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Good Chat: What just happened in India’s elections?

Adam Ziegfeld explains the politics and geography behind the losses for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.

- June 12, 2024
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Indian voters, right, in a queue at RT Nagar, Bengaluru on April 26, 2024 (cc) PL Tandon; images combined on Canva.com.

On June 4, the Electoral Commission of India counted the votes for India’s national parliamentary election. While pre-election surveys and exit polls had predicted a large majority for the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the results were a surprise. 

The BJP emerged as the largest party in the next parliament – but fell short of an outright majority. As a consequence, the BJP will require the support of party allies to form India’s next government. This mismatch between the BJP’s expected electoral dominance and its more restrained victory at the polls has left the opposition energized, and helped quell concerns about potential Indian democratic backsliding. 

To consider the implications of this election, Good Authority contributor Christopher Clary spoke with Adam Ziegfeld, an associate professor of political science at Temple University and author of “Why Regional Parties? Clientelism, Elites, and the Indian Party System” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Christopher Clary: Many commentators have called the Indian election results shocking (see examples here, here, and here). How do you think about the results? Relatedly, how big of a change in voter behavior did we observe that produced those results?

Adam Ziegfeld: Because the BJP lost more than 60 legislative seats and fell short of winning a legislative majority, many have cast this election as a popular rebuke for the BJP – one in which the electorate sent a message of disapproval to Narendra Modi and his government. However, it is not at all clear that the actual vote shares provide much support for this idea. The BJP’s vote share declined by only about 1 percentage point compared to the last election in 2019. In much of India, the BJP’s support remained stable or even went up. Detailed election results are available from the Election Commission of India or The Hindu newspaper.

In nine of India’s largest states, the BJP’s vote share increased in 2024, and in another five states it decreased by about 3 percentage points or less. Significant losses were limited mainly to five major states. 

Here is another important piece of context: In 2014, when the BJP first came to power with a legislative majority, its vote share was significantly lower than the vote share that it won in this election. In other words, even though the BJP just lost its majority in the legislature, it remains more popular with voters today than it was when it first came to power ten years ago!

The deeper story in 2024

What that tells us is that the real action in 2024 was where the BJP won votes and how those votes translated into legislative seats. The BJP’s problem in 2024 was not a massive erosion of its popular support. Rather, the challenge was that its popular gains did not help it win many seats, whereas its popular losses cost it quite a few seats. 

To illustrate, consider the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where BJP support historically has been very weak. The party’s vote share increased by more than 7 percentage points from 2019. But it still won only 11% of the vote in 2024. Perhaps these gains will serve the BJP well in future elections if support continues to grow in Tamil Nadu. But, for now, that growth did not actually help the BJP win any seats in the state. 

Now think about Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state. In 2019, the BJP won nearly 50% of the vote and about three-quarters of the state’s 80 seats. In this year’s election, the BJP saw its vote decline to about 41%. It is still a major force in Uttar Pradesh. But that decline was enough to make it a really close race between the BJP and the rival alliance headed by the Samajwadi Party, a regional party. In such a close race, the BJP managed to win only about half as many seats as it did in the last election. 

An analogy for U.S. readers

So, imagine that Joe Biden made modest gains in red states like Wyoming or Oklahoma but lost some ground in purple states like Michigan or Wisconsin. His gains would probably not be enough to win any more electoral votes in those traditionally red states, but those losses would likely cost him electoral votes in swing states. Something similar happened to the BJP.

It is always tempting to look for a big national story to help make sense of an election outcome. But in 2024, there was no big national trend. As has often been true in India’s national elections over the past 30 years, we see really different patterns from state to state. The BJP’s performance was a mix of gains and losses. The same is largely true for the Congress party – the largest opposition party – whose national vote share only increased by about 2 percentage points.

In the end, the fact that the BJP lost its legislative majority and will need to rely on allies to stay in power may have a pretty dramatic impact on how it governs. In that sense, the implications of this election may be profound. But those profound implications may be the product of fairly modest changes in how Indians voted. 

