Table of Contents

The scale of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in India’s 2014 parliamentary elections took most observers by surprise. There were visible signs of deep public frustration with the incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by India’s Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress, centered on dissatisfaction with a stalling economy, skyrocketing food prices, and the alleged involvement of Congress Party functionaries and political allies in large-scale corruption. While many analysts had tipped the BJP to emerge as the single largest party in the parliament, no credible polling agency or political observer predicted the size of the wave.

By securing 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, the BJP pulled off the biggest win in the country’s modern history since the Congress Party swept the 1984 elections on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. When the BJP dubbed its final campaign push “Mission 272+” in reference to the number of seats it needed to secure a majority in parliament without help from allies, the aspiration sounded fantastical.1 And yet, when all the votes were counted, the party easily soared past that halfway mark on its own.

Since May 2014, some observers have tended to frame this feat as inexplicable, a black swan event that did not follow the known trajectories of Indian politics. While the BJP undoubtedly took electoral arithmetic in new directions in 2014, the historical processes and new calculations behind them can indeed be parsed. Doing so requires examining the social engineering the BJP used to bring in one of every three votes cast nationwide.2

Rukmini S.
Rukmini S. is an independent data journalist based in Chennai, India. Her work focuses on gender, caste, inequality, and politics.

Two factors contributed to the BJP’s electoral success and the expanded reach that drove that success. First, the party chose as its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a leader who quickly became so extraordinarily popular that he was able to create an electoral wave that propelled the party further ahead. Second, the BJP managed to win the favor of castes, ideological adherents, demographic groups, and geographic areas that were not previously solidly BJP votaries. While local constituency-level calculations played a role in bringing some of these new groups into the fold, an overarching theme was the consolidation of Hindu castes under a muscular majoritarian appeal. Not all of these new coalitions are entirely natural, and many of them are rife with internal contradictions. For the BJP to hold them together once again in 2019 will be difficult, and several cracks are already apparent.

Modi’s Outsize Popularity

Traditionally, according to opinion polls, Indian citizens have tended to report that the biggest factor governing their voting choices is political parties, not individual candidates; this has led some observers to believe that Indian elections are parliamentary rather than presidential. But what makes voters choose a certain party? The leading rationale voters cite in opinion surveys is “good leadership”; while it is certainly true that Indian voters might be more influenced by parties than by individual candidates, there is evidence to suggest that the figure atop a given party carries the most weight. In the wake of the 2014 election, the Lokniti Program administered by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) reported that many Indian voters care more about which candidates are running for the post of prime minister than for local elected positions.3

[In 2014,] Modi . . . became so extraordinarily popular that he was able to create an electoral wave that propelled the [BJP] further ahead.

The BJP’s historic victory in 2014 was undoubtedly powered by Modi’s widespread popularity, which outstripped that of the party as a whole. If the BJP had selected a different candidate for prime minister, one in five respondents from a 2014 postelection CSDS-Lokniti survey indicated that they would have gone with a different party.4 The survey found that Modi’s personal popularity outpaced that of the BJP by about 8 percentage points (36 percent to 28 percent), whereas his chief rival, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, trailed his party in popularity by 4 percentage points (14 percent to 18 percent). The gap between the share of voters who preferred the BJP’s stance over the Congress Party’s position on prominent electoral issues—including corruption, inflation, job growth, and counterterrorism—was smaller (10–12 percentage points) than the distance between voters’ views on Modi and Gandhi (15–17 percentage points).5

In subsequent state elections held between 2014 and 2018, Modi’s popularity sometimes has surpassed that of the party’s own local leaders.6 For instance, a survey conducted by CSDS-Lokniti ahead of Uttar Pradesh’s 2017 state assembly election found that Modi was the third-most-popular chief ministerial candidate, placing him higher than the BJP’s eventual pick, Yogi Adityanath. Furthermore, when respondents were asked what factors shaped their voting decisions, in addition to the usual responses (party, chief ministerial candidate, local candidates), 8 percent of respondents said “Narendra Modi.” These twin facts are remarkable given that Modi, as prime minister, figured nowhere on the ballot.7

As India heads into its seventeenth general election in April and May 2019, there are initial signs that the honeymoon Modi has enjoyed is subsiding. In the spring of 2018, the BJP performed poorly in parliamentary and state assembly by-elections, ceding valuable ground to the opposition in electorally pivotal states. In critical state elections held in December 2018, the BJP lost power in three of its strongholds in the Hindi heartland—Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. In two other states, Mizoram and Telangana, it failed to make gains from an admittedly low base.

