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Opinion: Opinion | The Real Surprise of 2024 – How Key State Battles Went Local

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is poised to begin its third term in office, with the BJP emerging as the single largest party, securing 240 seats. This marks the first time in 35 years that a party has won more than 235 seats in three consecutive elections. PM Modi has now become the longest-serving Prime Minister of India in the past 40 years. Although there was widespread expectation that the BJP would score 300-plus, the NDA remains the strongest coalition government since the 1990s. Yet, the opposition is celebrating its increased seat count as if it were a victory for the I.N.D.I.A bloc.

Given the expectations, Verdict 2024 is a “surprise” to many. This “surprise” emerged mostly from the swing states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bengal, Haryana and Rajasthan, where the Lok Sabha election became “local” instead of national, impacting the BJP in some 70 seats.

Uttar Pradesh 

The BJP secured a vote share of 49.5% in the country’s most politically important state in 2019 and 42% in 2014. In 2024, the BJP achieved a vote share of 41.37%, closer to its 2014 figure.

The Samajwadi Party won a 17.96% vote share in 2019, which has climbed to 34% in 2024. The rise of Akhilesh Yadav’s party is directly proportional to the drop in the vote share of Mayawati’s BSP, from 19% in 2019 to 9% this time.

A majority of the Scheduled Caste votes have shifted from the BSP to the Samajwadi Party. In Purvanchal, or eastern Uttar Pradesh, the BJP and its allies had won 20 of 27 seats in the last election. This election saw a dip of 10 seats in this region. The shift of Scheduled Caste votes in Ambedkar Nagar, Sant Kabir Nagar, Jaunpur, Lalganj, Baliya, and Chandauli helped the Samajwadi convert these seats into wins. 

The non-Yadav OBC votes saw a split, with the Kurmi, Kushwaha, Nishad, and Rajbhar castes likely shifting 60%, 62%, 65% and 70% of votes to the local Samajwadi Party candidates in many seats of Uttar Pradesh. The BJP’s alliance with Sanjay Nishad and OP Rajbhar was not enough to hold the Rajbhar votes; they preferred to vote for local candidates of the same caste. For the first time since 2014, the non-Yadav OBC votes went away from the BJP because of better social engineering by the Samajwadi Party.

Along with the non-Yadav OBC split, another factor was the lack of unity in the Upper Castes compared to 2019. Fewer Brahmins voted for the BJP in seats like Basti, Sant Kabir Nagar, and Baliya (near Varanasi) compared to 2019; even at a seat like Domariyaganj, won by the BJP, 80 per cent of Brahmins voted for the Samajwadi Party. 

In western UP, the BJP suffered losses in seats such as Muzaffarnagar and Kairana – not because of cross-voting by Thakur voters, but rather because they didn’t turn out at the polling booth in the same numbers as they did in 2019.

Sitting MPs facing anti-incumbency further catalysed the caste and local narrative across Uttar Pradesh. In Ayodhya, the non-availability of the local MP was a significant reason for the shift in Scheduled Caste votes to the Samajwadi Party.

Resentment over the Agniveer scheme also prevented the consolidation of the youth votes towards the BJP.

The BJP had hoped that its welfare schemes and the Nation First narrative would overcome this silent anti-incumbency. However, the rise in the proportion of local factors dominating and deciding the voting outcome in Uttar Pradesh was the first standalone shift seen in the last 10 years.

The Scheduled Caste vote shift from the BJP to Samajwadi Party was not due to the opposition’s “Samvidhan Khatre Main Hai (Constitution is in danger)” campaign. Rather, it was a combination of factors like anti-incumbency against sitting MPs, and the heavy domination of Scheduled Caste and non-Yadav OBC candidates picked by the Samajwadi Party (27 OBC, 15 SC, 11 Upper Caste).

West Bengal

The 2019 Lok Sabha results, in which the BJP received a vote share of 40 per cent, reflected an “anti-Mamata Banerjee vote” in the backdrop of Panchayat poll violence in 2018. The 2021 Bengal assembly was an inflexion point, with the BJP failing to add to that vote share. Instead, it dropped to 38%, a 2% dip from the 2019 national election result. Mamata Banerjee, however, maintained a 45 per cent vote share, similar to the 2021 assembly elections, in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Despite the Sandeshkhali case, Mamata Banerjee polled 58% of women’s votes. The ‘Lokkhi Bhandar’ scheme worked on the ground to mobilise more women voters towards Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress.

Of the 12 seats won by the BJP in Bengal, 10 seats showed a margin of less than one lakh votes. The CPM also garnered roughly 1 to 2 lakh votes in 10 seats. These were voters who did not want to vote TMC, and were unhappy with the selection of BJP candidates. Despite the perception of a corrupt state government resonating on the ground, the choice of candidates by the Trinamool’s rivals left voters adrift, and many in the BJP organisation watched passively. In seats like Hooghly, which suffered heavy anti-incumbency, the candidate was repeated despite voter resentment, simply because none other was available. In places like Barrackpore, the candidate denied a ticket by the Trinamool was immediately given a BJP ticket. The swapping of candidates between Asansol, Durgapur, Medinipur further bred resentment. It was felt that there was limited course correction by the BJP after its 2021 assembly election defeat.

