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Discontent and Disconnect

Wages of Dominance?

Suhas Palshikar ( is a political commentator, and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.


After long deliberation and unseemly delay, the Election Commission of India has announced the dates for elections to the Gujarat assembly. Approximately a month on from now, Gujarat would be well into polling and we shall know the outcome by 18 December. Therefore, now is the time for speculations—wild, guarded, informed, biased, etc. This column would not want to contribute to the cacophony of conjectures. Nevertheless, Gujarat’s case helps us understand the predicament of electoral dominance.

For over two decades, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has dominated Gujarat beyond any doubt and without coming up against any challenge from the Congress. It was faced with two internal challenges by Shankersinh Vaghela in 1996 and Keshubhai Patel in 2012. It successfully survived both. Since 1995, the BJP has won between 116 and 121 seats out of the 182 with an average vote share of 47% as against Congress’s average of 37%. In a bipolar contest, a gap of at least (and often more than) 10% is indeed huge enough for the BJP to feel secure and confident. Given that the key figure shaping its dominance in Gujarat is currently the Prime Minister, the BJP would naturally hope to retain this comfortable position, though there is the usual risk of depletion of strength that dominant incumbents face. This time around, in spite of the fundamentally bipolar contest, various third players such as Vaghela and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) might further complicate the picture and it is anybody’s guess whether these new players would eat into the BJP’s votes or those of the Congress.

But let us move beyond the game of numbers. Whatever might be the outcome in Gujarat in December, the developments of the past couple of years are very instructive not only to understand what is happening in Gujarat but to make informed projections about the trajectory of electoral dominance. Between 1995 and 2017, barring the Vaghela interlude, and in spite of it, the BJP has been the dominant party. Even after Vaghela’s rebellion , the BJP retained a vote share of 45% and the Congress remained at a modest 35%. Two decades is an impressively long time of electoral dominance. During this time, Narendra Modi was chief minister for 13 long years at a stretch. No other chief minister of Gujarat has had that privilege. Ideally, therefore, the BJP should feel reasonably secure.

Feeling Nervous?

And yet, if we start scratching the surface of this apparent invincibility, the weaknesses of the “Gujarat model of dominance” begin to invite attention. It is tough to tell whether the number of projects showered on Gujarat by various central ministries is greater, or the number of times Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited his state. Both, of course, are entirely common phenomena in Indian politics. Yet, a popular Prime Minister, claiming to have developed Gujarat when he was chief minister of the state, need not have exerted to the extent that it might appear as being insecure. Interestingly, while this is a state-level battle, the chief minister is nowhere in the picture; it is all about the achievements of the Modi-led central government and about the largesse of the larger-than-life persona of Modi. All this, along with the deferment of announcement of election dates to suit “announcements for flood relief,” does beg the question if theBJP is simply being overcautious or plain jittery.

But why should the BJP feel jittery? Was it not only three years ago that the party showcased Gujarat (as the model of development) in order to garner votes in the parliamentary elections? Yet, Gujarat’s voters seem to have begun removing the packaging and looking at the contents of that model. That is why the BJP is keen on showering Gujarat with projects and dreams. But for quite some time now, the Patidars, long-time voters of the BJP are angry with the party (exactly like the Marathas of Maharashtra were unhappy with the Congress by 2014). More recently, traders from many cities of Gujarat volubly expressed their disappointment. In this manner, the two pillars of Modi’s neo-middle class have been upset about the BJP in no small measure. While the BJP has not been able to win over the Kshatriyas, the Dalits of Gujarat have been at the receiving end both from upper castes and the establishment. Hence, what happened at Una was not an isolated instance, but part of the pattern. The BJP has not been able to address these concerns satisfactorily. It has long alienated the Muslims. Thus, various social segments have begun to be sceptical about the party.

The Real Question

But even more interesting is the Prime Minister’s attack on the Congress party. He called the party a habitual Gujarat hater. If a Prime Minister resorts to a regionalist appeal for winning a state election, that tells us a lot not only about the political narrow-mindedness of the Prime Minister but also the narrow space he and his party may have. After all, it only means that the party’s dominance of electoral terrain has been quite vacuous.

Therefore, electoral outcome apart, the question is: If a party is so dominant that it has been winning elections for more than two decades, has it built a strong coalition that would remain with the party even after its defeat? Lessons from many other states present us with a paradox. Parties remain “dominant” for a long duration but once they lose power, they also tend to lose a grip on the critical social forces that sustained them electorally. In other words, the resilience of most dominant parties is very thin. Whether the BJP can make an exception to this rule is the real question.