Even several months before these regional electoral contests, a May 2018 CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey detected incipient pangs of anti-incumbency against the BJP. Nearly half of all respondents (47 percent) stated that the Modi government did not deserve a second term in office.8 However, it is worth pointing out that support for the party was nearly the same as the results of CSDS-Lokniti’s last pre-poll survey before the 2014 election.9 Modi’s polling numbers have also fallen off slightly, but, given the bump in his approval ratings after he took office, his numbers are down by just two percentage points (to a still-respectable 34 percent) since 2014.10 Meanwhile, the polling data on Rahul Gandhi is at a post-2014 peak, but the leading opposition figure still trails Modi by 10 percentage points (down from a gap of 17 percentage points in January 2018). CSDS-Lokniti has characterized its May 2018 survey results as “indicative of a declining trend, one that the BJP has been unable to stem.”11

If anti-incumbency sentiments have set in, a party leader’s personal popularity alone generally is unlikely to reverse its fortunes, but Modi is a once-in-a-generation politician and an exceptionally strong campaigner. After all, in 2004, voters rated then BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee quite favorably, but he was unable to overcome the relative unpopularity of his party, which lost the election. Arguably, recent tensions between India and Pakistan—triggered by the February 14 terrorist attack at Pulwama in the state of Jammu and Kashmir—will only further bolster Modi’s standing among the broader public. His decision to authorize aerial strikes on camps operated by the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) fits neatly with his carefully cultivated reputation as a decisive leader who is tough on terrorism. There are indications that he will use this issue on the campaign trail. The outcome of India’s general elections in April–May 2019 will hang on whether Modi’s personal appeal can compensate for his party’s receding popularity.

Building New Social Coalitions Among Hindus

There is no way to whitewash the fact that voting along caste lines remains a feature of Indian politics; over 45 percent of voters still say that it is important to them that a candidate of their own caste wins in their district.12 India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, much like U.S. congressional races, results in highly intense, mathematically driven political strategizing. In 2014, the BJP won more than half the seats in parliament with less than one-third of the actual votes cast.13 In such an environment, with at least a handful of serious competitors and dozens of independent candidates hiving off votes in every constituency, parties must court a steady support base of voters from disparate castes to build a winning coalition.

According to India’s most recent census (2011), Scheduled Castes (SCs) form 16.6 percent of the population, while Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute 8.6 percent. While there are no official figures for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and upper castes, these groups are generally understood to comprise between 40 and 50 percent and around 10 percent of the population, respectively. Muslims account for roughly 14 percent of the population, with other minorities (Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and others) accounting for the balance.14

Since India gained independence, the Congress Party historically has been the country’s big tent party, attracting religious minorities with its foundational secularism, marginalized Hindus with its stated aim of eradicating poverty and supporting equality, and upper caste Hindus with, among other things, its solidly upper caste Hindu leadership. The BJP—and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS)—traditionally has been associated with upper caste northern Indian Hindu voters, leading some observers to pejoratively describe it as a “Brahmin-Bania party.”15 But this pattern has been starting to change.

Available data, until recently, bore these generalizations out: if voters are divided into three overarching caste categories—upper castes, OBCs, and SCs/STs—the largest share of the BJP’s votes traditionally came from upper caste voters (see figure 1).16 Since 1999, however, the share of BJP voters who are from the upper castes has been declining (even as upper caste support for the party remains robust), as growing support for the BJP among OBC and now SC voters has changed the composition of the party’s support base on a percentage basis.

Despite the BJP’s decreasing dependence on upper caste voters, the affinity that many upper caste Hindu voters feel for the party has not lessened; in fact, especially compared to its chief rival, the Congress Party, the commitment of upper caste voters to the BJP was as high as it had ever been in 2014. The share of upper caste voters who prefer the Congress Party, however, was far lower in the 2014 general election (13 percent) than it had been in previous elections, a particularly stunning reversal of what had been a narrowing gap in the respective upper caste support for the Congress Party and the BJP between 1998 and 2009 (see figure 2).17 In a sense, the upper castes come closest to what the BJP often pejoratively refers to as vote banks—groups that a party typically panders to so as to secure a reliable source of votes for that party. For the BJP and its supporters, the Congress Party’s outreach to Muslims resembles a form of appeasement designed to turn the community into loyal supporters. Yet the BJP has consistently polled better among upper castes than the Congress Party has with Muslims—a more mathematically sound description of a vote bank than their usual charge.

While anti-incumbency is a real threat, support for the BJP among upper castes and lower sections of the OBCs remains strong: more than half of upper castes and poorer OBCs said in CSDS-Lokniti’s May 2018 survey that they wanted the Modi-led government to get another chance.18 Recently, the BJP government decided to reserve 10 percent of seats in educational institutions and civil service jobs for economically backward sections of the general population that were previously untouched by affirmative action.19 This decision, which satisfied a long-standing demand of upper castes who resent quotas for backward castes, is expected to push the BJP’s favorable ratings even higher. Among richer OBCs, some of whom tend to vote for caste-based parties like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh or the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, support for the BJP getting another term in office was lower than that of lower OBCs, but still above 40 percent.20

What has changed for the BJP is how communities other than upper castes vote. Once again, Modi’s personal appeal matters. In the 2014 campaign, Modi mentioned his own OBC background only tangentially, talking since his first campaign speech of his economically modest beginnings.21 In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which contributes 80 seats (out of 543 in the Lok Sabha), the BJP needed OBC votes to sweep the state; when campaigning there, Modi recalled the debt he owed B. R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution and a Scheduled Caste (or Dalit, as the grouping of lower castes is commonly described) icon, for his efforts to give oppressed communities (like Modi’s own) the opportunity to rise.22

