In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed the first single party majority in the Lok Sabha in three decades, propelled by prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. After a quarter century of coalition politics, the BJP’s victory prompted a debate about whether India had entered a new political era in which the BJP assumed the role of central pole that the Congress had once played.
Some scholars downplayed the magnitude of the 2014 electoral verdict. ‘[F]rom the perspective of the vote shares won by the country’s main political parties, not as much has changed as the news headlines might suggest,’ wrote political scientist Adam Ziegfeld.1
Other scholars were less hesitant in asserting that India was witnessing the birth of a new party system. Political scientist E. Sridharan concluded: ‘The results were dramatic, possibly even epochal. The electoral patterns of the last quarter-century have undergone a sea change, and the world’s largest democracy now has what appears to be a new party system headed by a newly dominant party.’2
Finally, there were those who took cognizance of the winds of change, but were unwilling to make strong claims in light of a single data point. For instance, Louise Tillin remarked that the extant evidence is ‘somewhat equivocal as to whether the 2014 elections mark a departure in longer term electoral patterns or the consolidation of a new social bloc behind the BJP.’3
In the wake of the BJP’s second consecutive single party majority in 2019, which comes on the back of significant political changes at the level of India’s states, the available evidence points in one direction: 2014 was not an aberration; it was instead a harbinger of a new era.4 In this essay, we present a range of evidence that demonstrates that India does appear to have ushered in a new ‘fourth party system’ – one that is premised on a unique set of political principles and that shows a clear break with what came before.
From India’s inaugural post-independence general election in 1952 until the 16th Lok Sabha elections in 2014, there is broad consensus that India’s electoral history can be roughly divided into three electoral orders. Yogendra Yadav, one of India’s leading political scientists, was among the first to organize Indian politics into three electoral ‘systems’.
Between 1952 and 1967, the Congress Party dominated Indian politics, both at the Centre and across her states. As a catchall party that sought – in theory, if not always in practice – to provide a pan-Indian representation for all of India’s diverse caste, linguistic and religious groups, the Congress Party’s penetration into Indian society was unmatched. Opposition forces were badly fragmented, which limited their ability to mount a serious campaign to unseat the Congress.
1967 proved to be a critical inflection point, ushering in the dawn of India’s second party system.5 Although the Congress grip on power in New Delhi remained firm, its hold on India’s state capitals began to fade. With the exception of the post-Emergency election of 1977 – when the Congress was badly punished for Indira Gandhi’s autocratic excesses – the party remained the default choice for governance at the Centre. But new expressions of caste and regional identities steadily eroded the party’s hold on subnational politics.6
Whatever semblance of Congress dominance that remained after 1967 came to an end in 1989, which denoted the start of coalition governance in New Delhi and the third party system. Three powerful forces – often termed ‘Mandal, masjid, and market’ – disrupted Indian politics, giving way to a multipolar constellation of forces in which the Congress was no longer the single party around which politics revolved.
In order to evaluate whether India has truly entered a new era of politics with the BJP’s recent general election victories in 2014 and 2019, it is necessary to contrast recent political events with the six defining attributes of the third party system.
Absence of unipolarity: First, the absence of a central ‘pole’ in national politics between 1989 and 2009 is perhaps a central feature of the third party system. Although the BJP would soon emerge as a major competitor to the Congress at the national level, it too had limitations of demography, geography, and ideology.
In terms of aggregate electoral outcomes, the 2014 and 2019 elections represent a structural break. In 2014, the BJP won 282 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, while its NDA coalition partners earned another 53 seats. The tally of the incumbent Congress, on the other hand, sunk to just 44 seats – its worst electoral showing since independence. Headed into the 2019 race, many election analysts doubted the BJP’s ability to replicate its 2014 feat.7 Given the vagaries of anti-incumbency, a slowing economy, and the presence of a more cooperative opposition, a repeat of the same magnitude seemed improbable.8
In reality, these shifting dynamics did little to curb the BJP’s electoral juggernaut. The BJP in 2019 earned 37.4% of the all-India vote and won 303 seats, the highest levels since 1989 and 1984, respectively. The BJP suffered only modest attrition in its core catchment area in the Hindi belt, while making significant inroads into eastern India.
