On a bright sunny evening 18 years ago, on May 7th 1996, when the solitary state owned Doordarshan was the only operating TV channel for all news, a nationwide exit poll was aired for the first time with much panache. The Congress government at the centre was hugely unpopular due to humungous corruption scandals of the previous years and BJP was the rising star of the 90s when it had two straight elections of tremendous growth – from 2 to 85 to 120 in the span of less than a decade. It was widely expected that Congress would lose the 96 elections and that BJP was best placed to win. Confirming the nominal electoral wisdom, the exit poll of that evening projected a huge haul of 192 MP seats for the BJP.

The morning after the exit poll was aired on DD, there was a buzz in the Shakha grounds (of all the towns of India, presumably), as people talked in whispers and laughed out loudly every now and then. This was, after all, the culmination of a 70 year struggle when finally the Sangh would have its first PM. There was a strange sort of expectation in the air. Everybody was talking about two men, L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee, the two saffron pillars of the BJP who had dared to take the party from a paltry 2 MPs to the door of Delhi sultanate in just a decade.

Counting of votes was a long laborious process in those ballot paper days when Doordarshan took long breaks to air movies in between counting sessions, for nothing happened for hours in the middle. Day 1 of counting was mostly limited to the southern and western parts of India along with Orissa in the east, since heartland (north India in general) would begin the counting process only on the second day. By the end of the first day’s counting, some of the enthusiasm among BJP circles had come down by a couple of notches as the party hadn’t made any breakthroughs and was only successful in Gujarat and to some extent in Maharashtra.

The biggest surprise of that day came from Karnataka, where the exit polls had predicted big gains for BJP at the expense of the Congress party, while the ruling party of the state had been given a royal miss by the pollsters who had projected just 1 MP seat for the JDS! Devegowda went on to win 16 seats in Karnataka and ended up being the surprise prime minister of India in the 11th Lok Sabha.

Ever since that ill-fated exit poll, there is an urban legend among Indian pollsters – that the BJP gets over-represented during poll surveys due to an urban bias and under-reporting of minorities and Dalits – a legend that was reinforced in 2004. BJP, eventually won 161 parliamentary seats in the 1996 elections and ended up as the number one party in a fractured Lok Sabha, but the secular politics of India is such that Janata Dal, a party with only 46 seats, was able to form the government after Vajpayee’s 13 day experiment ended in failure.

Congress party was not only reduced to a historic low of just having 141 MPs (which was 10 less than even the post-emergency election of 1977), but also slipped to a vote-share of sub 30% levels from where it has never recovered. The important lesson of 1996 was that despite a historic low achieved by Congress, BJP, being the second pole of Indian politics, was not the automatic beneficiary of Congress’s secular decline. 1996 was also a momentous election in the sense that it was for the first time that elections went totally local and each state voted according to its own whims and fancies. Till the 1996 election, each Lok Sabha poll had an underlying theme on which the whole country came out to vote. For instance, if the 1971 election was about “garibi hatao”, then 1977 was about the JP movement and the anger against emergency. Similarly, 1984 was about Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the new hope of Rajiv, whereas 1989 was the anger of Bofors and virtually a punishment to Rajiv Gandhi. 1996 had no national narrative and each state voted in a mini general election of its own.

In the end analysis, BJP fell short by about 25-30 seats in 1996. In fact, it couldn’t manage to win just two states and thereby lost a historic opportunity to emerge as the alternate political flow of India. Yes, Vajpayee emerged victorious just two years later, but it was a victory built on a compromise known as NDA after realizing that BJP can grow no further and that the only path to rule Delhi was to become part of the fragmented polity of India by compromising with various regional players.

The two states that altered the course of history in 1996 were Karnataka and the then undivided Bihar. In Karnataka, Congress lost a whopping 12% vote-share, but BJP was not the gainer, instead BJP also lost 4% of the vote-share and it was Janata Dal that emerged the big gainer by unexpectedly winning 16 MP seats. BJP couldn’t make any gains in Mumbai-Karnataka region, which was one of the growth areas for the party following the Idgah-Maidan national flag hoisting andolan. The party just won a solitary seat in Mumbai-Karnataka and lost 5 others. Similarly in undivided Bihar, even the BJP’s partnership with the then fledgling Samata Party also couldn’t make any big dent in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s strongholds, for the BJP only managed to sweep the tribal belt of Chota-Nagpur and Santhal area where it won 13 of the 14 seats, but pretty much lost the rest of the state. In the entire Hindi-heartland BJP had won huge victories of 27 seats in an undivided Madhya Pradesh and 52 seats in an undivided Uttar Pradesh, but Bihar was the only sour note. In the end, those 25 seats of Bihar and the 16 seats of Karnataka powered the Janata Dal led United Front to create a disparate coalition of regional parties and prevented BJP from emerging as the national alternative.

Since 1996, every election in India has always been a sum total of mini-state elections rather than have any overwhelming national narrative. National mandate is inversely proportional to the vote-share of “others” and it is clear that for a decisive national mandate, the vote-share of regional parties has to go below the 45% levels. In many ways, the 2009 election saw a break from the pattern of a regional mandate (but for BJP’s underperformance) when Congress emerged a surprise winner in states where it didn’t even exist, leading to wild editorials of how Rahul Gandhi had emerged as a youth icon and even wilder conspiracy theories of EVM manipulation.

