The BJP’s sterling election performance in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya proved two things. First, the BJP is no longer a party as representing only Hindus and Hindi-speaking areas: it has all-India appeal. Second, anti-incumbent sentiment is high, and is driving election results. This spells danger for the BJP, the incumbent in New Delhi.
Some analysts think the BJP has gained unstoppable momentum from its north-eastern triumph. This reminds me of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sweeping victory in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2003, leading him to believe he had unstoppable momentum that should be harnessed in an early election. Alas, he lost that election.
Swaminomics was almost alone in predicting this. In an open letter to Vajpayee, the column said “Your partymen are celebrating your election victories in three major states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — and claiming it points to victory in next year’s general election. Dead wrong. The real message from voters is that you are in danger of losing the general election, not winning it… The quality of governance continues to be so poor that, save in exceptional circumstances, the incumbent government gets voted out…Now, yours happens to be the incumbent government in New Delhi. You can hardly claim that the quality of governance nationally is exceptional. So, as the incumbent, you are in deadly danger. Don’t even think of any early election. Savour your current term to the last possible day. It may be your last ever.”
A similar warning needs to be sent to the BJP after its north-eastern triumph. It must not interpret anti-incumbency as a pro-BJP wave. Some political analysts say the BJP is considering an early election instead of waiting for the regular date in May 2019. That risks repeating Vajpayee’s mistake.
Consider the history of anti-incumbency. For several decades after Independence, the Congress won repeatedly, despite rising dissatisfaction. A highly splintered Opposition meant repeated Congress victories because of TINA (there is no alternative). That era came to an end in 1989 when VP Singh emerged as an alternative at the Centre and regional parties emerged as strong alternatives in many states.
In the 1990s, incumbents lost 75% of all elections. This high fatality rate flowed from economic and social discontent, plus disgust with corrupt politicians.
This pattern reversed dramatically when economic growth zoomed above 8% after 2004. Apart from fast growth that lifted all boats, a new breed of chief ministers came to power in several states whose USP was personal honesty and decent governance. These chief ministers included Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Shivraj Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh. Manik Sarkar in Tripura was cast in the same mould. These chief ministers won re-election repeatedly.
In the decade after 2004, incumbents were re-elected in 75% of cases, reversing the earlier trend. Some analysts called this a victory for bijli-pani-sadak (electricity-waterroads) policies. More correctly, improved governance and infrastructure accelerated economic growth, which reached an incredible 11% in Bihar. That was the clincher.
An Economic Times research study once suggested that if state GDP accelerated significantly compared with the preceding five years, the incumbent won 60% of the time. What mattered was not fast growth but accelerating growth. The personal honesty of the CM and good governance also mattered, as proved in the BIMAROU belt.
The BJP is far from unbeatable. Modi is a very popular Prime Minister, but so was Vajpayee, and that did not save his party. GDP growth in Modi’s term has not accelerated compared with the second UPA term. That spells danger, according to our ET election model.
What many see as a BJP wave in recent times is better viewed as an anti-incumbent wave. This toppled both BJP and non-BJP state governments in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh last year. It significantly reduced the majority of the incumbent BJP in the Gujarat state election.
What of coming elections? The anti-incumbent trend suggests that the BJP will beat the ruling Congress in Karnataka. But it also suggests that the BJP, being the incumbent, will be in danger in the December state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are among the respected icons that have won repeatedly in the past. But they should heed the warning signal from the recent defeat of Manik Sarkar in Tripura, another respected CM who had earlier won repeatedly.
Modi badly needs to accelerate the economy and employment sharply to reduce anti-incumbent sentiment. That remains a difficult goal.