In the 2014 election, the BJP got its highest ever vote share among Dalits, the first time in a national election that more Dalits voted for the BJP than they did for the Congress.23 The other, larger shift since the late 1990s has been that of OBC support for the BJP, which the party has methodically built up; OBCs, too, voted in record numbers for the party in 2014.24

Some of the BJP’s newfound support was won through shrewd calculations bolstered by effective campaigning. There is substantial economic inequality at the subcaste or jati level, to the extent that, in some states, studies have found greater differences between jati categories than between broader caste categories.25 These inequalities feed directly into the intersection of ethnic politics and the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system; research on jati-level voting suggests that income disparities between two jati groups can explain a significant extent of the differences in voting behavior between them.26

The BJP has understood these rivalries and exploited them wherever possible. In Uttar Pradesh, the Jatav community—a subcategory of Scheduled Castes—remains steadfastly aligned with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its Jatav leader Mayawati, so the BJP targeted non-Jatav SC groups such as Valmikis and Pasis. Survey data from India Today gathered around the time of the state’s 2017 election also showed significant support for the BJP among non-Jatav SCs.27 This phenomenon was much more apparent in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh state elections, as survey data showed strong support for the BJP among EBCs (a subgroup of Extremely Backward Classes under the OBC umbrella) who felt ignored by the incumbent Samajwadi Party and its Yadav (a dominant OBC caste) vote bank.28 In both cases, the BJP succeeded in creating a wedge between dominant subcastes under the SC and OBC umbrellas to appeal to subcastes who perceived that they had fallen behind.

Another side of the BJP’s pan-Hindu overtures is more pernicious. Some of the party’s unusual coalitions in 2014 were also a result of the BJP and its Hindutva allies’ propaganda, fear-mongering, and outright discrimination and, in some cases, violence against Muslims. There is now scholarly evidence of what political actors and analysts have long taken as a given in India: communal violence appears to benefit the BJP electorally. Two recent academic studies have suggested that riots are associated with a higher BJP vote share in the subsequent election.

In one of the studies, Gareth Nellis and his colleagues found that, between 1962 and 2000, the BJS/BJP’s vote share grew by less than 1 percentage point (0.8) on average following Hindu-Muslim unrest in the year before ballots were cast.29 The reason for this gain, the authors suggest, is that post-riot religious and ethnic polarization tends to lead to a consolidation of Hindu votes in favor of the BJP. In a second (unpublished) study, Rohit Ticku found that the BJP tended to expand its share of the vote (by nearly 3 to 4.5 percent) following riots that took place within half a year of an election. Ticku suggested that riots may be an outgrowth of the “electoral incentives” that parties face, stating that “parties representing elites among ethnic groups may have an incentive to instigate ethnic conflict to influence the marginal voter.”30 If the causal mechanism at work in such cases is ethnic polarization, this implies a banding together of Hindu caste groups in a given place who may not all have traditionally voted for the BJP against local Muslims; if that is the case, it could partly explain the formation of the BJP’s new social coalitions of increased support among OBC and SC communities.

It is not entirely clear how strongly or how long these BJP caste coalitions will hold, especially in situations where there is conflict between two major caste groups, or where a significant BJP campaign issue benefits one group at the expense of another. Sections of the BJP and its ideological ecosystem have made the protection of cows, revered in Hindu mythology and by many practitioners of the religion, central to their agenda.

But this assertion of claimed traditional Hindu values comes at great cost—cattle in India are primarily transported, traded, butchered, and consumed by Muslims and Dalits. An entire new cadre of what could be termed cow vigilantes has sprung up, actively aided and abetted by the machinery employed by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, the broader constellation of Hindu right organizations.31 On the heels of the lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh who was thought to have slaughtered a cow, in July 2016, a group of upper caste men in Gujarat were caught on camera flogging a Dalit family that was skinning a dead cow, leading to mass protests and a galvanizing of young Dalit leaders.32 Against this backdrop of anti-Dalit violence by individuals and groups aligned with the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, Dalit support for the BJP as measured by opinion polls appears to have fallen sharply; by the middle of 2018, the share of Dalits who support the party had sunk to pre-2014 levels, and below the level of Dalit support for the Congress Party (see figure 3).33 Elections in three Hindi heartland states at the end of 2018 confirmed that Dalit and tribal support for the party had crashed and was shifting to the Congress Party.34

Missing Muslims

Meanwhile, given the excesses of the BJP’s pan-Hinduism, there are unsurprisingly some social groups that never factored into the BJP’s electoral calculus, namely Muslims. While the BJP’s national campaign primarily focused on themes of development and good governance, it strategically deployed pro-Hindu majoritarian sentiment in pockets of the country where it felt that message would find resonance with voters.

