The 2014 elections have only just ended but analysts are already struggling to comprehend how the BJP's stunning electoral success, deemed unlikely just one year ago, came to pass. The results of India's sixteenth general election challenge our common understanding of contemporary Indian electoral politics in at least four ways.
BJP can't go beyond its traditional strongholds
First, the conventional wisdom was that the BJP was trapped by its traditional political and geographic boundaries, deemed insurmountable thanks to the party's Hindutva agenda. Yet, the BJP has garnered an estimated one-third of the all-India vote, a massive improvement from 19% in 2009 and its all-time best of 26% in 1998. This improvement was driven by sizeable vote swings in critical Hindi heartland states as well as smaller but significant gains in the South and East, neither an area of traditional strength. These gains were possible thanks to Modi's persistent focus — in the national theatre of politics — on development and economic mobility. This message aligned perfectly with the issues vexing most Indian voters; a post-poll conducted by CSDS found that in every state surveyed, voters identified development, inflation or corruption as their most important election issue. To be clear, the BJP's saffron agenda has not vanished; recent campaign rhetoric and the party's manifesto confirm this. Yet, going forward, deviation from the focus on governance and development could imperil these newfound gains.
It can't stitch up alliances better than Congress
A second assumption that was upturned in this election was that Congress, not the BJP, had the advantage in alliance formation. Despite all the talk about its off-key "India Shining" mantra sinking the BJP in 2004, their loss was more about the BJP's inability to forge the right alliances. This fed doubts about whether the BJP could construct effective alliances in 2014, especially with Modi at the helm. Yet it was a Modi-led BJP that struck key deals over the past several months while the Congress, in contrast, was viewed as a sinking ship. Many observers dismissed the BJP's alliance with the Lok Jan Shakti Party in Bihar, the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, and the Haryana Janhit Congress as trivial. But such criticism overlooked the importance of small shifts in vote share in a fragmented, first-past-the-post electoral system.
Support for regional parties is growing
A third assumption underpinning Indian elections since 1989 has been the growth of regional parties. Between 1996 and 2009, the non-Congress, non-BJP share of the vote has hovered around 50%, rising to a record 53% in 2009. The 2014 election, though, saw a decline in regional party support; their nation-wide vote share dipped to roughly 47%, reversing the prevailing trend. Two players merit special attention here. The first is the evisceration of the BSP. Mayawati may draw a blank in Uttar Pradesh while the hard-fought inroads she made in other Hindi heartland states simply evaporated. The second is the weakening of the Left. At a time of rising inequality and concerns over crony capitalism, the conditions would seem propitious for a Leftist revival; instead we are witnessing their collapse.
Lok Sabha polls are a sum of state verdicts
A fourth assumption has been that national elections are best understood as an aggregation of state verdicts. The 2014 election outcome, however, is a partial reversal of "derivative" national elections. Not only was this election marked by presidential overtones, but the animating issues—namely, the slumping economy—have also been pan-Indian. Despite this apparent shift, there are two caveats to the "nationalization" thesis.
First, states still remain the most important tier of government for ordinary Indians. This is reflected in the fact that, notwithstanding the record voter turnout in these Lok Sabha polls, turnout for state elections is still 4.5% higher, on average, in any given state. Second, much of the south remained resistant to the BJP's charms. Although the BJP picked up new seats in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, its advances were limited and much smaller than in the north.
These facts suggest a far-reaching realignment of Indian politics. Whether this is ephemeral or enduring will depend on what a Modi-led BJP chooses to do with its historic mandate.