Studying India’s Assembly polls over the last seven decades, Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala in their book The Verdict, categorised India’s state elections from 1952 into three phases: the pro-incumbency phase (1952-77), the anti-incumbency phase (1977-2002) and the fifty-fifty era (2002 onwards).
Table ‘A’- The three phases of India’s elections
Roy and Sopariwala write in their book: “From about the turn of the century onwards, there was a major change among the electorate too: the brutal anti-incumbency phase started to transition out, as voters in each state began to differentiate between governments that delivered on promises and those that did not.”
This third phase, lasting from 2002 to present, has been called the ‘fifty-fifty era’. In 71 Assembly elections from 2002 until today, there has been no discernible bias towards either anti-incumbency or pro-incumbency. Almost exactly half the governments (51%) have been voted out, and half (49%) have been voted back to power. Roy and Sopariwala remark that in the ‘fifty-fifty era’ the new voter driven reality is ‘perform or perish’, ‘work or vanish’.
Since 2014, the BJP has had an impeccable electoral record. The saffron party has gone from strength to strength winning one state after another and even conquering uncharted territories, installing governments in states like Jharkhand, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Haryana and even Jammu and Kashmir. Modi’s personal charisma, the Sangh’s robust organisation, the BJP’s communal pitch, the party’s insatiable desire to capture power at all costs, shrewd social engineering, the free-fall of the Congress party, a lethargic and fragmented opposition have all contributed in the BJP’s electoral successes in the last six years.
While the BJP is often described as ‘invincible’ due to its electoral fortunes in recent years, there is a chink in the BJP’s armour that seems to have gone unnoticed so far. From 2014 to 2020, i.e during the ‘fifty-fifty era’, when almost 50% state governments were voted back to power, the BJP’s record while defending its governments in Assembly elections is far from impressive- only 33% of BJP governments were voted back to power.
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In nine Assembly polls in big and medium-sized states between 2014-2020, only three BJP/NDA governments were voted back to power- in Gujarat (2017), Maharashtra (2019) and Bihar (2020). In Gujarat, where party chief Amit Shah had set a target of 150 seats, the BJP barely managed to hold on to power- its tally fell from 115 to 99. In Maharashtra, the party had to sit in opposition despite its pre-poll alliance winning a simple majority- bagging 161 out of the 288 Assembly seats. (Since the incumbent alliance won a majority, it is considered as an election where the BJP government was voted back).
But the devil is in the details. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, especially the BJP, won not because they were able to beat anti-incumbency but by using the oldest trick in the book- dividing an already divided opposition. The NDA, especially the BJP was benefited by Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA).
A data analysis of the Maharashtra results by The Quint showed that in 25 seats where the Congress- Nationalist Congress Party came second and the BJP/Shiv Sena won, the margin of victory was smaller than the votes garnered by the VBA. Simply put, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance would have failed to retain power had the VBA contested with Congress-NCP. The BJP which eventually won 105 would have won just 85 seats in such a scenario. This leaves us with Bihar- the only aberration- where the BJP managed to improve its tally and helped the NDA to reach the majority mark. But it has to be noted that the BJP only joined the government in 2017 when Nitish ditched the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance and it was not the BJP but Nitish Kumar who was facing heavy anti-incumbency and fighting to defend his government.
Table ‘B’- BJP’s dismal record while defending governments during the 50-50 phase
There is another interesting statistical tit-bit that gives credence to the theory that the BJP which seems electorally invincible is actually vulnerable while defending its governments in Assembly polls: 70% of the BJP’s victories in Assembly elections since 2014 have come when the party was posing a challenge to the incumbent.
Table ‘C’- BJP’s victories since 2014
The seemingly invincible BJP surely has an Achilles heel- it struggles to defend its governments in the current ‘fifty-fifty’ phase. This chink in the party’s armour makes the 2021 Assam polls a litmus test for the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery. All eyes are on Bengal but given the BJP’s dismal record while defending its governments and the fact that in 2022, the BJP will be fighting to retain power in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur, makes the Assam elections extremely significant as they might set the tone for 2022.
2021 Assam Assembly Elections
Before the BJP’s maiden victory in Assam in 2016, the BJP and the NDA were playing second fiddle to the Congress and other regional parties in the north-east. The NDA had only 10 out of the 25 seats in the North-east and the Congress was ruling in five of the eight north-eastern states.
Today, the BJP’s NEDA (North-East Democratic Alliance) stitched by the party’s go-to man in the north east, Himanta Biswa Sarma holds 18 out of the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the region. Credited for BJP’s meteoric rise in the NE—the BJP-led NEDA is currently in power in all the eight states of the NE—the ex-Congressman, who first cut his political teeth under Tarun Gogoi, will face a stiff challenge in his home state by a stronger, united opposition in the 2021 polls.
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In 2016, the BJP had got its social engineering right by bringing together several smaller parties forming a rainbow coalition to take on an isolated Congress. In a complete role reversal, in the 2021 Assembly polls, the BJP will be up against a possible grand-alliance consisting of the Congress, the Left, perfume baron Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and some other smaller parties.
The anti-CAA protests that roiled and rocked the state completely changed Assam’s political landscape. The entire political opposition spoke in unison voicing the same concerns about the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act. Opposition to the CAA and belief in the 1985 Assam Accord has become a rallying point for anti-BJP forces in the state. The demise of Assam’s longest serving CM, Tarun Gogoi, who was at the forefront of forming a grand-alliance is a huge setback for the grand old party. But the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ripun Bora reiterated the party’s commitment towards building a grand-alliance saying that the formation of a grand alliance would be fitting tribute to the departed leader’s last wish.
The fate of BJP’s go-to man in the NE, Himanta Biswa Sarma and the NEDA alliance he stitched will be determined by the BJP’s performance in the Assam polls. It was evident in the way Sarma went hammer and tongs after the Bodoland People’s Front which happens to be its ally at the state and Centre in the recently concluded Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) polls.
After Sarma exchanged several potshots with BPF supremo Hagrama Mohilary and the BJP helping the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) tacitly by dividing the non-tribal votes, the saffron party went ahead and ditched its ally the BPF by joining hands with the UPPL and Gana Suraksha Party to gain control of the BTC. Hagrama’s repeated pleas to the BJP of following coalition norms were ignored. Interestingly, in November, the Congress had wooed the BPF to join its grand-alliance.
While Bengal has been hogging all the limelight in the past few weeks, the Assam polls will be equally-if not more important. At stake will be the BJP’s fortunes in the North East and if it bites the dust again, failing to defend yet another government, the party will have to introspect going into 2022—where it will be fighting to retain power in five states including the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.
The views are personal.