Did Modi really sink the BJP?

Of all the surprises to come out of general election, the most delightful one is that Narendra Modi might be ousted as chief minister of Gujarat.

Two years ago, when he won the Gujarat state elections by a landslide, Modi looked like becoming the BJP’s national trump card. Today he is struggling to survive.

Why? Because, after much cogitation, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has come to the conclusion that the Gujarat riots polarised Muslims (and maybe Hindu secularists) against the party sufficiently to tip it into electoral defeat. Remember, the overall vote swing against the BJP in the general election was just 2.2%. So, says Vajpayee, ‘‘While I accept part of the blame for defeat, we cannot ignore other reasons like the carnage in Gujarat.’’

Many others favour this explanation. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal complain that Muslims voters deserted them.

I delight in Modi’s discomfiture, but do not believe he was responsible for the party’s defeat. The fact is that the quality of governance in most states is so terrible that voters keep ousting incumbents, with only a few exceptions. In 2003, most incumbent state governments lost whether they were ruled by the BJP (Himachal Pradesh) or Congress (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh). As the incumbent in New Delhi, the BJP was obviously in danger of suffering a similar fate. And so it did.

Had Modi been a key electoral issue, the BJP could not have swept the state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in December 2003. Those elections were closer in time to the Gujarat riots of 2002. So why pretend that this issue was crucial in May 2004?

Data on voting patterns by religion are scarce. The only reliable source I know of is the ‘National Election Study’ of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), covering 27,000 respondents in all states on polling day. This shows that the share of the Muslim vote going to the BJP and its allies declined modestly, from 14% in 1999 to 11% in 2004.

Since Muslims account for one-eighth of the total population, Muslim vote loss cost the BJP and allies just 0.36% of the popular vote. This was a small fraction of the combines total vote erosion. Clearly the BJP lost support among not just Muslims but all sections of society. Its defeat owed more to general voter dissatisfaction with mis-governance than Gujarat’s carnage.

The defeat also owed something to the party’s terrible mis-judgment in forging alliances. By switching allies in Tamil Nadu from the DMK to Jayalalitha, it lost maybe 40 seats. It should have allied with rather than against the TRS in Andhra Pradesh.

Professor Yogendra Yadav of CSDS, the analyst I respect above all others, shows that in 2004, the BJP’s own share of the Muslim vote actually improved marginally, to 8%. This can hardly be described as a cataclysmic consequence of Modi.

However, BJP allies suffered a drop in Muslim vote share from 9% to 3%. This explains the grouses of Naidu and Mamata. Yet these are grossly exaggerated. In Andhra Pradesh, the Muslim vote share of the TDP-BJP combine fell from 44% to 34%. This translates into a decline of 3% of the popular vote, less than half the vote swing of 7% against the combine.

So, the combines problem was the loss of vote share among not just Muslims but all sections of society.

Viewed in perspective, the BJP has actually done remarkably well in regard to the Muslim vote. Along with its allies, it won only 3% of the Muslim vote in 1991, increased this to 5% in 1998, and then enjoyed a surge to 14% in 1999. This declined to 11% in 2004, but this level was still well above the BJP’s historical average.

The CSDS data are available to the BJP. Why then does Vajpayee seek to pin the blame on Modi? Because he has been taken in by the India Shining fable. I always scoffed at the concept of India Shining, and Indian voters have done so too. But Vajpayee seems to believe that India is indeed shining, thanks to his prime ministership. He believes that this should have won the election for the BJP, and if not then the blame must lie elsewhere. He is looking for a scapegoat, and has found one in Modi.

The RSS will ensure Modi’s survival. But I suspect even the RSS will, reluctantly, agree with Vajpayee on one thing. The BJP needs allies to return to power, and Muslim pogroms will drive away such allies. So, as an electoral imperative, Muslims must be wooed, not killed. Non-entities like Najma Heptullah must be welcomed into the party. In this lies hope.

What do you think?