“The common wisdom is that I will win in the next election but I don’t believe that. I think it is going to be the economy” confided George HW Bush in March 1991 to his Chief of Staff, aboard Air Force One returning from a victorious war in Iraq, according to a recent biography. As we know, he went on to lose his re-election to Bill Clinton, who famously ran a campaign with the punchline “It’s the economy, stupid”. Now, imagine if Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aboard Air India One, returning from a euphoric meeting with Silicon Valley stalwarts had pensively quipped to his confidante “Common wisdom is I will win the Bihar election but I don’t believe that. I think it will be about internal dissonance, not my global stardom”. Prime Minister Modi would have been just as oracular as George HW Bush.
Because, in the recent Bihar state election, a sizeable number of BJP voters switched loyalties. The BJP faced the ire of voters in Bihar who seemed entirely oblivious to our Prime Minister’s rise up the charts of Forbes List of Powerful Global People. BJP spokespersons and supporters wax eloquent about the “index of opposition unity” and alliance arithmetic of the Grand Alliance as the sole protagonists in this vanquishing of the BJP in Bihar. That argument completely misses the point that there were a significant percentage of erstwhile BJP voters that deserted the party in the current Bihar election. 19 million voters across 129 constituencies in Bihar had a choice of a BJP or a JD(U) or a RJD or a Congress candidate in each of the 2014 and 2015 elections. 7.8 million chose the BJP over all the other parties in 2014. In the 2015 election, only 7 million voted for the BJP in these constituencies. Thus, nearly 800,000 BJP voters from 2014 changed loyalties in 2015. Whether the opposition is united or not is an irrelevant argument here since this voter had the exact same choices in 2014 and chose the BJP over all the others. This represents a vote share decline of nearly 4% which is a significant swing in a short span of 18 months in the Indian electoral context where it is common to experience 5% anti-incumbency swings after five full years. The BJP lost vote share in 90 of these 129 (70%) constituencies, indicating widespread disenchantment and not confined to any particular geography.
Using Census data, we ranked districts in Bihar according to a URL index that we computed – Urban, Rich and Literate. We then mapped electoral data and Census data to glean insights into these shifting voting patterns for the BJP in Bihar. This analysis relies entirely on vote shares since that is a direct manifestation of the average voter’s choices than seat shares. Patna has the highest URL where the BJP had a 3.5% loss in vote share vis-à-vis the 2014 elections. In Banka district which ranks among the bottom most in the URL index, the BJP gained 6.3% vote share compared to its performance in the 2014 elections. The BJP lost more votes in urban, rich and literate districts than in rural and poor districts. The BJP lost more votes in districts with greater percentage of youth than the rest. The BJP lost more votes in districts with the least Muslim population than in districts with a significant population of Muslims. The surprising finding is that in the top 5 districts according to the URL index, the BJP lost 14% vote share versus the 2014 elections. While in the bottom 5 districts, the BJP gained 6% vote share. Even more surprisingly, in the four districts that account for 70% of all Muslims of Bihar, the BJP gained 5.5% in vote share versus the 2014 elections. The BJP has gained vote share in Muslim constituencies while it lost a sizeable share of its traditional vote base among the urban rich. The BJP’s “celebratory fireworks in Pakistan” campaign in the last phase of the election, during which these Muslim heavy districts went to polls, may have served a limited purpose of increasing its vote share in these districts. But it can also be inferred that the rest of Bihar rose up in protest in unison against the BJP. Thus, a net overall loss of 4% vote share for the BJP vis-à-vis 2014 elections is actually a loss of 10% among its 2014 supporters and a gain of 6% in Muslim heavy districts.
The inconvenient truth for the BJP is that “opposition unity” as the sole reason for its debacle is a mere alibi. There were a significant number of voters that supported the BJP in 2014 but turned against them in the 2015 election. Elucidating reasons for this shift is best left to the abundant talents of our political pundits and for more serious introspection by the BJP leadership.
Table 1: District wise change in BJP vote-share between 2014 and 2015 and their corresponding URL% and Muslim%
Table 2: District wise change in BJP vote-share between 2014 and 2015 and their corresponding Muslim%