An exclusive focus on general election outcomes blinds us to systemic changes at the state level. As of July 2019, the BJP holds chief ministerial positions in 12 states, compared to only five before the 2014 polls, and its NDA allies control another six (Figure 1). The party’s performance in assembly elections has also boosted its standing in the Rajya Sabha, where its seat share has risen from 5% in 1984 to 32% in July 2019. The Congress, by comparison, now claims only 20% of Rajya Sabha seats. The NDA, with111 members in the upper house, is 12 seats short of a majority (the total strength of the Rajya Sabha is 245 members at present).9 The alliance could pass the majority mark by 2021 with strong showings in the upcoming state polls in Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra.10
Fragmentation: A second characteristic of the third party system is growing electoral fragmentation. As the dominant party era gave way to the onslaught of coalitions, there was a surge in the number of political parties contesting elections.
In order to correct for the fact that most political parties are bit players and fail to leave much of a mark, political scientists prefer to calculate the ‘effective number of parties’, which essentially weighs parties by the number of votes (or seats) they captured.11 By seats won, the effective number of parties (ENP) in India’s 2019 general election was just three, a remarkable shift from the coalition era. In 2004, for instance, the ENP stood at 6.5 (Figure 2). The current system more closely parallels the dominant party era of the Congress.
Competition: Third, electoral contests became markedly more competitive on nearly every dimension during the third party system. Between 1962 and 1967, the average margin of victory – the difference in the vote share of the winner and the immediate runner-up – stood between 13-15% in national elections (Figure 3). Elections became notably less competitive over the next two election cycles. However, after 1977, margins steadily came down over a period of several decades. By 2009, the average margin of victory sunk to its lowest level in the post-independence era: 9.8%. In 2014, that trend sharply reversed. The average margin in 2014 grew to 15%, climbing higher to17.3% in 2019. This is nearly a doubling of the average victor’s margin just a decade ago.
The average vote share of winning candidates has also surged, passing 50% in 2019 for the first time since 1989. As a result, the share of seats in which a candidate won a majority of votes in her constituency surged to 63% in 2019 – the highest proportion since 1984.
Federalized politics: In the third party system, general election verdicts often resembled a collection of state-level verdicts. By contrast, the two most recent general elections have taken on a distinctly national hue. In both the 2014 and 2019 elections, Modi managed to presidentialize a parliamentary election by making the election principally a vote on his leadership.
In the third party system, state and national elections also exhibited a clear, interactive pattern. National level outcomes were directly influenced by the state level verdicts that preceded them, but the intensity of the effect depended on the proximity of the two polls. Clear honeymoon and anti-incumbency effects at the state level directly impacted national polls.
Since 2014, we have seen a disruption of the reliable interaction between state and national elections.12 In December 2018, the Congress Party wrested control of three Hindi belt states – Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – from the BJP. In each of the previous three election cycles (in 2003-4, 2008-9, and 2013-14), the winning party in each of these states went on to expand upon its lead in the national election. But in 2019, this correlation broke down completely, as the Congress saw its vote and seat share plummet after winning the December polls. For instance, the Congress won 100 of Rajasthan’s 200 assembly seats in the state polls but none of the state’s 25 parliamentary seats less than five months later.
Voter turnout: A fifth characteristic of the third party system was the relatively subdued level of voter turnout in national elections, especially compared to the level of voter activation in state elections. Between 1989 and 2009, turnout in general elections ranged between 56 and 62%, stagnating around 58% in the 2004 and 2009 polls.
Voter turnout exhibits a clear break in 2014, when India recorded its highest turnout on record, at 66.4%, amid widespread anti-incumbency and excitement around the candidacy of Narendra Modi. In 2019, voter turnout would notch yet another record: at 67.2%, voter interest in national politics has reached unprecedented levels. Further, the gap between state and national turnout, which reached a peak of 10 percentage points in the mid-2000s, shrunk to less than four per cent between 2013 and 2017.
