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India's Second Dominant Party System

The conflation between nationalism and Hindutva has been the backbone of the new hegemony. That is why the BJP has been so happy with intellectuals trying to problematise the nation. That particular intellectual initiative simultaneously places the BJP in a position of immense advantage and ensures that “anti-BJP” would necessarily be equated with the anti-national!  Independently, both ideas—Hindutva and development—are potent political discourses. By weaving them together with nationalism Narendra Modi has bound them into an arsenal of his political offensive. Therefore, the coming times would be less about electoral victories and more about the onward march of this hegemony in the realm of popular imagination; about how democracy shapes up in Modi’s new India.

Eminent political commentator and former teacher of Politics and Public Administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, Suhas Palshikar will write a regular monthly column for the EPW.  In this, his first column, he analyses the election results of the five states that went to the polls recently.


Assembly elections were held in five states in India in February-March but the news and discussions are predominantly centred on the results  in one state—Uttar Pradesh (UP).  Not only political observers and poll analysts, but even ministers in the Narendra Modi government are busy describing the historic significance of the UP outcome.

The UP poll results indeed underline what many have refused to recognise in the last three years—the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the central force in India’s politics. In a sense, then, the surprise is partly situated in the inability or unwillingness to read the indications of an emerging polity. Suddenly, everyone seems to have awakened to that inevitability and has to take lessons in political science from ministers in the present government. While there is no point denying the effect this present moment may have on the future course of competitive politics and democracy in India, it is necessary to put the outcomes in perspective, at the risk of reducing the dramatic for the prosaic and perhaps being “petty”! So let us first move away from the extra-ordinary and take stock of the more mundane—and yet important—features of the outcome.


Question of Anti-incumbency


Given the fractured election cycle, a few states go to the polls to elect their respective state legislatures at any given time in a year. In this sense there is a season of a “mini-general election” almost every year. Slowly but surely these rounds of state elections keep shaping the larger picture that will finally become visible only at the time of the parliamentary elections. This time around, in all the five state elections voters rejected the incumbent governments. While the scale of defeat varies from state to state before we join the bandwagon of the rising new India, we need to acknowledge that this new India indeed has space for voters to defeat the government. If elections are about alternation among the claimants, these elections have underscored that element.

In Manipur, the (Congress) government was three terms old and in Punjab (the Akali-BJP government) was two terms old. In the remaining three states, the governments were in power only for one term each. In view of the utter arrogance and self-indulgence that marks our elected representatives one is tempted to believe that even a mindless alternation is good for democracy. So if misgovernance was the cause of the outcome in one state, it should have played a role in the others too. Similarly, the defeat of the Punjab government which benefitted from the Midas touch of the Prime Minister, and the drubbing in Goa which was being assiduously protected by the (then) Defence Minister, do not sit well with the Modi magic (Modi magic as the faithful call it—see Venkaiah Naidu’s article in the Hindu of 13 March)! While Modi inaugurates the vision of new India and prepares to preside over the 75th anniversary of its freedom—in 2022—this aspect of electoral politics that it might continue to have space for voters to reject the incumbents, should send a sobering signal.


The voters have not necessarily singled out any one party for rejection—in the five states they have rejected incumbent governments of various parties. If the elections did not involve the big prize of UP, newspaper headlines would have described the outcomes as  “mixed fortunes” for the different parties involved. And had UP not hogged the limelight, the elections could have been read as some good news for the beleaguered Congress waiting for the tide to turn. As it happened, the elections were centred around one single state—Uttar Pradesh—and perhaps the implications of this round of state elections would surely deserve focus on not the smaller though significant stories of anti-incumbency but the larger narrative they have unfolded. So, it would indeed be inadequate to shrug these outcomes merely as anti-incumbency. 


The Larger Narrative


Over and above the towering influence of Modi, the outcome in each state has had its own characteristics that require attention. Modi turned the election at least in UP into a plebiscite on his leadership so that voters were not choosing a chief minister but were confirming Modi in his office, as it were. In any case, state elections do matter in shaping political competition at the national level.  The critical link between state elections and the all-India party competition can be ignored only at the risk of losing sight of the complex dynamics of party competition.  