In several campaign speeches, Modi made divisive veiled references to Muslim communities. In Assam, he made a distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants to the country. In Karnataka, he sought to link the beef trade dominated by Muslims to terrorism, and in a state election soon thereafter he sought to warn rallygoers that his opponents would seek to give benefits for backward Hindu caste groups to “another community.”35 Other BJP campaigners also invoked Hindu pride and mythology, stoking a feeling of majoritarian victimhood. In the eastern state of Bihar, a BJP candidate said in a campaign speech that those who did not vote for Modi should seek exile in Muslim-majority Pakistan—Modi later made him a junior minister.36 In an Uttar Pradesh district that had freshly faced interreligious violence, Modi’s closest aide, Amit Shah, now the BJP’s president and a member of parliament, called on voters to exact “revenge.”37

It is perhaps not a surprise that the BJP did not win any of India’s fifteen Muslim-majority constituencies in 2014. In eleven of these constituencies, the vote share of the winning candidate was greater than the number of non-Muslims. This means that the winning candidates in these places definitely picked up some Muslim votes.38 In CSDS-Lokniti’s 2014 National Election Study, only 8 percent of surveyed Muslims said that they had voted for the BJP, while the May 2018 pre-election survey pegged Muslims support for the BJP at 10 percent.39 Although this represents a slight increase in the BJP’s low base of Muslim support, Muslim politicians dismiss both numbers out of hand as implausibly high.40 (One possibility, although it is purely speculative, is that Muslim respondents are afraid to reveal their true voting preferences for fear of backlash.) The party rarely nominates Muslim candidates; in 2014, the BJP fielded just seven Muslims for the Lok Sabha elections, and all of them lost. As a result, the representation of Muslims in the current Lok Sabha is down to just 22 out of 545 MPs, the lowest share in the country’s history.41

In the five years since the 2014 election, the rhetoric against Muslims by elected BJP representatives has taken a dismaying turn. Yogi Adityanath is a former member of parliament who has said in speeches that Muslims caused riots, has compared anodyne comments by a Muslim movie star to statements by Islamic terrorists, and has exhorted his supporters to kill 100 Muslims if one Hindu was killed. He was made the BJP’s chief minister in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in 2017.42 Another sitting legislator said in early 2018 that Muslims have no business in India and should go to Bangladesh or Pakistan.43 Not only have these leaders faced no censure, but grassroots BJP workers or those associated with its ideology have even been praised for their role in anti-Muslim violence. One junior minister garlanded men accused of lynching a Muslim man on suspicion of cow slaughter,44 and another minister paid his respects at the funeral of a man accused of lynching yet another Muslim man ostensibly for consuming beef.45

Against the backdrop of a spate of religiously motivated killings of Muslim men, Indian Muslims and liberals have spoken out about the growing intolerance in the country. Modi, in particular, has not seriously confronted the Muslim community’s fears and has, meanwhile, aggressively pushed a controversial change in Muslim personal law that entails jail terms for men who divorce their wives on the spot, a practice known as triple talaq. Modi’s majoritarian dog-whistling has even made an appearance on the floor of parliament. During a farewell speech on behalf of the outgoing vice president Hamid Ansari (who is Muslim), Modi referred to his work (as a diplomat) in Islamic countries and suggested that in retirement he could pursue his “natural” ideology free of the “restrictions” imposed by the constitution.46 Given the success of its attempts to consolidate Hindu votes across caste and jati groups, the BJP, it would appear, sees few political or electoral dividends in appearing more moderate on this front.

Forging New Ideological Coalitions

It is not just cleavages of caste and religion that the BJP has sought to leverage for an electoral edge—it has mobilized ideological coalitions as well. The ideas that animate Indian voter behavior are poorly studied, given that the conventional wisdom among political scientists holds that identity, not ideology, shapes the country’s voting patterns to a greater extent. As the oft-repeated saying goes, Indians don’t cast their votes as much as they vote their caste.

However, new research indicates that Indian voters may be far more ideological than previously thought. Political scientists Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma used data from the National Election Studies conducted by CSDS-Lokniti between 1967 and 2014 to establish that Indian voters hold political beliefs that are extraordinarily stable over time and distinct from those of people who vote for other or rival parties.47 Chhibber and Verma found that BJS/BJP voters consistently did not support a more active role for the state in the economy or in rewriting social norms, while Left supporters consistently did support these aspirations and Congress supporters were located somewhere in between.48 Furthermore, these ideological cleavages along party lines seem to transcend social group limits; for instance, BJP voters who hail from the Scheduled Castes tend to favor far less state intervention than the Congress Party’s Scheduled Caste voters do.

In 2014, Chhibber and Verma argue that, in addition to its usual socially conservative base, the BJP managed to construct a broader coalition of economically conservative voters who opposed state intervention in the economy and in social norms, as well as affirmative action (or quotas) for marginalized groups. According to Chhibber and Verma, there is now a sharper distinction between Indian voters on economic issues than ever before, and more voters leaned rightward on economic issues in 2014 than in previous years. The growth of India’s middle class, whose ranks include many voters who believe that subsidies are harmful and who place a premium on rapid economic growth, contributed to this trend.

