BJP's plank is that there is only one mass leader, PM Narendra Modi, and votes should be sought only in his name, at least at the pan state level Image Credit: ANI

It used to be a truth universally acknowledged that Indian politics was ruled by “anti-incumbency” — a peculiar coinage that claimed some kind of automatic desire among voters to change their governments every five years. If a government was re-elected, it was said the leader knows how to ‘beat anti-incumbency’.

These days, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party often uses the term ‘pro-incumbency’ to describe the new normal in Indian politics. That’s not a bad phrase to describe the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose popularity ratings are higher than perhaps any elected leader in the world.

Yet the idea of “pro-incumbency” is not really accurate when it comes to describing the Bharatiya Janata Party at the state level. While the BJP with its dominance over political discourse has created the impression that it is invincible even at the state level, the impression is not borne out by data.

As we have observed earlier in these pages, the BJP has won only 2 big states on its own in the last 5 years, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, without any pre- or post-poll alliances.

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The old normal

The ongoing Karnataka assembly elections need to be seen in this light. Until just a few months ago, the BJP seemed rather too strong in Karnataka, setting the agenda with majoritarian issues and keeping the Congress on the back foot. Except for Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress did very little campaigning over the last 2-years.

And yet the consensus on the Karnataka election seems to be that the BJP is in trouble. Surveys and analyst comments see the Congress emerging as the single largest party if not winning a clear majority. It must be pointed out that unstable governments, hung assemblies and lawmakers switching sides is the norm in Karnataka politics.

Point is, the BJP has been unable to change that norm, and even if it forms government again in Karnataka it will be because it managed to navigate through the old norms. The election campaign itself suggests there is enough anti-incumbency on the ground in Karnataka, not the pro-incumbency the BJP would like to project.

To give you an idea of how wide the chasm can be, let us look at Himachal Pradesh. The BJP just lost the election to the Congress by a difference of just 0.9% votes. The BJP won 43% and the Congress won 43.9%. That sounds like how things used to be even before the Modi era, before 2014.

Yet in the national Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the BJP won a whopping 69% vote-share in the state. It is rare for any party in India to win more than 50% votes in any election. Society is too divided in fractious groups to vote in the same direction.

The 26 per cent point vote difference in Himachal cannot be merely ascribed to rebellion by a few BJP leaders who were denied tickets. If a quarter of the state votes for the BJP in a national election but is voting for Congress in the state election, it means there’s a lot that is happening here that needs to be unpacked.

Weak local faces

At the national level the BJP’s popularity can be ascribed largely to having a strong popular leader who pulls votes in his own name (Modi). But the BJP does not replicate this formula at the state level, where it prefers weak leaders who can no longer be described with that Indian journalistic cliché, “satraps”.

Whether it was Jairam Thakur in Himachal Pradesh or Basavaraj Bommai in Karnataka, the BJP tends to prefer chief ministers who are too low-key to be mass leaders. It had such a leader in Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, who was quietly retired.

The idea is that there is only one mass leader, Modi, and votes should be sought only in his name, at least at the pan state level.

One could argue that only two BJP chief ministers are political heavyweights, Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh and Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam. But even in these states the BJP’s fortunes would dip significantly without the Modi factor.

Political lightweights as chief ministers do not hurt the BJP at the national level, but in fact may actually help it. If the BJP has to do well at the national level, then PM Modi has to shine brighter than all stars.

Letting off steam

For voters, state elections are an important avenue to let off the anti-incumbency steam. It helps them reset the relationship with the BJP, keeping their faith in PM Modi but expressing their unhappiness with the local BJP MLA and even the chief minister.

People wonder why the BJP is not affected by the perennial ‘anti-incumbency’ issues like unemployment and inflation. The answer is that the BJP is very much affected by these — but at the state level.

Once again this helps the BJP at the national level, since it is able to present PM Modi in a different light from the local BJP. We hear this sentiment often from BJP voters and even workers, who say that PM Modi is doing his best but the local MLA/bureaucracy/party organisation is not giving up its old ways.

So yes, the BJP does face anti-incumbency as well. It has just found a formula to manage it, making state elections a moat around the national election, so that whatever hits the party has to take are already taken before the national elections.