ between the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in 2019, exactly half of these seats were won by margins of less than 15% and today, while the BSP has stayed out of the INDIA alliance, its vote is likely smaller, with considerable sections inclined to vote for the INDIA bloc, and the SP has expanded its electoral appeal beyond its core Yadav base. Similarly, in Karnataka, while the BJP won in 25 out of its 28 constituencies, 16 of these seats were won by margins less than 15%.

Even if the BJP lost only half of these 120 vulnerable seats, this would lose it its majority without advances elsewhere.

How difficult such advances are is clear if we consider a few points. The first relates, surprisingly perhaps, to the scale of the BJP’s victories in its bastions. The BJP won 220 of its 303 seats in 2019 with a vote share of more than 50%. While this may appear a point of BJP strength, given that in a first-past-the-post electoral system majorities (votes of more than half of those voting in a constituency) are not necessary and mere pluralities (the highest vote, which can and usually is well short of a majority of those voting in each constituency) suffice to win seats, the BJP’s national vote share in 2019, 37%, was won by an unnecessary surplus of votes in its bastions.

When counted in its national vote share, these surplus votes convey an exaggerated view of, if not the BJP’s political strength, at least of the political momentum that may help propel it further. While the BJP wins an unnecessary 60% of the vote in its bastions, it has little over half that elsewhere, where it needs them.

*BJP strongholds are Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, a designation based on their having the highest number of BJP seats won with over 65% of the constituency vote.

Add to this some other considerations. The BJP’s party-splitting in Maharashtra appears to have boomeranged. Post-farmers’ movement Punjab has become a BJP no-go zone. The Assembly election defeat of BJP in Karnataka bodes ill for BJP. Finally, the BJP’s strongarm tactic of abrogating Article 370 in Kashmir, rather than benefitting it electorally, has reduced it to the prudent position of not running any candidates.

This combination vulnerabilities that are substantial and strengths that are surplus to requirements point to the difficulty of the party adding much to its 2019 tally and the possibility of its losing seats.

Radhika Desai is Professor, Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba and Natalie Braun is a writer and researcher based in Canada.

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