Another factor that made people wary of state-led development was the perception that the outgoing Congress-led UPA government was plagued by corruption allegations as well as an overly narrow focus on costly subsidies and support for minorities. Chhibber and Verma argue that it was against this backdrop that candidate Modi was able to draw voters opposed to statism with his promises of “no tokenism” and “no special privileges.”49 The CSDS-Lokniti 2014 National Election Study shows unprecedented ideological polarization; there has never been greater distance between the beliefs of BJP and Congress voters.50

Incrementally Adding New Demographic Coalitions

Aside from the support the BJP has sought from lower caste Hindus and economically conservative voters, the party also looked to female and young voters to lengthen its lead in 2014.

The BJP and Female Voters

Until recently, the BJP had trouble appealing to women voters. Women’s participation in Indian elections is now at a historic high. The rapid growth of female voter enrollment and turnout has been one of the most significant (if poorly understood) electoral developments of the last decade. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, female voter turnout rose to a historic high of 65.5 percent compared to 67 percent for men—this rise nearly closed the gap between male and female turnout, which had been in or near the double digits up until the early 1990s.51

Successive rounds of CSDS-Lokniti National Election Studies, conducted between 1996 and 2009, show that the BJP has generally had a 2 to 3 point disadvantage among women voters as compared to the Congress Party.52 This state of affairs is broadly similar to the situation in the United States, where women have historically leaned more toward the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. As late as the 2014 general election, CSDS-Lokniti found that the BJP’s gender disadvantage has mostly persisted (see figure 4).53

Some political leaders have a clear advantage in the eyes of women voters. For instance, regional political parties led by women—the Mehbooba Mufti–led People’s Democratic Party, the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, the (until recently) Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Mamata Banerjee­–led All India Trinamool Congress—all did better among female voters than among male voters in 2014. Among male leaders, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the BJP, K. Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, and Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal all enjoy an advantage among female voters.54 In contrast, Modi does not appear to have a built-in advantage among female voters. A November 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that Modi was popular among both men and women, but he was viewed less favorably by women in relative terms. The Pew survey notes that women are especially critical of Modi’s handling of Hindu-Muslim relations.55

But evidence from CSDS-Lokniti suggests that the BJP has now largely shed its gender disadvantage. CSDS-Lokniti’s May 2018 survey found that virtually all of the modest increase in the BJP’s vote share between 2014 and 2018 came from women voters. In May 2014, 33 percent of men and 29 percent of women preferred the BJP (see figure 4). Four years later, male support for the party stood basically unchanged (at 33 percent), but women’s support for the BJP had risen to 31 percent.56 The Congress Party, meanwhile, had made gains among both men and women, but the May 2018 survey indicated that it could be losing its gender advantage. It is not clear why support for the BJP has risen among women, although many BJP leaders chalk it up to the government’s numerous welfare schemes. The empirical evidence for this claim is unclear.57

The BJP and Young Voters

Alongside the BJP’s ongoing efforts to appeal to female voters, the BJP is doing well with another key constituency in 2014: young voters. India’s young voters have represented a rapidly growing segment of the population in recent years. In 2015, the percentage of young Indian voters (between twenty and thirty-four years old) relative to the rest of the electorate was the highest on record (although this share has peaked and is now declining).58 Moreover, these young voters showed up en masse on election day in 2014; youth turnout exceeded general turnout for the first time since at least 1999.59

Historically speaking, young Indian voters had not voted in a distinct manner, and their voting behavior has closely resembled overall trend lines, according to CSDS-Lokniti’s Sanjay Kumar.60 That changed in a significant way in 2014 (see figure 5). The 2014 CSDS-Lokniti National Election Study found a distinct preference for the BJP among first-time voters: the BJP secured double the number of votes from young people (eighteen to twenty-two years old) as the Congress Party did.61 The Congress Party quite clearly suffered an age disadvantage; in the 2014 election, older voters had a greater tendency to support the Congress Party (although significant numbers of voters of all ages reported that they preferred the BJP).62

At first glance, this support seems surprising, given that the BJP is associated with more socially conservative positions. But, unlike in the United States, where millennials tend to support the Democratic Party and favor more liberal policies, India’s youth are deeply conservative. A 2017 survey of India’s youth found that a majority of participants felt that films that “hurt religious sentiments” should be banned. Almost one in two respondents felt that people should not be permitted to eat beef, and half of those surveyed thought capital punishment was worth keeping.63 When first-time voters (under twenty years old) were asked about the government’s top priorities, they ranked two policy matters more highly than other voters: job creation (an expected answer for young people in need of work) and safeguarding the prerogatives of India’s Hindu community, a position for which the BJP’s affinity is well-known.64

But Indian young voters tend to be impatient. A Lok Foundation survey conducted in late 2015 and early 2016 asked voters to share their thoughts on India’s economic outlook. Those who had recently voted for the first time displayed a greater tendency to critique the government for failing to enact change, foster enough job growth, provide basic security, preserve societal harmony, or keep the country’s borders secure.65

At the same time, it is also true that first-time voters tend to base their political views largely on their perceptions of the incumbent governing party when they become politically active. Although young voters have largely supported the BJP, in the 2017 state elections in Gujarat, Modi’s home state and one that the party has held for more than twenty years, first-time voters gave more favorable polling numbers for the Congress Party than older citizens did, according to Yashwant Deshmukh of CVoter, an Indian polling agency.66 When BJP candidates face voters again in 2019, they will be the new incumbents. Although young people eagerly cast ballots for Modi and the BJP in 2014, the party’s fall from grace has also been faster among younger voters than older ones. Between 2014 and 2018, CSDS data shows that the share of voters in India’s overall electorate who prefer the BJP increased modestly but fell somewhat among first-time voters.67