Social composition: Caste has been an ever-present reality in Indian politics in the post-independence era (and even before). However, the expression and political mobilization of caste has evolved. As Yadav points out in his seminal study, in the first electoral system, the most salient social category for politics was the locally embedded category of jati.13
In the second party system, as Yadav notes, jati-level identities retained their importance but political parties worked to build state wide alliances of jati groups in order to construct a minimum winning coalition. In the third party system, jatis lost their salience as the debate shifted to the umbrella-like varna groupings in the wake of the Mandal Commission report and its aftermath. During this tumultuous period, the categories of ‘OBC’ and ‘Dalit’ took on newfound political importance.
In the fourth party system, politics has returned to the construction of jati-level alliances, as in the second party system – but with a twist.14 One of the BJP’s great successes in many North Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, has been to undermine the larger caste categories in an effort to create a wedge between dominant jatis and subordinate groupings.
For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP exploited perceptions that the two principal regional parties – the BSP and SP – were vehicles for the interests of the dominant Jatav (SC) and Yadav (OBC) jatis, respectively. CSDS survey data shows that non-Yadav OBC groups and non-Jatav Dalits strongly broke for the BJP against the BSP-SP alliance in 2019. In Bihar, the BJP also pursued a similar strategy in an effort to dampen support for the opposition RJD, another party seen as favouring the Yadav community.15
But the fourth party system also heralds a shift in the social composition of India’s elected representatives. Data collected by Ashoka University and Sciences Po and analysed by Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers show a clear shift in the 225 or so MPs of the Hindi belt.16 In 1999, more of these MPs hailed from SC and OBC backgrounds than from upper or intermediate castes for the first time. This pattern reversed in 2009, however, and has persisted since. In 2014, for instance, 49% of Hindi belt MPs came from the upper and intermediate castes as against 41% from the backward and Dalit communities. The dwindling numbers of Muslims elected from these states is also striking – no doubt a consequence, in large measure, of the BJP’s dominance. In 2019, the BJP gave tickets to just eight Muslim candidates in the Hindi belt, of which two emerged as winners (for comparison’s sake, the Congress nominated 33 Muslims from the same set of states).
Plumbing data on electoral returns is a useful exercise, but one that has its limits. There are other, not as easily quantifiable, factors which shape the BJP’s present hegemony and which help underpin the fourth party system.
BJP as system-defining party: One of the defining features of the second party system was that national election verdicts functioned as referenda on Congress rule. As Yadav explains, ‘[a] typical verdict in this period took the form of a nation-wide or sometimes state-wide wave for or against the Congress. The local specificities of the constituency simply did not matter.’17 This could well describe Indian elections in the post-2014 era.
Major parties contesting the 2019 elections, with relatively few exceptions, positioned themselves as either supportive of Modi and the BJP or vehemently opposed. While the opposition did not succeed in either creating a nationwide coalition to tackle the BJP or unifying behind a common prime ministerial contender, it did forge a series of state-specific alliances that were explicitly constructed on an anti-BJP plank. As the party around which all others position themselves, the BJP fits the very definition of a system-defining party. State elections held between 2014 and 2019 often played out along the same lines.
Ideological hegemony: In an incisive 2018 essay, Suhas Palshikar characterized the BJP under Modi as a classic example of a hegemonic political party.18 Palshikar defined hegemony as having two components: ideology and electoral performance. The BJP’s hold on Indian voters has been well documented. Equally interesting is how the party has managed to exert its dominance ideologically. According to Palshikar’s account, the BJP’s twin emphasis on Hindu nationalism and what he calls a ‘new developmentalism’, has allowed the party to saturate the political space in India. This has been made possible, in part, by the fact that the Congress Party’s legacy of secular nationalism appears to have fallen out of favour.
The BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism has allowed it to broaden its demographic base beyond a small sliver of Hindu upper castes and trading communities to include Dalits, OBCs, and Adivasis by using memes such as Ram Mandir, cow protection, and illegal immigration to transcend caste divisions among Hindus.
But it is important to note that the BJP under Modi has expanded its nationalist discourse beyond Hindutva to accommodate other formulations. For instance, in recent years it has made use of a more amorphous nationalism centred on territorial sovereignty, loyalty to the nation, and resentment towards traditional liberal elites who it painted as out-of-touch, feckless, and compromised by divided loyalties.19
It has also skilfully used foreign policy, like the brief 2019 skirmish with Pakistan in the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack, to brandish a muscularity abroad and a reclaiming of India’s rightful place in the world. For the first time in recent memory, voters on the campaign trail routinely told reporters that this election was more than a battle between partisan contenders, it was a battle desh ke liye (for the nation).20
Aside from nationalism, the BJP has also managed to dominate the discourse on the economy and economic development. The prime minister has cultivated a persona as a pro-business, anti-corruption reformer, contrasting his tenure with the Congress’ legacy of policy paralysis, cronyism, and burdensome regulation between 2009 and 2014. Even though Modi’s demonetization gambit largely failed to meet its stated objectives, it bolstered the prime minister’s image as a decisive leader willing to tackle corruption head on.
Now, the prime minister has also refashioned his own image as the architect of India’s modern welfare state. Between 2014 and 2019, the Modi government amassed a creditable record building assets from roads to toilets to cooking gas connections, especially in rural areas.21 Additionally, by appropriating and rebranding many schemes initially set up by the Congress, Modi has left the party effectively unable to criticize his actions.
Organizational and financial prowess: The ability of the BJP to project Modi as a leader with unimpeachable credentials, to deliver its nuanced messages of nationalism to different target audiences, and to parry the opposition’s jibes rests on a political machine that is miles ahead of the competition in terms of its organizational foundations and material resources.22 Under the tutelage of BJP President Amit Shah, the party has built a well oiled party machine that is organized down to the level of the panna pramukh – literally a party worker who is in charge of an individual panna (page) of the voter roll linked to a neighbourhood polling station.23
Furthermore, the BJP has successfully harnessed digital technology from Facebook to SMS to WhatsApp to build cohesion among its workers, between voters, and between workers and voters. The BJP party organization in West Bengal created and monitored 55,000 WhatsApp groups to win over voters, and the Bengal BJP Facebook and Twitter accounts received 220 million engagements and four million impressions, respectively, in the two months leading up to the election.24
Even more striking is the BJP’s financial advantage. Based on parties’ income tax returns from fiscal year 2018, the Congress raised around Rs 200 crore in donations, compared to a whopping Rs 1,000 crore for the ruling BJP.25 The BJP advantage over the Congress when it comes to corporate funding (that is formally disclosed) stood at 20 to 1 in 2018.26 A report issued by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) estimates that total election expenditures doubled from 2014 to 2019, with the BJP accounting for around 45% of all election spending.27
Charismatic leadership: Finally, in both 2014 and 2019, one could say that these were Modi’s victories more than the BJP’s. According to the 2019 National Election Study, Modi’s net favourability (a measure of his popularity relative to that of Congress President Rahul Gandhi) was roughly at the same level it was in April-May 2014 – an eighteen percentage point advantage.28 In essence, a central component of what people are voting for is Modi’s leadership.
Modi’s favourability has to be seen in the context of a general dearth of popular, charismatic leaders among opposition forces. Despite the fact that Rahul Gandhi had become more popular, more effective, more diligent, and more present, only a small minority of Indians trusts him with the reins of the country. Even though voters voiced many economic grievances related to the BJP’s five years in power, at the same time they viewed Modi as the one national leader best placed to address those grievances.29
With the 2019 general election concluded, it is now clear that India has indeed embarked on a new chapter in its political evolution. Gone are the days of Congress dominance, as the BJP has overtaken India’s Grand Old Party to preside over a ‘second dominant party’ system.
