The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

The BJP and the Opposition in India: Between Narrative and Numbers

Numbers alone can’t keep the BJP out of power; a compelling alternative narrative is needed.

By Niranjan Marjani for
The BJP and the Opposition in India: Between Narrative and Numbers
Credit: Flickr / narendramodiofficial

In the assembly elections held in the state of Jharkhand in November and December 2019, the ruling BJP lost. Of the assembly elections held in six major states during the period of December 2018 to December 2019, it was the fifth state where the BJP lost. The six states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand — were all ruled by the BJP. But with the exception of Haryana, the BJP lost power. These losses have resulted in the reduction of the total area in India ruled by the BJP. At the start of 2018 BJP ruled around 70 percent of the country’s total area. As of the end of 2019, the BJP rules around 34 percent.

However, within the same period the BJP won in the general elections of 2019. The BJP won the national elections with an even greater majority than in 2014. In 2014, the BJP alone (excluding seats won by its allies) won 282 seats out of 543 seats. In 2019 the BJP on its own won 303 seats. It is important to look at the factors that led to BJP’s defeat in assembly elections but victory in general elections.

BJP’s Losses in Assembly Elections

In most of the states where the BJP has lost power — such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand — it has either been a narrow margin defeat or different parties have come together to keep the BJP out of power. 

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 109 seats out of 230, whereas Congress won 114 seats. Congress formed the government there with the help of smaller parties and achieved the majority mark. BJP came close to winning Madhya Pradesh despite the anti-incumbency factor of 15 years. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In Rajasthan, the BJP won 73 seats and Congress won 100 seats out of 200. This is also not a very big margin. Rajasthan has a history of flipping parties and no party repeating a term. 

In Maharashtra, the BJP and Shiv Sena fought elections together while Congress and Nationalist Congress Party fought together. However, after the elections a dispute over the post of chief minister resulted in Shiv Sena breaking its alliance with the BJP. Later Shiv Sena (56 seats) formed the government with the help of Congress (44 seats) and Nationalist Congress Party (54 seats), which were both the opponents of Shiv Sena and the BJP. The coalition government in Maharashtra is a result of combining numbers; the BJP remains the single largest party with 105 seats in the opposition. 

In Jharkhand, the BJP won 25 seats while its opponents Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Congress won 30 and 16 seats respectively in the 81 seat assembly. Congress and JMM have come together to form a government.

Only in Chhattisgarh was the BJP decimated in the 2018 assembly elections. But the BJP’s loss in the state could again be interpreted as the result of an anti-incumbency factor of 15 years. It also means that Chhattisgarh happens to be the most comprehensive and definitive victory for the Congress in this time period. 

The BJP’s Strengths

Narrative has been the biggest strength of the BJP. Starting from 2014, narrative building has played a major role in the BJP’s victories in 2014 and also in 2019. At the time of the 2014 general elections, the BJP was in opposition. The BJP campaigned on a narrative wrapped around the economy, corruption-free governance and a number of social welfare schemes. After coming to power in 2014, the BJP has implemented social welfare measures like the opening of bank accounts for poor people who had no access to banking, providing LPG connections, insurance and pension schemes, building of toilets and so on. In the BJP’s first term from 2014 to 2019 most of the government’s focus had been on these schemes and their delivery to the people. 

Foreign policy and national security have been other important areas which the BJP made a part of its narrative. Foreign policy has been the highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure. Similarly national security and India’s military strikes against Pakistan in 2016 and 2019 have also been a part of the narrative for the BJP when it started the election campaign for 2019. 

In both the general elections, 2014 and 2019, BJP had strong narratives which were highlighted as the issues of national importance which needed to be discussed publicly. BJP has managed to connect well with people on the issues of national interest. Also specific events and incidents make it easy for the BJP to convince voters. 

Challenges for the BJP

There are two major challenges for the BJP. The first challenge is to ensure that allies do not leave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP has had some problems with its allies in the past few years. In 2013, Janata Dal (United) broke away from the NDA. Later in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections Janata Dal (United) formed government with the support of Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal, both opponents of the BJP. Later in 2017 Janata Dal (United) returned to the NDA. Similarly Shiv Sena broke with the BJP before the 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections. But they came together after the elections. After the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections Shiv Sena again broke away from the NDA and has now formed the government with the support of Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. Telugu Desam Party which was a part of the NDA broke away in 2018. The BJP needs to work more toward accommodating its allies as it would further strengthen the NDA and also it would help improve performance in future elections. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

A second challenge is to focus more on state-related issues at the time of assembly elections. National issues resonate with public during the general elections, but these issues prove to be a limitation when it comes to assembly elections. Concentrating on local issues more than national issues would work well for the BJP in the future. 

Challenges for the Opposition

There are two major challenges for opposition parties. First is the reality that no single party is strong enough not only to take on the BJP but also to lead a coalition. Second, the opposition lacks a compelling narrative. 

The opposition parties in India have tried to show solidarity in order to defeat the BJP. But they have failed to form any alliance which would challenge the BJP in a unified manner. Another problem is that the opposition consists of a number of regional parties which have limited impact at the national level. Among the opposition, Congress is a national party. But its strength has greatly diminished at the national level. In 2014, Congress won 44 seats in the general election. In 2019, it won 52 seats which is only a marginal increase. Some of the other parties that oppose the BJP are mostly regional parties such as Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahaujan Samaj Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Telugu Desam Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (Secular) and others. 

The second challenge for the opposition is the lack of a compelling narrative. This is the true differentiating factor between the BJP and the opposition. The only narrative the opposition has is to defeat the BJP. But beyond that, these parties have failed to come up with an alternate narrative which would challenge the BJP’s vision. Specific narratives with respect to economic and national issues would provide credibility to the opposition’s campaign against the BJP. There is still a reliance on caste equations and minority appeasement from the opposition parties. However, these issues have not worked in the opposition’s favor in the general elections.

This is a challenging time for both the BJP and the opposition. But more for opposition since it lacks a narrative. The BJP’s spectacular performance at the center is the result of a solid and compelling narrative. The opposition needs to concentrate work in this area. Numbers alone can’t keep the BJP out of power, a narrative is needed.

Niranjan Marjani is an independent journalist based in Vadodara, India. He is on Twitter @NiranjanMarjani.