None of this is a major problem for the BJP—yet. The dramatic scale of its 2014 victory ensures that changes in its popularity among subgroups probably will not immediately push it into second place in the 2019 election. The share of first-time voters that support the BJP remains higher than the party’s average support among the general public.68 Yet the Congress Party has not yet fixed its youth problem despite the elevation of Rahul Gandhi (the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty), as the party has made slower progress in attracting the support of first-time voters than older ones.69 These findings suggest that, although support among young people for the BJP has declined somewhat, it is still relatively high and they have not yet deserted the party en masse.

Conquering New Geographical Frontiers

Another significant hallmark of the BJP’s post-2014 surge has been the diverse geographic directions in which the party has spread its reach. BJP governments are now in power in six states in northeastern India, a steep growth curve for a party that had virtually no presence in that part of the country until recently. Overall, the BJP is now in power in seventeen, or more than half of, Indian states.70 These victories can be credited to the party’s concerted push to capture states that had long been written off as unlikely to vote for a party so strongly associated with upper caste north Indian Hindus. It is true that, in a few close elections, the BJP had to urgently cobble together a bloc of allies to form a government, but it has proved itself adept at playing that game.71

This strategy has not worked everywhere. For the most part, India’s southern states have thus far resisted the BJP. The party was part of the ruling alliance in Andhra Pradesh until its ally, the Telugu Desam Party, pulled the plug on the arrangement in March 2018 over a major policy dispute with the central government. All of the other four southern Indian states (Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana) are administered by non-BJP parties. Moreover, the party seems unable to ingratiate itself with southern voters. Between May 2017 and May 2018, CSDS-Lokniti conducted three nationally representative opinion polls.72 It found that southern India was the only part of the country that widely preferred the Congress-led UPA to the BJP-led NDA, a gap that has been widening. In opinion polls carried out by CSDS-Lokniti and Axis/India Today, the state of Tamil Nadu stands out in its opposition to the BJP and to Modi; in the May 2018 CSDS-Lokniti survey of major Indian states, 75 percent of respondents from Tamil Nadu registered dissatisfaction with the Modi government’s performance—the highest of any state.73

Future Challenges Facing the BJP

In India’s 2014 general election and in subsequent state contests, the BJP has been wildly successful at reaching out to social groups with which it had not shared a past affinity. In doing so, the BJP has created new ideological groupings that support the party beyond traditional caste boundaries, attracted new sections of the population amid India’s churning demographic changes, and adapted itself to be acceptable to India’s deeply heterogenous states.

But this fine balancing act has its limits. At the 2019 polls, the BJP will find itself facing at least three major challenges that stem from these unusual coalitions. First, the coalition of upper caste and backward caste groups has cracked wide open thanks to acts of upper-caste violence against lower caste neighbors. The party won the 2014 support of some Scheduled Caste and backward caste groups in part based on a sense that other parties had favored other subcastes at their expense; the rising tide of Modi’s personal charisma also helped win over supporters across caste lines. But a wider narrative of the BJP’s disrespect for oppressed communities, if conveyed successfully by opposition parties, could override those calculations.

The BJP has created new ideological groupings that support the party beyond traditional caste boundaries [and] attracted new sections of the population amid India’s churning demographic changes.

Second, although Modi has eschewed much direct talk about Muslims, his coded statements, the anti-Muslim remarks of other elected BJP representatives, and the violence orchestrated by Hindutva allies could put off voters who were so attracted by Modi’s economic messaging in 2014 that they were willing to look beyond his past communal assertions.

Lastly, given that the BJP managed to attract a wide base of economic conservatives in 2014 who sought high growth and higher incomes, the party’s disappointing performance on this front will be difficult to obscure. Modi campaigned on a promise of creating 10 million jobs annually,74 and the World Bank has indicated that India needs to create at least 8.2 million jobs each year to keep the employment rate constant.75 According to one credible estimate, the government created just 2 million jobs in 2017.76 A routine jobs report turned into a national controversy when the government was accused of suppressing it, and when portions of the report were leaked, they indicated record levels of unemployment.77 Agrarian distress is rife, an economic issue that was pushed into the headlines after more than 100,000 farmers marched into New Delhi in November 2018.78 There is evidence, both from CSDS-Lokniti’s nationwide May 2018 survey and its analysis of the five states that voted in late 2018, that farmers are turning away from the BJP.79

Stepping back, it is worthwhile to note that the new coalitions that Modi and the BJP have built in some ways want the same things that many voters do: jobs, higher incomes, and safety from communal aggression and violence. If the BJP is unable to deliver on these fronts, its newfound social coalitions are unlikely to hold firm.

Rukmini S. is an independent data journalist based in Chennai, India. Her work focuses on gender, caste, inequality, and politics. She worked at the Times of India in Mumbai and New Delhi. She was the Hindu’s national data editor (2013–2016) and Huffington Post India’s editor—data and innovation (2016–2018).