Let us begin with the separate state stories first. In Punjab the Akali-BJP alliance should have lost the previous election itself, but the Congress managed to lose it in 2012 mainly due to factionalism. Then, during the last five years, the Akali-BJP government did almost everything to ensure that it would not remain popular. The only unpredictable element was the Aam Admi Party (AAP). Touted as the party on the verge of victory, celebrated as the party of hope for Dalits and one that caught the imagination of the youth of Punjab, it ended up as a poor second. This allowed the Congress a clear victory. But the Punjab outcome presents the Congress with a huge challenge. For the first time since its humiliating defeat in 2014, it has some good news; but how good it would be and how durable the party’s newly found fortune would remain, are open questions.


The Punjab of today is not an easy state to govern and the Congress seems unable to bring any freshness to the politics of the state. Given the lacklustre governance records of most Congress governments in the recent past, ruling the state is bound to prove challenging and the Congress is most likely to falter in meeting the challenge. There is a further complication for the party. Amarinder Singh represents a challenge to Rahul Gandhi’s ways of functioning and for the party it would be an awkward situation where its only success so far since 2014 comes along with an implicit challenge to its only leader at the all-India level. Coupled with its failures elsewhere and the growing exasperation of its middle level leadership, the return of Captain Amarinder Singh might signal the assertion by Congress’ many local and regional strongmen. So, the party would probably not know whether to welcome this victory or be wary of it for the cascading effect in the near future.


Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand


In Goa and Manipur, the Congress should probably be thankful to the BJP for jumping the signals of constitutional propriety and rushing in to form the government. In both states, the party would have been unable to genuinely form a working coalition. In both states, the BJP trailed the Congress in terms of seats but was the party of the majority in terms of vote share. In Goa, the split in the state Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the attempts of AAP to gate-crash the arena of competitive politics proved inadequate to inflict defeat on the ruling BJP. While the party got almost defeated, the Congress was not able to take advantage of the favourable circumstances. For the Congress, it is surely a moment of serious introspection: the new chief minister of Manipur was a Congress leader until last year and in Goa, the king maker—the leader of the Goa Forward Party—was also a disgruntled Congress leader of yesteryear. This factor doubly underscores the need for a more dynamic and two-way relationship with state level leadership—something that the party seems to be lacking consistently.

In the case of Manipur, the task both for the BJP and the Congress is even more delicate. Both parties would need to avoid the temptation to indulge in a cynical game of inflaming the already frayed ethnic fabric of the state. While the entire focus of both pre-election discussions and post-election analyses has been on UP, the most dramatic results have actually come from Manipur. Where the BJP had not a single MLA last time, it has won 21 seats with the largest vote share (36%). This state has witnessed prolonged protests against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); it has been the theatre of bitter intercommunity clashes between the Meitis, Kukis and Nagas.  Close on the heels of Assam, the BJP will now rule Manipur. Immediately after it came to power, the party had trumpeted its  “breakthrough” in the negotiations with the Naga rebels. With a much-too-vocal minister from Arunachal Pradesh installed in the Ministry of Home Affairs (Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, the BJP is poised for a major ideological penetration of the delicate terrain of the North East and the Manipur victory will be significant in this respect.

While the Congress historically has always faltered in its dealings with the various political groupings and ethnic communities of the North East region, the Hindutva forces have believed in relentless efforts to Hinduise the communities of the region. Now, using formal power and the half-baked eagerness of various elements to join the ruling powers, the region would be open for further experiments of the Hindutva organisations. These experiments would most likely create many new fractures and widen the pre-existing cleavages both between India’s mainstream nationalism and identities of the communities from the region on the one hand and among the various communities themselves over the issue of their self-identification and their location within the Indian nation-state.

Uttarakhand is a two-party state and the Congress and BJP have almost alternated in power there. Both are deeply divided parties internally and prone to intra-party rebellions. The victory of the BJP in this state has also been accompanied by defections from the Congress, including by the veteran N D Tiwary—though the extent of its impact is somewhat doubtful. What should however deserve note is the fact that in this bipolar state, the BJP has wrested power convincingly –with 46% of the vote share and more than 80% seats.