The success of the BJP in recent years has taken the focus a bit away from the regional parties – small parties winning most of their votes in just one or two of India’s more than two dozen states – that played a larger role in Indian politics from the late 1980s to the early 2010s. What role do regional parties play in the current Indian political system? 

With the BJP’s successive legislative majorities in 2014 and 2019, the importance of regional parties in the halls of power in New Delhi undoubtedly diminished. But these parties never went away. Remember: The Congress party and the BJP have never won more than a combined 60% of the vote in national elections. Since the 1990s, most of those remaining votes have gone to small regional parties. Since 2014, much of the BJP’s success has come at the cost of Congress, not regional parties. 

As a consequence, regional parties have become far more central to opposition to the BJP. Indeed, it has arguably been regional parties – more than Congress – that have been the more effective opposition to the BJP and stymied the BJP’s growth in many parts of India. As of now, it is impossible to imagine an alternative to a BJP-led government in which regional parties do not play a huge role. And, as this election highlights, the BJP still depends on regional parties, both to help it in elections and to govern.

The BJP needs its election allies to govern given the lack of an outright BJP majority. Could you explain how these kinds of party alliances work in the Indian context? Does this incoming coalition seem fairly stable to you?

In a parliamentary system, when no party wins a majority in the legislature, coalitions usually form. In a lot of democracies, parties do not just cooperate after the election; they often cooperate in the election itself, forming pre-poll alliances. When parties form pre-poll alliances they avoid competing against each other. They do so by agreeing not to field competing candidates for every seat. Instead, they decide which ally will field candidates in which seats. The idea is that multiple parties combine their electoral support behind a single candidate in hopes of defeating a common adversary.

For instance, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the BJP had a pre-poll alliance with two regional parties, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Jana Sena. There are 25 members of parliament elected from Andhra Pradesh. The TDP contested 17 of those seats, the Jana Sena contested 2, and the BJP contested the remaining 6. 

In places where there are multiple parties, these pre-poll alliances make a huge difference in who actually wins seats. After the election, the members of the winning alliance usually join the governing coalition. But that’s not always the case. The BJP is close enough to the majority mark in the legislature that it only needs two regional-party allies to secure a legislative majority, though it has opted to include several more in the next cabinet

Can the BJP trust its allies?

The bad news for the BJP is that neither of its two largest pre-poll allies, the TDP and the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), are what you would call faithful allies. For now, both have signaled their intention to support a Modi-led BJP government.

The JD(U) has a history of flip-flopping between alliances. For many years, the TDP was a staunch BJP ally because its main opponent in Andhra Pradesh, where it is based, was the Congress party. Now, however, Congress is a really minor player in Andhra Pradesh, so aligning with Congress would no longer put the TDP in the position of allying nationally with its principal opponent in state-level politics. 

The good news for the BJP is that it is still a much bigger party than Congress. The BJP only needs a couple of parties to join its coalition to reach the majority mark. Even if both the TDP and JD(U) decided to support a Congress-led government, the opposition coalition would likely have to include a minimum of a dozen regional parties to get within striking distance of forming a government. That’s a tall order.

As India shifts to this post-election reality, what developments will you be watching for? 

Speaking of regional-party allies, I will be looking to see whether the regional allies largely keep quiet in the coming years – or if they make repeated threats to pull their support. If the BJP can keep these parties as loyal allies, we may see five more years of a fairly stable BJP-led government. If the BJP loses the support of one or two key allies, we could see a fair amount of instability or even early elections, well before 2029. 

The other big thing to watch is the extent to which increased dependence on coalition partners actually moderates the BJP, as some suggest. Will the BJP be pushed to tone down its anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist agenda and halt its centralization of power and creeping autocratization?

When the BJP was in power in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a far more moderate party, arguably because it relied on allies like the TDP, JD(U), and others. But the BJP was also a different party then. Many are hoping that allies will restrain the BJP and produce a Modi government that governs very differently from the last decade. Only time will tell.