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Bengal elections: Long term trends that the results held up and why the outcome is not as bad for the BJP as it seems

There are two long term political trends that continue to hold after the West Bengal elections. If BJP had defeated Trinamool Congress, it would have been a historical victory because it would have defied two long term political trends.

The results of just concluded assembly elections in West Bengal have shocked BJP supporters and elated opponents of the party. Both the despondency of BJP supporters and the irrational exuberance of its opponents is based on the tall claims made by BJP before the elections to enthuse its cadre and influence swing voters. Such claims are routinely made by parties in the run up to the elections and these claims cannot be the benchmark based on which results are to be evaluated.

The evaluation of election results should be data based and should consider past elections results, long term trends and maybe prevailing political climate in the country. The second wave of Covid could not have impacted the state elections in Assam, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu but it could have had some impact in West Bengal as the impact of Covid second wave could be felt in Delhi, Maharashtra, Punjab, Chhatisgarh and UP in the last four phases of elections in Bengal.

There are two long term political trends that continue to hold after the West Bengal elections. If BJP had defeated Trinamool Congress, it would have been a historical victory because it would have defied two long term political trends. The two trends are:

  1. BJP has never replaced a non-Congress party in a state to become the ruling party i.e. in every state that BJP has ever come to power, it has always done so by replacing Congress.
  2. In any state election since Sep 2013 (when Narendra Modi was made PM candidate of BJP) BJP has never been able to match (forget about exceeding) its performance of the Lok Sabha election in that state.

BJP has only once replaced a non-Congress party in a state to become the ruling party

Some might argue that in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, BJP defeated Samajwadi Party and so the theory does not hold. However, the party first came to power in UP in 1991 with a full majority (Uttarakhand then was a part of UP) Till 1989, Congress was the main ruling party in Uttar Pradesh. Janata Dal and its breakaway group (led by Mulayam Singh) could rule UP for 2 years but in 1991, it was BJP which had replaced Congress and captured its traditional voters.

It remained a dominant force till 2002 before it was pushed back to third place by SP and BSP. In 2017, in a way BJP regained its old position. And then there is Tripura where the BJP defeated the CPI(M) to rule the state but Tripura is a small state in comparative terms. Except UP and Tripura, there is no other state where there is any doubt that BJP replaced Congress. Even in Karnataka, BJP came to power first time by defeating Congress.

If BJP had defeated Trinamool Congress in 2021, this would have been the first instance in India’s political history where BJP defeated a regional party and came to power in a relatively large state. This is like BJP’s position in Odisha, Telangana and even Bihar (where it has to be in alliance with JDU as a junior partner to come to power). As the results show, the trend still holds.

BJP’s lagging performance in state elections compared to Lok Sabha election

In any state election since Sep 2013 (when Narendra Modi was made PM candidate of BJP) BJP has never been able to match (forget about exceeding) its performance of the Lok Sabha election in that state. Even in the Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat, BJP has not been able to match or come even close to its performance in Lok Sabha election.

Even when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, BJP’s performance in state elections was not as good as its performance during Lok Sabha elections! Even in states like Haryana, Delhi, Jharkhand where the gap between the state and Lok Sabha elections was not very much, the fall in BJP’s vote share in the assembly elections have been huge.

The closest that BJP has ever come to match its Lok Sabha performance in a state election was in UP in 2017 and in (drumroll..) West Bengal 2021.

The BJP vote-share here is NDA vote-share
The BJP vote-share here is NDA vote-share
The BJP vote-share here is NDA vote-share

And the irony is that this result in West Bengal is considered by party’s sympathisers as a setback. In a way, this negative mood could be seen as positive for the party as it shows that most of its supporters have remarkably high expectations from party’s electoral performance.

However, one must not lose touch of ground realities and long term trends while making objective assessment. Boastful claims made by party leadership (normal part of electoral strategy) cannot be made benchmark of assessment.

Relative performance of BJP compared to last assembly election

Apart from the two long term trends, a third aspect should be to compare the party’s performance in the last assembly election in the state. In West Bengal, not only has the BJP significantly improved its performance compared to last assembly elections (increased its seats from 3 to 77 and vote share to 38.1% from 10.3%), in no other big state the party has been able to increase its vote share to this extent as it has done in West Bengal.

Not in Gujarat in 1995, when it will start its more than 30 year rule (party expected to win again in 2022), not in 1991 in UP when it formed a government with full majority despite being at third position in 1989. This performance by BJP in West Bengal is unparalleled in the party’s history.

There is no doubt that had the party defeated Trinamool Congress, this would have been a historical verdict for it would have defied two long term trends. However let us not make the best enemy of better.

Note: The article has been authored by Vikas Singh who was with MyGov as Director (Analytics) and has worked in the field of Analytics, Election Management, Investment Banking and Communication.

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