To be clear, the emergence of a new party system says nothing about the endurance of that electoral order. While India’s previous three systems each had a degree of staying power, the fate of the fourth party system will eventually hinge on the precise dynamics of India’s party politics and the vagaries or voter behaviour. In addition, the transition from one system to the next can usually only be discerned with the benefit of hindsight.
The BJP’s emergence as a hegemonic force does not mean that the party is somehow inoculated from electoral setbacks. Indeed, between 2014 and 2019, the BJP lost critical state elections in Delhi and Bihar in 2015 and in three North Indian states in December 2018 held on the eve of the general election. In fact, it is worth pointing out that the BJP has not won a single state election in calendar years 2018 and 2019 (to date). But the larger point is not about individual wins and losses as it is that the BJP has emerged as a system-defining party, a political formation in reference to which all others position themselves.
* This essay has been adapted from Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson’s forthcoming Carnegie paper on India’s fourth party system.
1 Adam Ziegfeld, ‘India’s Election Isn’t as Historic as People Think’, Washington Post Monkey Cage (blog), 16 May 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/05/16/indias-election-isnt-as-historic-as-people-think/?utm_term=.3778a97ac5a5
2 Eswaran Sridharan, ‘India’s Watershed Vote: Behind Modi’s Victory’, Journal of Democracy 25(4), 2014, pp. 20-33.
3 Louise Tillin, ‘Indian Elections 2014: Explaining the Landslide’, Contemporary South Asia 23(2), 2015, pp. 117-122.
4 Milan Vaishnav, ‘Modi Owns the Win and the Aftermath’, The Hindustan Times, 23 May 2019, https://www.hindustantimes. com/analysis/modi-owns-the-win-and-the-aftermath/story-vUQF8BSnT21wSrNm 8U7b HM.html
5 Prem Shankar Jha, In the Eye of the Cyclone: The Crisis in Indian Democracy. Penguin, New Delhi, 1993.
6 Yogendra Yadav, ‘Electoral Politics in the Time of Change: India’s Third Electoral System, 1989-99’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(34-35), 1999, pp. 2393-2399.
7 For an overview of these inhibiting factors, see Milan Vaishnav, ‘From Cakewalk to Contest: India’s 2019 General Election’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 16 April 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/04/16/from-cakewalk-to-contest-india-s-2019-general-election-pub-76084"
8 Milan Vaishnav and Matthew Lillehaugen, ‘Incumbency in India: More Curse than Blessing?’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 13 August 2018, https://carnegieen-dowment.org/2018/08/13/incumbency-in-india-more-curse-than-blessing-pub-77010
9 The media reports varying numbers of NDA Rajya Sabha MPs. Our count is based on data from the official Rajya Sabha website and is consistent with a report in the Business Standard. See Archis Mohan, ‘NDA Closer to Rajya Sabha Majority but BJP’s Core Agenda May Have to Wait’, Business Standard, 1 July 2019, https://www. business-standard.com/article/politics/nda-closer-to-rajya-sabha-majority-but-bjp-s-core-agenda-may-have-to-wait-119070100566_1.html
10 Vishwa Mohan, ‘NDA Likely to Get Rajya Sabha Majority by November 2020; Manmohan Set to Lose His Seat Next Month’, Times of India, 28 May 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/nda-likely-to-get-rajya-sabha-majority-by-november-2020-manmohan-set-to-lose-his-seat-next-month/articleshow/69527821.cms
11 This metric was first introduced in Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepera, ‘Effective Number of Parties: A Measure with Application to West Europe’, Comparative Political Studies 12(1), 1979, pp. 3-27.
12 Nirmala Ravishankar, ‘The Cost of Ruling: Anti-incumbency in Elections’, Economic and Political Weekly 44(10), 2009, pp. 92-98.