1 “Mission 272+ Innovative Campaigning Ways!”, May 15, 2014,

2 For comprehensive data on India’s state and national elections, see the “Lok Dhaba” database, Ashoka University Trivedi Center for Political Data, 2018,

3 Here and thereafter, portions of the analysis are drawn from the author’s previously published work. See Rukmini S., “How India Votes: Where Does the Modi Wave of 2014 Stand?,”, August 20, 2018,

4 Unless otherwise noted, survey data comes from polls conducted by the respected New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and its Lokniti Program. See CSDS Lokniti Program, “National Election Study Postpoll 2014-Findings,” 2014,

5 Ibid.

6 Rukmini S., “How India Votes: Where Does the Modi Wave of 2014 Stand?”

7 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Uttar Pradesh Tracker Poll December 2016-Findings,” 2016,

8 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018,

9 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Study Postpoll 2014-Findings”; and CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

10 Rukmini S., “How India Votes: Where Does the Modi Wave of 2014 Stand?”; and CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

12 Data comes from the Lok Foundation Pre-Election Survey. More information on the 2013 Lok Survey on electoral attitudes can be found here: See also Rukmini S., “The Continuing Grip of Caste,” Hindu, March 16, 2014,

13 See “Lok Dhaba,” Ashoka University Trivedi Center for Political Data. Parliamentary constituencies in India are single-member districts governed by first-past-the-post rules—much like congressional districts in the United States. This means that each constituency elects one representative, and the candidate with the most votes wins. The victor need not obtain a majority of votes cast in his or her constituency.

14 “Population Census 2011,” Census Organization of India, 2011,

15 Brahmins and Banias are two upper caste communities that have long been votaries of the BJP.

16 These numbers emerge from 1996–2017 postelection National Election Studies conducted by the CSDS-Lokniti Program. For more information on this survey series, please see CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Studies,” 2018,

17 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Studies,” 1996–2014.

18 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

19 “10% Reservation for Economically Weak in General Category Comes Into Force,” Press Trust of India, January 14, 2019,

20 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

21 Narendra Modi, “Full Text of Shri Narendra Modi’s Speech at Ex-Servicemen’s Rally, Rewari,” Rewari, Haryana,, September 15, 2013,

22 Gyan Varma, “In UP, Narendra Modi Tries to Play It Right With OBC Card,” Livemint, April 14, 2014,

23 Historical comparisons can be made using the CSDS-Lokniti Program National Election Studies. Also see Ragini Bhuyan, “The Political Battle for Dalit Votes,” Livemint, November 2, 2017,

24 Ibid. Please also see the CSDS-Lokniti Program 1996–2014 NES surveys; and K.C. Suri and Rahul Verma, “Democratizing the BJP,” Seminar 699 (November 2017).

25 In other words, the extent of inequality between Musahars and Chamars—two Dalit jatis in Bihar—can be larger than the gap between Dalits as a whole and OBCs. See Shareen Joshi, Nishtha Kochhar, and Vijayendra Rao, “Jati Inequality in Rural Bihar,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 8512, July 2018,

26 John D. Huber and Pavithra Suryanarayan, “Ethnic Inequality and the Ethnification of Political Parties: Evidence From India,” World Politics 68, no. 1 (January 2016): 149–188.

27 Ajit Kumar Jha, “Beating Them at Their Own Game,” India Today, March 27, 2017,

28 Ibid; Sanjay Kumar and Pranav Gupta, “The Politics of Reservations and the OBC Vote,” Livemint, November 15, 2017,; and CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Uttar Pradesh Tracker Poll December 2016-Findings.”

29 Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver, and Steven C. Rosenzweig, “Do Parties Matter for Ethnic Violence? Evidence From India,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 11, no. 3 (October 2016): 249–277.

30 Rohit Ticku, “Riot Rewards? Religious Conflict and Electoral Outcomes,” Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, unpublished working paper, April 2017.

31 Human Rights Watch, Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities, (New York: Human Rights Watch, February 2019),

32 Gopal B. Kateshiya, “Gujarat: 7 of Dalit Family Beaten Up for Skinning Dead Cow,” Indian Express, July 20, 2016,

33 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

34 Sandeep Shastri, Suhas Palshikar, and Sanjay Kumar, “What Led To Congress’ Win In Hindi Heartland,” Outlook, December 13, 2018,

35 Jyoti Punwani, “Modi’s Barb About Muslims Isn’t Surprising—Divisive Rhetoric Marked His 2014 Poll Speeches Too,”, October 28, 2015,

36 “Modi Critics Told to Go to Pakistan After Polls,” Dawn, April 20, 2014,

37 “Amit Shah Calls for ‘Revenge’ in Muzaffarnagar,” Hindu, September 10, 2014,

38 The analysis in this paragraph is the author’s own, drawing on electoral returns from the Election Commission of India and data on the Muslim share of constituencies compiled by Datanet. See “Datanet India: Empowering India-Centric Socioeconomic and Electoral Data,” For more information, see Rukmini S., “How India Votes: Cracks Appear in BJP’s 2014 Coalition—But It Has One Very Loyal Vote Bank,”, September 3, 2018,

39 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

40 Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent member of parliament from Hyderabad, remarked, “The 8% number from 2014 I can’t really explain. . . . But the 10% number is unbelievable.” See Rukmini S., “How India Votes: Cracks Appear in BJP’s 2014 Coalition.”