NaMo = the united spectrum of Hindu Vote = 2014 national vote

1996 is a warning for BJP, when it lost a great opportunity. If the party doesn’t sort out its local issues and also doesn’t manage ticket distribution, then it may well be haunted by the ghosts of 1996. Another aspect that BJP and its prime-ministerial nominee should be wary of is taking certain caste groups for granted; for instance, there is some lateral movement in the Brahmin vote, as seen in Baghelkhand in the recently concluded assembly elections of MP and from the 5Forty3 survey in Karnataka. There are also some reports coming in from Uttar Pradesh suggestive of a Brahminical disenchantment with overt OBC political outreach of the BJP. Another tactical error was Modi’s lack of aggressive direct appeal to the Jats in his first outing in Western-UP at his rally in Meerut yesterday. This was a classic error of judgment on the part of Modi, for he seems to be variously limited by the Lutyens agenda of secular-communal hyperbole and is not grilling secular governments and their horrendous mishandling of one of the biggest communal riots of our time. Jats have decisively turned towards BJP, but this Meerut cold-shouldering has left a bitter after taste at least in West-UP. Today many of these groups have limited options before them, but a political party can take them for granted at its own peril.

If 1996 sounds an alarm bell, it also gives hope, for after 2 decades, finally the election pattern is likely to change. Today there is a definite shift away from the 1996 model of each state voting individually to a singularity of a national vote. Narendra Modi is the one leader who is at the forefront of this change, for he is the most popular leader all over India and his party seems to be gaining wildly in states where it hitherto had no base to talk of. In southern states like Tamil Nadu and Telangana, there is an unusual Modi wave and BJP is getting close to 20% vote-share numbers in a range of opinion poll surveys. In northern states, where BJP already had a base, the party is being buoyed by the Modi wave into a range of mid 30s vote share and above (UP & Haryana being prime examples). The one thumb-rule of Indian electoral system is this – at around 30% levels vote-shares get converted into big gains in terms of seats and at 40% levels, the parties start sweeping elections.

Once again Congress is in dire straits today with humungous corruption scams, a decrepit leadership and a general antipathy of its core constituencies. The third and fourth front alliances and their amorphous coalition with the Congress is the only real challenge for the BJP. 2014 elections present a historic opportunity for the BJP to alter the narrative from a regional parties framework to a national vote, for the BJP’s real battle now is not to win MP seats in the 180-220 bandwidth, but to cross the rubicon and hit the 250-270 range. Strangely, Karnataka and Bihar, the two states that stood between BJP and Dilli sultanate in 1996, are once again standing between an outright BJP victory and just another coalition government. Uttar Pradesh is a riddle that can go wrong only if the ticket distribution is completely messed up, which looks unlikely with Amit Shah at the helm.

One big difference between the BJP of 2014 and the BJP of 1996 is the larger selection frame of votes that Modi has at his disposal. The united spectrum of Hindu votes is the new national vote, for Modi has managed to stitch together disparate groups of Hindu voters starting from upper castes to middle castes to OBCs. The Sahus, Jats, Kurmis and even Yadavs of the heartland, the Lingayats, Reddys, Kapus and even Kurubas of south India are all finding common ground with the NaMo phenomenon along with the traditional upper-caste Brahmin-Bania-Thakur vote of the BJP in 2014. This unprecedented social coalition has the capacity to not only decimate regional/sub-regional caste-based political parties but also destroy the secularist edifice on which most political parties operate in India to cater to their fiefdoms.

Of all the parts of the Hindu vote, Dalits had the least incentive to join the NaMo wave, but now even the SC vote is possibly moving towards BJP in a big way. First came reports of some non-Jatavs in UP shifting to BJP, then there has been more evidence in the ground of even the Jatav vote experimenting with a Modi-led BJP. Unless Mayawati is seen as a clear PM contestant, the SC vote of UP can potentially put its weight behind the new messiah of backwards – Narendra Modi. In Karnataka too, a significant portion of the Dalit vote, especially of the left-wing and non-dominant sub castes is looking towards Modi with hope – for instance, our own survey of the state clearly showed that support for Modi was much higher at 48% among the numerically larger SC left-wing as compared to 30% among the right-wing SC voters.

Now once again taking the case of the 1996 election as an example, when 69% of the SCs voted against the Congress party, BJP got less than 15% of that vote. This is what Modi brings to the table in 2014 – his ability to bring in all the anti-Congress vote under one platform, barring the minorities. Of course all of this goodwill may yet evaporate if BJP doesn’t get its ticket distribution right. In Karnataka, for instance, why can’t the state unit be headed by a young left-SC leader, preferably from north Karnataka?

As the battle-lines for 2014 are drawn, it is increasingly becoming clear that this is the last fight of the forces of 1996 which captured India against the reemergence of a national vote. Will the Jayalalitas, the Nitish Kumars, the Mulayam Singh Yadavs, the Mayawatis and Lalu Prasads be able to stop the Modi juggernaut, with or without the support of the Congress? Will Modi redefine India’s national polity and give rise to a new electoral cycle? Fasten your seatbelts and get onboard 5Forty3 for an exciting journey to find answers to these questions and many more. On the road to May 2014, we will redefine the way elections are analyzed and understood in India – that is a promise.