But all these state specificities pale in the backdrop of the BJP’s dream comeback in Uttar Pradesh. In the days and months to come, details about the UP outcome would be proffered and objective facts about the Samajwadi Party (SP) misrule would be touted. Suffice it to remember that the victory of the BJP comes with an enviable near-40% vote share—something that is in itself the centrepiece of these elections given the fractured polity UP has been and the three-way competition that it witnessed. So what distinguishes this election outcome is not just the BJP’s victory in UP, but the scale and timing of that victory. The party has managed to retain the voter support that it had acquired in 2014. That support in its turn, has been the expansion of the party’s dramatic performance in 1998-1999.


This remarkable continuity suggests that the BJP has more or less succeeded in shaping a durable base in the state. That base did not translate itself into seats and electoral success in the 2004 and 2009 elections, nevertheless the core had remained intact. In 2014, the BJP succeeded in not only strengthening that base but marginally improving and expanding it. But three years since then, not many would have expected it to replicate the 2014 performance. The BJP managed this and therein lies the special nature of the 2017 outcome. With 40% vote share, the BJP ended up getting over 75% of the seats.


Decisive Restructuring of the Party System


The scale and depth of the BJP’s victory in UP have overshadowed almost everything else since the results became known. This massive victory of the BJP in UP brings to the forefront the changed nature of the polity and the structure of the emerging pattern of party competition. This new pattern has two core elements. One pertains to the party system and competitive politics; another relates to the grounds of political contestation and the terrain of ideas.

The first element of the emerging party system might appear as more descriptive than analytical. But to the extent that the opponents of BJP are not prepared to accept the descriptive element, this point requires elaboration. In 2014, Modi’s handsome victory inaugurated a new framework of party competition. The BJP clearly emerged as the dominant party not in mere numeric terms, but more substantively. It stretched to a large number of states, received support from a cross section of the society, placed the leadership factor at the centre of competitive politics and above all, set the tone for the political debates. Since then, but also during that election, the BJP and Modi made every effort to set aside the state-specific factors, make them less relevant and bring about an all-India imagination that dominated the electorate. This feature of the BJP’s politics went against the established pattern of state-dominated competition.

After coming to power in Delhi, the BJP has alternated between acquiescing into the dynamics of state-specificity and the shaping of an all-India paradigm of politics. The “Modi factor” continued to push state-specificity aside. Bihar was a rude reminder of the importance of state-specificity, but the BJP still persisted with its strategy of countering state-specificity by the national or the all-India factors. The “crusade” against black money and the hype over nationalism are both instances of this strategy. Modi’s address to the party after the election results indicates this turn most explicitly. After UP, he was not talking only—or even primarily—about UP. The vision he talked about was the vision of new India. So, it was clear that UP or any other state assembly election would no more be treated by the BJP as the choice of a state government, but a plebiscite on the party’s larger vision and a mandate for executing that vision. The micro-management that Amit Shah is famous for is distinct from treating the state as the central platform; it is only a tactic to ensure that the all-India narrative receives its sustenance from localised moves. This shift away from the states may pose a serious crisis for state parties.

In fact, it might be reasonable to expect that the BJP would strengthen the all-India narrative as the central focus of politics since that would help the party neutralise some of its tougher opponents who are based in the narrative of the state.  The BJP had two tough tests: one in Bihar and the other in UP. It failed the first test, but the performance in the second has almost neutralised that failure. Similarly, in 2014, the performance of the BJP was much better against the Congress compared to its performance against the state parties. This was of course, partly due to the fact that state parties dominated in many states where the BJP has had a limited presence. However, with UP, the party has now shown that it can steamroll the state parties just as it can wash out the Congress. Therefore, the BJP’s current stature makes it quite invincible—in regional terms and also in terms of the structure of the electoral contests—bi-party or multiparty. This clearly ushers in the era of single party dominance. As of today, the BJP rules a large part of the country—something that would now be reflected in the changed equations in the Rajya Sabha.


It has also been the only and first party to win a clear majority since Rajiv Gandhi did so in 1984. Also, in the post-Indira Gandhi period, Modi is the only leader to truly claim mass appeal almost throughout the country. Therefore, as I argued initially in the aftermath of the last parliamentary elections, the coming of Modi’s BJP in 2014 marked a shift away from the past quarter of a century. This indeed was a new phase that was commencing in India’s competitive politics ((Hindu 23 May 2014). The outcome in UP has again underlined development—and now it seems that many observers are ready to accept this reality. The present moment is undeniably the moment of the second dominant party system.