Voters could not feel confident about any of the candidates, and they remained silent. Some candidates, who lost the assembly elections in 2021, were nominated for the 2024 Lok Sabha contest. The BJP in Bengal could not convert the anti-incumbency and pro-Narendra Modi sentiment into votes. Mamata Banerjee’s 360-degree approach to effectively manoeuvre machinery, administration, and media proved to be effective and helped her offset the impact of anti-incumbency. It is said in Bengal that an election has to be fought, and public perception is just one of the many factors that decide the final outcome in the polling booth.

Haryana and Rajasthan 

A strong consolidation of Jat voters, and weakened counter-caste consolidation was a common factor that cost the BJP in these two states.

In Rajasthan, Nagor, Sikar, Jhunjunu, Churu and Barmer witnessed a strong Jat consolidation away from the BJP. The Rajput anger after Purshottam Rupala’s statement also pushed this community away from the BJP. In the seats of Tonk-Sawai Madhopur and Dausa, the ‘Meena’ community tilted towards the Congress to support local Meena leaders. This shift was on the back of unfulfilled promises by the BJP to take care of their aspirations after forming government in Rajasthan after winning the 2023 state polls. In the Bharatpur and Karauli-Dholpur constituencies, loyal voters of the BJP drifted towards the Congress. The BJP lost in these nine seats as caste considerations overrode the “Modi factor”.

In Haryana, the Sonipat and Rohtak constituencies witnessed more Jat and rural votes in favour of the Congress than in 2019. In Sirsa, the choice of candidate led to a consolidation of Scheduled Caste votes in favour of the Congress. Anti-incumbency in Haryana was visible, and the “Modi factor” could only prevent more seats shifting from the BJP to Congress. The voters apparently felt the BJP machinery was taking their voice for granted, and even though they wanted PM Modi to continue, they could not resist punishing those they felt had neglected them.

These ground realities and anti-incumbency dragged down the BJP’s vote share from 58.02 per cent to 46.11 per cent in Rajasthan, and from 58% to 46.11% in Haryana.

Maharashtra 

The BJP in Maharashtra has more or less its vote share at similar levels – 27.32% in 2014, 27.59% in 2019, and 26.18% in 2024. The Congress drew a similar vote share as it did in 2019, but the party’s winnings increased from one to 13 Lok Sabha seats in 2024. The losses in Maharashtra were, again, more due to “internal” factors of the BJP than external. A complete vote transfer between Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena (UBT) and the Congress was expected, however the BJP’s vote in Mumbai and Vidarbha could not crystallise as it did in 2019.

The election in Maharashtra became local with the BJP’s voters showing passive involvement at best, particularly after the alliance with NCP (Ajit Pawar), and Shinde Sena. Here too, the seat-wise analysis boils down to the localisation of the polls. Candidate selection, particularly from rival parties, became the dominant silent factor in the mind of the voter over national issues.

Across the country, the BJP has held a steady vote share, similar to 2019, racking up more votes than the Congress in southern India, and maintaining a strike rate of 55% in direct contests with the Congress. However, in the selection of candidates, the BJP was outsmarted by the opposition in states like Uttar Pradesh, which contributed significantly to the ruling party’s slump to 240 seats in 2024, from 303 seats in 2019 and 272 seats in 2014.

It will be wrong to label this as an anti-incumbency vote. No other party or coalition has been re-elected for a third consecutive term with as many seats as the Modi-led NDA. The reality is that voters who supported PM Modi in these key states had no alternative but to express their silent dissent against the local candidates.

Exit Polls scientifically map sentiment and factors and assign proportionate weight to predict a likely outcome. Globally, exit Polls go right and at times miss the mark. All exit polls after these elections mapped two popular narratives –

PM Modi is popular on the ground and his schemes are appreciated by the people, particularly the women  Clear and present anti-incumbency against local candidates

Exit polls underestimated the silent localised anti-incumbency in the mind of the ‘Parivarik‘ voter. “Mehengai and berozgari (inflation and unemployment)” were issues reflected in the exit polls too. However, the translation of these issues into “silent dissent” was catalysed by factors that were more internal to the BJP. 

If this were an anti-incumbency verdict against the central government, the BJP’s vote share would not have remained steady. In 2019, with a similar vote share, the BJP secured 303 seats. Its 2024 vote share is 5.5% higher than the vote share that won it 272 seats in 2014. Meanwhile, the Congress vote share has consistently ranged between 19-21% since 2014 and remains within that range.

(The author is Founder, Jan Ki Baat, and a psephologist and journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

 Analysing the BJPs surprising losses in key states.    

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