41 Zeeshan Shaikh, “Only 22 Muslims in 16th Lok Sabha,” Indian Express, May 17, 2014,

42 Amnesty International, “India: New Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Must Retract Previous Statements Against Muslims,” March 20, 2017,

43 “Hate Speech From BJP’s Vinay Katiyar: ‘Why Do Muslims Live In India?’”, February 7, 2018,

44 “Union Minister Jayant Sinha Garlands 8 Lynching Convicts, Faces Opposition Flak,” Times of India, July 8, 2018,

45 “Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma Visits Dadri Lynching Accused Ravi Sisodia’s Village, Twitterati Furious,” India Today, October 8, 2016,

46 Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, “Stung by Ansari's Observations, Modi and BJP Take Potshots at Outgoing VP,” Wire, August 11, 2017,

47 Pradeep K. Chhibber and Rahul Verma, Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

48 The Left here refers specifically to the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

49 Chhibber and Verma, Ideology and Identity.

50 Ibid; and CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Study Postpoll 2014-Findings.”

51 While the turnout gap between male and female voters has shrunk considerably, the absolute number of male voters still exceeds the number of female voters by more than 30 million, given that significantly more men than women are registered to vote. For data on voter turnout, please see Election Commission of India, “Homepage,” See also Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson, “Will Women Decide India’s 2019 Elections?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 12, 2018,

52 See the CSDS-Lokniti Program National Election Studies from between 1996 and 2009. For more information, also see Rukmini S., “How India Votes: Has the BJP Gained Enough Women Voters Under Narendra Modi to Seal 2019?”, September 17, 2018,

53 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Study Postpoll 2014-Findings.”

54 Ibid. Jayalalithaa died in December 2016 after leading the party for more than three decades.

55 Bruce Stokes, Dorothy Manevich, and Hanyu Chwe, Three Years In, Modi Remains Very Popular, (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, November 2017),

56 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Study Postpoll 2014-Findings”; CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

57 Sanjay Kumar and Pranav Gupta, “The Growing Importance of Women as a Electoral Constituency,” Livemint, December 27, 2017,

58 For data on the age composition of India’s population, please see the United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects 2017, 2017,

59 Some data cited in this paragraph and the next comes from Sanjay Kumar, “The Youth Vote Made a Difference for the Victory of the BJP,” Research Journal Social Sciences 22, no. 2 (2014): 45–57.

60 Ibid.

61 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “National Election Study Postpoll 2014-Findings.”

62 Ibid.

63 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Key Highlights From the CSDS- KAS Report ‘Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns,’” April 2017,

64 Rukmini S., “How India Votes: The BJP Could Retain the Millennial Vote, But It Doesn’t Mean a Ringing Endorsement,”, October 8, 2018,

65 More information on the Lok Foundation surveys can be found here: See also Rukmini S., “How India Votes: The BJP Could Retain the Millennial Vote, But It Doesn’t Mean a Ringing Endorsement,”, October 8, 2018,

66 Interview with Yashwant Deshmukh, October 2018. See Rukmini S., “How India Votes: The BJP Could Retain the Millennial Vote, But It Doesn’t Mean a Ringing Endorsement.”

67 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018.

68 Kumar, “The Youth Vote Made a Difference for the Victory of the BJP”; and Rukmini S., “How India Votes: The BJP Could Retain the Millennial Vote, But It Doesn’t Mean a Ringing Endorsement.”

69 Ibid.

70 For more information, see the Election Commission of India website.

71 A recent exception was the May 2018 state assembly election in Karnataka. Although the BJP emerged as the single largest party, the Congress Party managed to forge a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) and, together, they successfully staked claim to the government.

72 These three “Mood of the Nation” surveys can be found on the Lokniti Program’s website. CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Other Studies,” 2018,

73 Ibid; and Neha Chandra, “In Tamil Nadu, Rahul Gandhi Beats Modi as PM Choice for 2019, Stalin Trumps Palaniswami, Finds PSE Poll,” India Today, January 4, 2019,

74 “Modi Promises One Crore Jobs If BJP Comes to Power,” Firstpost, November 22, 2013,

75 World Bank, Jobless Growth? (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2018),

76 Mahesh Vyas, “Employment Grew by 2 Million, or 0.5% in 2017,” Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, January 9, 2019,

77 “NSSO Jobs Report: The NDA Government Has Scored a Self-Goal,” Hindustan Times, January 31, 2019,

78 Jayashree Bhosale, “Farmers Gather in Delhi for Kisan Long March Today,” Economic Times, November 29, 2018,

79 CSDS-Lokniti Program, “Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey-3,” May 2018; and Shastri, Palshikar, and Kumar, “What Led To Congress’ Win In Hindi Heartland.”