Since 1989, no single national party has won a majority in India’s parliamentary (Lok Sabha) elections. As a result the last twenty five years have ushered in an era of experiments with different patterns of – increasingly stable – coalition government in New Delhi bringing together national and regional parties.
This is a period in which political and economic decentralisation have been mutually supporting. Economic liberalisation has given the states a greater stake in competing to attract investment. Politically, power has also flowed down to the state level, where a substantial number of regional parties have been formed along the lines of language, region, caste, religion – and more recently, anti-corruption. Some regional parties have flourished and taken power at the state level; others have fared less well and disbanded, merged or dwindled. But taken together, these regional political actors have made the landscape of electoral politics extremely varied across India. Different sets of parties compete in each state, reflecting the way that social cleavages crystallise more strongly at the state than national level.
In this context, political scientists have come to think of Lok Sabha election results as being best understood as an aggregation of multiple state-level contests. As Yogendra Yadav (a formidable psephologist who has recently become a participant in electoral politics) and Suhas Palshikar put it persuasively – ‘states have emerged as the effective arena of political choice’; if in the past people voted in state elections as if they were choosing the prime minister, now they vote in parliamentary elections as if they are choosing the chief minister of their state. This has meant that we have had to pay attention to the performance of state-level governments – ruled by many different types of party – in order to understand the dynamics of national elections.
Yet with the rise of the Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist BJP, there has been the suggestion that this election has more of a national characteristic; a ‘Modi wave’. With the return of a more personalised style of national leadership by a prime ministerial candidate who seeks to embody a national sentiment, and a national media that have done much to support that impression, it is instructive to ask whether these elections are also likely to see a rebalancing between national and regional parties. If we look at the recent tracker polls conducted by Lokniti, CSDS they do project a somewhat larger share of seats and votes for national parties. That projection is driven by a substantial increase in the BJP vote share (from 18.8% in 2009 to 33% in Feb 2014) and not much change in the Congress vote share (from 28.6% in 2009 to 26% in Feb 2014). If this picture accurately captures the state of opinion heading into the elections, it would indeed slightly moderate the trend of the past 25 years whereby the vote share of national parties has fallen, and that of regional parties has risen. In terms of seat share, the 2009 elections already showed a slight decline in the performance of regional parties. National parties have always done better at converting votes into seats; collectively their seat shares have consistently been higher than their vote shares. This is because regional parties are often contesting in crowded multi-cornered contests in which larger numbers of regional parties splinter the vote – increasing the total vote but not seat share of regional parties. The high-water mark of regional party growth may therefore have passed.
But even so, regional parties remain serious contenders. And vote-to-seat share conversions may be more unpredictable in these elections because of the weaker set of pre-election alliances. The BJP may also pick up votes in some places where it will struggle to win seats. Thus even if there are somewhat greater ‘national effects’ in these elections, it is still almost certain that no party – and quite probably no pre-election alliance – will win an outright majority. The largest party/alliance may still be some distance from the magic figure of 272 seats. Much of the coalition bargaining will therefore remain to be done after the elections.
For this reason, it is still critical to understand the dynamics of regional parties and state-level contests. The formation of any government will depend on regional actors – whether, as currently looks most likely, a BJP-led NDA government or as has been mooted in the past, a Third Front or Federal Front formation bringing together multiple regional parties.
In this scenario, which are the key states to watch? The two major states that will likely determine the kind of national coalition government we will see are the large Hindi-speaking states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in northern India (between them these states alone account for more than 1 in 5 of all 543 parliamentary seats). The last time the BJP was the single largest party in parliament in the late 1990s, it saw a big spike in seat share in these seats. But its position has been on the decline ever since – challenged by strong regional parties representing lower and middle castes; the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in UP, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. Opinion polls suggest that the BJP is building momentum in these states, and if it is able to maintain this position in the elections this will seriously diminish the bargaining position of regional leaders such as Mayawati and Nitish Kumar who would be potentially important players in any third front formation. Beyond these two states, the BJP will rely on doing well in western, central and other northern states (Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh).
It is, then, in the southern and eastern states that regional parties remain most resilient going into the elections, and where the BJP position has historically been weaker. These states are home to non-Hindi speaking language communities and have distinctive political cultures. The four crucial states to watch will be Odisha, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the ‘new’ Andhra Pradesh (which will become two states after the creation of the new state of Telangana expected to be formalised after the elections in June). Regional parties currently govern the states of Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, and are positioned well ahead of the elections. Their Chief Ministers – Naveen Patnaik, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee – are likely to be in a position to bargain hard during alliance negotiations. New players may emerge with a stronger hand in a newly bifurcated Andhra Pradesh too – especially the ‘YSR Congress’ (a splinter party from Congress led by the son of the state’s former Chief Minister) and the Telugu Desam Party in the truncated Andhra Pradesh. These regional parties are not natural allies with each other, and some have been unreliable coalition partners of the BJP before (both Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa participated in BJP-led coalition governments in the late 1990s, but withdrew their support – in one instance bringing down the government).
To conclude, if the BJP manages to win a substantial share of seats in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it is likely to weaken some important regional parties and lessen the chances that a Third Front alternative to a BJP-led national government could coalesce. Yet, in southern and eastern India, regional parties remain resilient and are likely to play an important role in national government formation after the elections. This may initiate a new round of horse-trading and pork-barrel politics as the BJP attempts to hold together an alliance without a clear unity of purpose.