Prolonged electoral dominance is not a new thing as far as politics in the states is concerned. The Congress party was famous for its dominance in a number of states ranging from Assam, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and so on. The case of Maharashtra probably stands out because of Congress’s long dominance (1957–77; 1980–95). The Left Front in West Bengal holds the record of uninterrupted electoral dominance for 34 years. Curiously, in most of these instances, when the state-level electoral dominance declines or ends, the downfall is rapid and steep and the collapse is all-round. In Maharashtra, the Congress was faced with fragmented rebellion (1995), a split (1999) and a complete rout among most social sections (2014). In most states where the Congress was dominant electorally, the defeats also brought desertion by many social segments making the party permanently vulnerable. In West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M) and Left Front were finally defeated in 2011 but even before that, they had lost goodwill and different social sections were finding fault with the Left Front government. The defeat in state assembly elections was also followed by an adverse showing in the local body elections. If one takes a careful look at the current disarray in the Biju Janata Dal which has been in power in Odisha consecutively for almost two decades now, the situation is on the verge of a political collapse. The party is ridden with internal disquiet temporarily quelled by the presence of a leader about to fade. In other words, the longer a party remains in power and the weaker the opposition, the greater the chances that once the dominant party is defeated, most of its fortresses will fall to pieces quickly and unceremoniously.

Shallowness of Dominance

Why is it that a party dominating the electoral arena for two or three decades (or even more) faces disintegration, organisational disarray and an eerie shallowness of its once-invincible electoral prowess? Five conjectures, based on the way governments and parties function, can be proffered to explain this anomaly of shallowness of dominance along with, and in spite of, long durations in power.

First, this anomaly relates to the nature of electoral politics. Oftentimes, elections are less about actual performance and more about perceptions. Many factors have contributed to this development. Whether a government has actually done well or not, increasingly, much depends on what is known as the “PR” (public relations) job. Once a favourable perception spreads, it is able to trump issues of actual performance. As a result, building electoral dominance can get disconnected from what the government has delivered. Once a party is out of power, it has much too little to fall back upon because images are temporary and can be sustained only while in power. Two, in conjunction with the above, elections tend to revolve around personalities. The belief in the image of the leader is critical for winning elections. Voters are not asked to think of the programmes the party offers, but of the leader who represents the party. Leaders are then supposed to be harbingers of well-being, capable of overcoming all constraints and transcending all discussion of actual policies. The linkages between party and the voter remain tentative since voters identify more with the leader and less with the party.

Three, ruling parties are known to ignore—even undermine—governance and instead survive on political manipulations. By co-opting the political elite from various social sections, and by seeking easy popularity through selectively satisfying some demands, a weak clientelist politics is adopted. It is “weak” in the sense that patronage is disbursed ad hoc; it tends to manipulate both demands and expectations; no social section is genuinely served or satisfied; instead, everyone is left with a sense of being cheated, though temporarily placated. Emphasis is on momentary appeasement. Four, in accordance with the above, governments tend to be clever-by-half and construct public interest on the basis of sectional demands and by producing conditions for mutual suspicions among different social sections. All these four factors contribute to a populist ambience that falsely sustains dominance but fails to go deep into structuring political constituencies.

Finally, the task of building party organisations is constantly postponed. In the name of party building, parties vacillate between narrowly imagined cleavage-based mobilisations which tend to be exclusionary and a catch-all strategy of accommodating one and all and make the party a catch-all organisation. Such opportunistic inclusiveness discourages the party from ideas, policies, and programmes and imprisons them in images and slogans.

As these features craft “empty” electoral victories without deep social roots, electoral dominance shapes without political dominance. While these features are common to most of our politics, they are adopted more by “dominant” parties and also inflict more harm to them. Electoral victories make personalities more indispensable, they make party building more redundant. Superfluous dominance emerges alongside many discontents and an overall disconnect with the “people”. When parties are not dominant but have to constantly compete for mandates to govern, these traits are likely to be breached; parties are then likely to take the tasks of governance and opposition somewhat seriously and attempt to build durable social coalitions. In this sense, dominance today becomes a burden for tomorrow both for dominant parties and for the people.



Updated On : 13th Nov, 2017


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