Will good economics alone propel the BJP to victory in states where it has traditionally not been strong?

As the Modi government’s first year in power draws to a close, commentators on both the Left and Right will invariably focus on its achievements or lack of them. Modi’s socio-economic agenda primarily concentrated on improving the quality of life of the youth, provision of manufacturing jobs through skill development, agricultural reforms, universal access to electricity and financial inclusion. These ideas and agendas were considered to be the vital ingredients of his mammoth victory. It is thus expected that expert analysis of one year of the Modi government would focus on state of the national economy through an array of macroeconomic and microeconomic indicators.

A corollary of this is that Modi’s electoral fortunes in forthcoming polls, especially in the battleground states of UP, Bihar and ultimately the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 would rest on the ability of the government to deliver on its ambitious developmental agenda.

However, in India’s electoral history, robust economic performance have rarely consummated into rich electoral dividends. Nehru and Indira Gandhi received mandates inching towards the half way mark in terms of popular vote while attaining abysmally low so called ‘Hindu’ rates of growth.

Manmohan Singh’s liberal reforms could not save the Narasimha Rao’s Congress from descending into its then worst ever performance. Atal Bihari’s Vajpayee’s BJP registered a double digit growth rate, controlled inflation, created millions of jobs, built world class road infrastructure, reduced poverty, heralded a mobile revolution and permitted ‘big bang’ reforms like disinvestment of even profit making PSUs.

The latter’s achievements were even more impressive considering they were attained while negotiating a large, ideologically disparate coalition, struggling against American sanctions in the wake of India’s nuclear tests and vast military expenditures incurred during the Kargil war and later during operation Parakram against Pakistan.

However, Vajpayee was humbled in the Hindi heartland in an election where less than half of the voters exercised their franchise.  Leftist commentators would interpret the 2004 verdict as a vote against market reforms and Vajpayee’s economic initiatives, if not the failure to significantly improve upon social indicators relating to education and health. Pro market reformers keen to dispel such arguments deflect the blame for the unexpected loss on the Gujarat riots of 2002. Such ‘secular’ imaginations conveniently ignore the sweeping electoral victories in Assembly elections of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh which actually prompted the Vajpayee government to advance the Lok Sabha elections by 6 months to cash in on an apparently pro incumbent mood.

The idea that the states of UP and Bihar where the NDA fared abysmally were the outcome of an anti-Hindutva backlash are rather incomprehensible considering these states, especially UP, were at the vanguard of the Ram Janamabhoomi (Ayodhya) movement and had returned a third of the BJP’s seats even as late as 1998.

Even as late as 2012 in the Gujarat Assembly elections, Narendra Modi, at the cusp of being anointed BJP’s prime ministerial candidate with an inimitable development track record, could manage  a relatively smaller tally due to poor performance in the arid Saurashtra region of the state. Considering the evidence of several economically laggard states opting for incumbent governments time after time; a positive correlation between economic and electoral performance remains tenuous. The factors which lead to definitive electoral success in a pluralistic democracy like India are far too complex to be attributed to a solitary variable.

Panagariya and Gupta (2009) evaluating the relationship between economic development and electoral outcomes through a quantitative analysis of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections have suggested that “superior growth performance at the level of the state gives a definite advantage to the candidates of the state incumbent party in the constituencies of that state.” The limitation of this methodology in a multi-party democracy is that it is unable to explain how parties apart from the Congress, (which historically has been dominant at some point of time in every state of India and thereby possesses deep rooted party organization universally) which lack viable electoral clout in several states, gain electoral traction and become meaningful players in the electoral fortunes of such states.

Contrary to popular perception, Narendra Modi’s valiant and unprecedented efforts in showcasing the Gujarat model of development for attracting new voters for his party was a spectacular failure in states where it had historically little electoral appeal. This is evident from the scores of 1/21 in Orissa, 2/42 in West Bengal, 1/17 in Telangana, 1/41 in Tamil Nadu and 0/20 in Kerala.

Ostensibly, incumbent BJP governments (as in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat) can win only when backed by robust economic performances which suggests that at least in states where the BJP is a major player voters choices are influenced by the economic performance of the incumbent government. In contrast, incumbent Communist governments until recently in West Bengal, Tripura and to an extent Kerala could string decades of electoral victory in spite of economic stagnation. Dravidian parties practicing entitlement politics rarely beat the incumbent trap but largely succeed in keeping away national parties from encroaching on their turf in Tamil Nadu. In 2009, the Congress coalition secured a comfortable victory largely due to its massive entitlement projects for rural income transfer through NREGA and the agricultural loan waiver scheme, which was rendered possible from the strong economy it inherited from the NDA.

It is nobody’s case that BJP does not practice any entitlement politics; in fact, in Chhattisgarh its efficiently run subsided rice scheme created huge goodwill for the party.  The party has wisely refrained from engaging in the gambit of eliminating subsidies based on expert advice. Nevertheless, entitlement politics whether social or economic can only benefit certain sections of the voters (based on caste, religious / minority or economic identity). It is unlikely to generate wave elections. For a party like BJP, which doesn’t have electoral presence in over 120 seats in most eastern and southern Indian states, the ability of it to capitalize on any centralized entitlement schemes in states where it lacks a viable electoral footprint remains a distant possibility. In other words, while the party may have compulsions to maintain extant entitlement schemes or even expand them in states where they possess sufficient electoral traction, an economic policy which seeks to imitate the Congress model of ever expanding entitlement will not only be financially ruinous and unsustainable for the nation but also incapable of assuring definitive electoral benefits.

Unfortunately, even in absence of entitlement politics, the idea that attainment of development goals would automatically translate into electoral gains beyond the party’s traditional spheres of influence is misplaced. In 2004, BJP failed to make any fresh inroads into hitherto unchartered territory despite its impressive developmental and economic performances. Economic development cannot substitute for the hard task of party organization building, which, for example, is proving to be an onerous task for the BJP party president, Amit Shah in West Bengal.

The Modi government definitively needs to deliver on the economic front for it to remain a viable player in the 2019 elections as, historically, the Indian electorate has shown little patience with BJP governments which fail to do so. Unfortunately, with the party having maximized its gains in all states where it has historical presence, the ability of it to replicate the massive extant mandate with near perfect scores has a low probability. Modi faces the formidable twin challenges of not only delivering on his ‘economic  mandate’ for retaining existing vote shares in BJP dominant states but also simultaneously expanding the BJP’s footprint in states where it lacks the critical electoral organization and machinery to make political capital out of its economic performance.

Moreover, in states like UP and Bihar, where the formation of a Janata Parivar has brought caste-based parties into a common umbrella of the Janata Parivar, the enhanced index of opposition unity will make it even tougher for the party to replicate the success attained in 2014. The vagaries of the monsoon with associated agricultural distress, natural calamities are factors which cannot be anticipated but can derail economic development and render parties like the BJP with limited national electoral footprint and dependence on heavy concentration of votes in their electoral bastions exceptionally susceptible to losses.

Therefore, the argument put forward by the right wing eminent intellectual Arun Shourie that the BJP should not seek to expand its footprint too fast lest it scares away the opposition is pernicious. If the BJP fails to do so, it will be rendered vulnerable to building some form of unstable coalition government in the next term in absence of a definitive majority. All in all, the need for a distinct cultural agenda, building new social coalitions, identifying unmet electoral needs and representing the party as a viable alternative will need fulfillment if the BJP is to meet the challenge in states where regional players or the Congress dominate both the government and opposition spaces. A sole economy agenda geared towards retaining existing seats may just prove to be a recipe for disaster.

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