Terrain of Ideas


But more than the inauguration of the second dominant party system in terms of structure of competition, it is the ideological terrain this development needs careful scrutiny. In tune with the true implication of the idea of a dominant party system, the rise of BJP as the dominant force also underscores emergence of a new politics. That brings us to the second critical aspect of our current political scene. While the BJP has yet to truly emerge as a dominant party by getting re-elected in 2019, the party is already busy ushering in a new hegemony. The idiom and import of this new hegemony are complex. The new politics of Modi’s BJP is going to be a blend of new Hindutva and the political economy of a new variety. Newspaper columns and unsolicited counsels to Modi keep hoping and advising that this moment be used by Modi to rein in Hindutva elements and focus on the economy. Indeed, a whole lot of the commentators love Modi as the messiah of development and governance and think that the other Modi would fade into the background. What they conveniently ignore is the fact that it is unthinkable that BJP and Modi have given up, or for that matter would ever give up, Hindutva.

To be sure, Hindutva has travelled a long way from the ideas of M S Golwalkar. While Modi has never pretended to proffer a new vision of Hindutva (much of his approach originates in the Savarakarite view of Hindutva), his politics and that of his party has the ability of shaping the Hindutva rhetoric and also shaping the popular imagination about what Hindutva constitutes. Modi’s Hindutva exhorts the followers to become Hindu politically. The conflation between nationalism and Hindutva has been the backbone of the new hegemony. That is why the BJP has been so happy with intellectuals trying to problematise the nation. That particular intellectual initiative simultaneously places the BJP in a position of immense advantage and ensures that  “anti-BJP” would necessarily be equated with the anti-national! The mixing of the registers of nationalism and Hindutva adroitly strengthens the BJP’s new hegemony because while many people may not have any emotional connect with the idea of Hindutva, a majority certainly has emotional investment in the idea of nation. Because the BJP succeeds in conflating these two, new recruits to Hindutva come from a cross-section of the society.

The other key component of the new hegemony consists of the idea of development. On the one hand, the Congress was the initial architect of this component but does not have the political courage and ideological sophistication to capitalise on it in present times. On the other hand, the social justice discourse and the left discourse chose to emphasise the fact of poverty and inequitable distribution of wealth. While that was not an inaccurate point, the presentation of that narrative has begun to appear far removed from the collective expectations of economic comfort. As a result, throughout the decade since late 1990s, the popular expectations fanned by globalisation and inadequately satiated by India’s political economy remained unattended.

The BJP faltered in making haste on the platform of shining India, but no other party really took note of the potential of that politics of hope and expectation. Ironically, the Congress did have the past record of similarly tapping hope and expectation—through the audacious  “Garibi hatao” slogan! But the party had ceased to allow any political imagination and therefore, instead of seizing the initiative, it went on hoping that voters would be willing to support it only on the basis of a discourse of palliatives. Modi took over from where Pramod Mahajan had left the politics of hope and received enough response to it to turn that into an integral element of his ideological offering.

The second key element of the new hegemony was thus carved out from the utterly innocuous but eminently evocative term of development. So much so that after the UP victory, Modi felt assured enough to inaugurate his idea of  “new India”---a land of opportunities rather than doles. It would require more analytical energy, time, and indeed space, to decipher this language of the new hegemony. There are gaping holes in the new set of dominant ideas that are gaining ground and surely, there is bound to be deep unease at the fundamentally inegalitarian and anti-pluralist populism informing these ideas. But the arrival of this hegemony is not easy to contest.

In the coming two years, the BJP would be entering electoral battles on its home ground in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. A defeat in these states would be embarrassing but whether that defeat would fracture this hegemony is doubtful. Independently, both these ideas—Hindutva and development—are potent political discourses. By weaving them together with nationalism Modi has bound them into an arsenal of his political offensive. Therefore, the coming times would be less about electoral victories and more about the onward march of this hegemony in the realm of popular imagination; about how democracy shapes in Modi’s new India.



Palshikar Suhas (2014): “A New Phase of the Polity” Hindu, 23 May

Updated On : 17th Mar, 2017
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