The Rise of the Second Dominant Party System in India: BJP’s New Social Coalition in 2019

Published date01 December 2019
DOI10.1177/2321023019874628
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Article
The Rise of the Second Dominant
Party System in India: BJP’s
New Social Coalition in 2019
Pradeep Chhibber1
Rahul Verma2
Abstract
The social coalition that supported the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 mirrored the demographic profile
of the Hindu society. The party made substantial gains among the lower castes, the poor, rural voters,
and less educated. How did BJP manage to attract these new voters? We argue that the immediate
context of 2019 elections along with a profound ideological shift in Indian politics lies at the heart of the
BJP’s success. Underpinning the short-term factors of Modi’s popularity, BJP’s organizational advantage,
heightened nationalistic sentiments, and expansive welfare politics, a new form of ethno-political major-
itarianism delinked from religious Hindu nationalism was key to the party’s ability to attract new voters.
Keywords
Ideology, Hindu nationalism, ethno-political majoritarianism, BJP, Narendra Modi
Introduction
The resounding electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019, howsoever unexpected, is
the result of an ideological shift in Indian politics. The immediate context of the 2019 elections did bear
upon the BJP’s victory, but profound structural changes were more consequential. The increasing size
of the middle class and a new form of ethno-political majoritarianism, delinked from a religious Hindu
nationalism, helped the BJP shed its tag as an upper caste party mainly conned to the Hindi heartland. The
BJP’s rhetoric is that opposition parties have indulged in politics of minority (read Muslim) appeasement,
whereas the BJP believes in treating everyone equally. The BJP have always stressed that it stood for the
development of all, and appeasement of none (na triskarit karenge, na puraskrit karenge, na bahiskrit
karenge [we’ll neither abominate, nor reward, nor ostracize]). This strategy, we argue, has allowed the BJP
to draw support among those Hindus who have come to believe that, before the BJP, India’s democracy
favoured minorities. The BJP’s rhetoric, not surprisingly, can be interpreted as full of prejudice, especially
towards Christians and Muslims.
Studies in Indian Politics
7(2) 131–148, 2019
© 2019 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/2321023019874628
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1 University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.
2 Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Pradeep Chhibber, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.
E-mail: chhibber@berkeley.edu
132 Studies in Indian Politics 7(2)
The article is organized as follows. We begin with a brief discussion of how the BJP emerged as a
dominant party in Indian politics. We then use the lens of ideological conict to understand the short-term
factors that inuenced the BJP’s vote share in 2019. In the third part, we describe the broader structural
shifts taking place in Indian politics. Finally, we use multivariate analysis to show the role of ideologi-
cal consolidation behind BJP’s new social coalition. Finally, we discuss how the BJP is reaping benets
from demographic changes associated with a larger middle class. We conclude with some caveats and
possible avenues for future research.
A BJP-led Dominant Party System
The 2014 elections marked the arrival of the fourth party system in India (Chhibber & Verma, 2018; Palshikar,
2017). The outcome of 2019 elections cemented the BJP-led dominant party system in which the other
national party—the Congress—is largely marginalized, the Left Front decimated, and many regional parties
that were hoping to do well lost further ground to the BJP in their respective states. What are the contours of
this new one-party dominant system? In the classic formulation of dominant party systems rst formulated
by Rajni Kothari (1964), the Congress was dominant because it was (a) the party of consensus and (b) the
other parties were merely parties of pressure. An alternative view linked the Congress’s electoral victories to
the fact that it faced opposition from different parties in various states, thus was the dominant party nation-
ally. Can we classify the BJP as a dominant party today? The BJP, like the Congress, is the preferred party
nationally. It is a party that is opposed by different parties in many states, though it does not quite have the
reach of the Congress in the 1950s. Has the BJP become the party of consensus? In this article, we argue that
the BJP may have successfully created a consensus around the concept of ethno-political majoritarianism,
thereby relegating advocacy of political plurality to parties of pressure.3
The BJP’s Electoral Performance in 2019
The electoral success of the BJP in the national elections of 2014 was presented as a one-off event, a fragile
mandate that would be hard to repeat (Chakravarti, 2018; Chhibber & Ostermann, 2014). In 2019, however,
the BJP outperformed its rivals and made deep inroads into new geographic areas and received support from
a broad swathe of Hindu society. For the rst time, the BJP had contested more seats than the Congress
in a Lok Sabha election. The magnitude of this BJP’s victory—on both counts of popular vote and seat
share—signals a transformation of the competitive space in Indian politics (Table 1). The party won 303
seats and 37 per cent vote share in 2019. In the seats the BJP contested in 2019, its vote share was 46 per cent
compared to just less than 40 per cent in 2014, and it won a staggering 70 per cent of the seats it contested!
For long, the BJP was considered an urban party with signicant disadvantages in mobilizing voters in
rural India. In the 2019 election, the BJP penetrated rural India. In 2014, the BJP won one in every three rural
seats it contested; and in 2019 the party further improved its performance by winning every second rural seat.
The BJP’s median victory margin in the seats that it won increased by 3 percentage points compared to 2014.
This large margin is likely to have a signicant bearing on the competitiveness of electoral contests at the
constituency level, where victory margins had once been steadily shrinking, but are now on the rise again.
3 Whether the idea of ethno-political majoritarianism is just limited to the electoral arena or whether it has penetrated social
consciousness is beyond the scope of the article. However, if the latter is true, then India might witness an elongated period of a
BJP-dominant system.

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