13 Yogendra Yadav, 1999, op. cit.
14 See Jiby K. Kattakayam, ‘Sub-Categorization of OBCs and the End of Mandal’, Times of India, 14 June 2019, https://timesof india.indiatimes.com/blogs/jibber-jabber/sub-categorisation-of-obcs-and-the-end-of-mandal/; Roshan Kishore, ‘Mandir, Mandal and Markets: How BJP Reversed Post-2014 Setbacks’, Hindustan Times, 27 May 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/how-bjp-reversed-post-2014-setbacks/story-ikF2ju1A4qtvBpU08Xl6JK.html
15 Rakesh Ranjan, Vijay Kumar Singh and Sanjeer Alam, ‘Post-Poll Survey: Reposing Trust in the NDA and the Prime Minister in Bihar’, The Hindu, 26 May 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/elections/loksabha-2019/post-poll-survey-reposing-trust-in-the-nda-and-the-prime-minister/article27249049.ece
16 As Jaffrelot and Verniers explain, focusing on the Hindi belt is justifiable because it accounts for nearly half of all MPs, and caste systems in this region are broadly comparable. Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers, ‘Explained: In Hindi Heartland, Upper Castes Dominate New Lok Sabha’, Indian Express, 27 May 2019, https://indianexpress.com/ article/explained/in-hindi-heartland-upper-castes-dominate-new-house-5747511/"
17 Yogendra Yadav, 1999, op. cit.
18 Suhas Palshikar, ‘Towards Hegemony: BJP Beyond Electoral Dominance’, Economic and Political Weekly 53(33), 18 August 2018, pp. 36-42.
20 Dhirendra Tripathi, ‘Elections 2019: In Yogi’s Backyard, It’s Modi Who Draws Votes’, Mint, 15 May 2019,https://www. livemint.com/elections/lok-sabha-elections/elections-2019-in-yogi-s-backyard-it-s-modi-who-draws-votes-1557934808415.html
21 Harish Damodaran, ‘LPG, Toilet, House: BJP Built Solid Rural Assets but Income Didn’t Rise’, Indian Express, 12 December 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/ explained/lpg-toilet-house-bjp-built-solid-rural-assets-but-income-didnt-rise-5489311/"
22 Prashant Jha, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine. Juggernaut, New Delhi, 2017.
23 ‘2019 Polls: BJP to Form Chain of WhatsApp Groups to Strengthen Communication Between Party Workers’, Press Trust of India, 23 December 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/2019-polls-bjp-to-form-chain-of-whatsapp-groups-to-strengthen-communication-between-party-workers/articleshow/67219816.cms?from=mdr
24 ‘BJP Created 55,000 WhatsApp Groups to Take on Mamata’, Rediff.com, 4 June 2019, https://www.rediff.com/news/special/bjp-created-55000-whatsapp-groups-to-take-on-mamata/20190604.htm
25 Association of Democratic Reforms, ‘Analysis of Sources of Funding of National Parties of India, FY 2017-18’, 23 January 2019, https://adrindia.org/content/analysis-sources-funding-national-parties-india-fy-2017-18
26 Niranjan Sahoo and Niraj Tiwari, ‘Now We Know Who is Behind the Massive Funding Gap Between BJP and Congress: The Corporates’, The Print, 5 May 2019, https://theprint.in/opinion/now-we-know-who-is-behind-the-massive-funding-gap-between-bjp-and-congress-the-corporates/231086/
27 Centre for Media Studies, Poll Expenditure, the 2019 Elections, 2019, http://cmsindia.org/cms-poll/Poll-Expenditure-the-2019-elections-cms-report.pdf
28 More information about the 2019 National Election Study conducted by the Lokniti Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies can be found at: https://www.lokniti.org/NES2019POSTPOLL
29 Rukmini S., ‘This is What Changed for Voters from 2014 to 2019 Lok Sabha Elections: Nothing’, ThePrint, 24 May 2019, https://theprint.in/opinion/this-is-what-changed-for-voters-from-2014-to-2019-lok-sabha-elections-nothing/240149/"