The “Modi tujhse bair nahi” fallacy

Stunned by the 0-3 verdict in the Hindi heartland, many BJP supporters are hoping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma will counter the anti-incumbency that led to the party’s defeat in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Some point to the slogan “Modi tujhse bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi” as a sign that voters were angry with state leaders rather than with the PM, and that this setback was a one-off.

This is somewhat optimistic. There was undeniably a national element to the state campaigns. Many of the issues that afflicted the incumbent BJP governments were national – agricultural distress, demonetisation impact, GST. Congress President Rahul Gandhi campaigned at length on the alleged failings of the Modi government, and Modi also spent a lot of time criticising the Congress Party.

That said, issues and candidates do differ between state and national elections, so we can’t rule out the possibility of some voters in those states voting differently in the coming general election. However recent history is not encouraging for the BJP, at least when it comes to Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Consider the average swing for the winning and losing parties in these three states over the past 15 years.

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The party that wins a state election on average gains 7-9 percentage points in the following general election. The party that loses also gains 1-2 points. The overall share of the vote going to smaller parties and independents usually shrinks between state and national elections, benefitting national parties.

If this pattern holds, the INC can expect to increase its lead over the BJP in these states in the coming general election. And even if there is a Modi effect on some voters, the state winner effect could neutralise it.

Some might argue that Modi is sui generis, and that his personal charisma will suffice to see the BJP through, especially in the Hindi belt. The historical record suggests otherwise. Consider 2013-14, when the INC was at a low point and dealing with serious anti-incumbency. In Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the party lost only 1-3 percentage points between the 2013 state election and the 2014 general election.

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This means that very few INC voters in the state election switched to the BJP – or at least those losses were offset by incoming voters who had previously voted for other parties or independents. The INC lost such few votes at arguably its lowest point that it seems unlikely that it will slide when it is resurgent, and when the BJP faces anti-incumbency after five years in office.

The BJP could still jump ahead of the INC, as occurred early in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era. The former won Madhya Pradesh (which included Chhattisgarh then) decisively in the February 1998 and September 1999 general elections, even though in between it had lost the November 1998 state election to the INC. Again, the INC held on to its vote share but the floating vote moved towards the BJP.

The problem is that the momentum is now going the other way. The BJP could in theory reverse its losses in the Hindi belt, but it won’t be easy.

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No end of the road for the Congress

Here’s a look at the Congress Party’s national prospects, first published as an oped in the Hindustan Times:

After a merciless series of election defeats since 2014, it’s tempting to write off the Congress as a leading national force. With few visible signs of a Congress revival, some argue that India’s regional parties are now the main bulwark against the BJP.

This certainly seems to be the case with the next big state election: Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The Congress is very much the underdog, with the BSP seemingly best positioned to beat back the BJP. The Congress’ current irrelevance was shown up — if in a small way — in the two recent UP by-elections where, in the absence of the BSP, voters dissatisfied with the Samajwadi Party gravitated towards the BJP.

But it may well be premature to write off the Congress. Even in its present nadir, the Congress is either the ruling party or the principal opposition in six of India’s 12 largest states (which account for 80% of the Lok Sabha seats). The BJP, at its current zenith, is one or the other in six states, although it clearly hopes to add UP to this list soon. Obviously ruling a state counts for more than being the opposition, but the Congress remains the only feasible alternative in a big swath of the country. Recall that the party ruled only two such states (Orissa and Madhya Pradesh) when Sonia Gandhi took over in March 1998. In military terms, the party’s intentions might seem suicidal to some, but its capabilities cannot be ignored.

Things will remain tricky for the party through early 2017. It will need to put in a respectable performance in UP, which at a minimum means winning enough seats to affect government formation in the state. It will have to fight off a challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and retain some of the smaller states. This won’t be easy: The BJP could lose a third of its 2014 UP vote of 42% in a four-way race and still have a chance of winning the state.

But once the Congress is past this stage, opportunities may begin to open up in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which are ruled by the BJP and together account for 91 of the 543 parliamentary seats. The Congress won just three of the 91 in 2014. As tempting as it is to project BJP’s invincibility indefinitely into the future, the fact is that all of these governments are vulnerable to a challenge, and the Congress will be the only party positioned to take advantage.

Gujarat has been plagued by a Patidar agitation and its chief minister is facing allegations of cronyism. The three-term Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments are also battling corruption charges, while Rajasthan tends to seesaw between the BJP and Congress (although the BJP will also be defending a large vote margin — as the AIADMK just managed in Tamil Nadu). The Congress will be in danger of losing its last major state, Karnataka, but the risks will weigh against the BJP.

So how does any of this matter? Despite the 2014 Modi wave, the national landscape is still shaped by state politics. While dissatisfaction with the UPA was obviously a factor, the data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that satisfaction with the ruling state government was perhaps the most important determinant of voting. Consider that the Congress’ 2014 vote share in Karnataka actually rose in comparison with 2013; but the BJP gained seats because of its merger with BS Yeddyurappa’s splinter party.

It is possible, as many commentators assert, that the Indian voter’s disenchantment with the Congress is irreversible. But it’s too easy to extrapolate the most recent trend into the future. Nationally, the Congress is positioned to the left of the BJP, ready to reap any disappointment with Narendra Modi’s development rhetoric, possesses a deep bench of younger leaders and has more boots on the ground than any other contender.

And if the party shakes off its stupor and survives the UP and Punjab elections, it has the chance to take the battle to the BJP heartland.