Before Tuesday, the INDIA bloc kept talking about how the 2024 results would prove to be an ‘India Shining’ moment for the BJP, referring to how the Vajpayee government had been taken by surprise by the 2004 numbers after advancing general elections in the anticipation of a win.

While the Modi government projected a “370-plus” number for itself and “400 paar” for the NDA, it fell far short, with the BJP winning only 240 and the NDA 293. With the NDA likely to return to power, it is not exactly what the INDIA bloc predicted. But it is also not what the BJP expected.

So what happened in 2004?

Early elections

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee had won the Kargil War and there were other reasons he felt upbeat about his chances: the GDP growth rate was 8.4% in the second quarter of 2003, Vajpayee’s popularity was high, India’s foreign reserves were swelling and the Opposition was crumbling. (The Congress had lost the Assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2003).

On February 6, 2004, Vajpayee dissolved the Lok Sabha, six months before the end of the term in September-October.

The BJP then ran an ‘India Shining’ campaign, including a pre-recorded telephonic message by Prime Minister Vajpayee himself — “Main Atal Bihari Vajpayee bol raha hoon…(This is Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaking)” — to a publicity blitz. At the time, it was similar in scale to the Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP’s wall-to-wall campaigns now, with similar catchy slogans like “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar”.

Festive offer

Wrong exit polls

After polling, held over four phases between April 20 and May 10, 2004, came the exit polls, which predicted on an average that the NDA would fall just short of the 272-majority mark but that the Opposition UPA would be limited to less than 200 seats.

Five exit polls estimated the NDA would win between 240 and 278 seats, or an average of 257 seats. The UPA was projected to win between 176 and 198 seats, or an average of 185.

In the final count, the pre-poll alliances of the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA won 181 and 218 seats, respectively. The exit polls turned out to have overestimated the NDA tally by 76 seats, and underestimated the UPA count by 33 seats.

On its own, the BJP won 138 seats, with 22.16% vote share, which was behind the Congress’s 145 seats and 26.53% votes. The CPI(M) and CPI together won 53 seats, making the Left the next biggest winner, with a 7.07% vote share.

Among the regional parties that won big were the Samajwadi Party (SP) with 36 seats (startlingly similar to the party’s unexpected tally of 37 this time), the RJD with 24, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with 19, and DMK with 16. .

The geographical spread

Again, the BJP’s wins were concentrated in a handful of states – 17 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Karnataka, 15 in Rajasthan, 12 in Maharashtra and 11 in Gujarat. It performed particularly poorly in Uttar Pradesh (the state where it again took a beating this time) and Bihar, winning seven and four seats, respectively. The party won seats across a total of 18 states and Union Territories (UTs).

In contrast, the Congress won its seats across 26 states and UTs, a larger spread than the BJP, although it won double-digit seats only in Andhra Pradesh, with 23 seats and Maharashtra with 10. The other states where it won seats included Tamil Nadu and Gujarat (9 seats each), Uttar Pradesh (8 seats), and Assam, Haryana and Karnataka (7 seats each).

However, the Congress struggled in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab, where it won just three, three and two seats, respectively.

Among the Congress’s major allies were the Left parties, RJD, DMK and the NCP, while the BJP relied on the JD(U), Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – the parties which it is leaning on again now – the Shiromani Akali Dal and Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Notably, the SP and BSP, the two largest parties in Uttar Pradesh, had not entered any pre-poll alliances.

Govt formation

Although only seven seats separated the Congress and BJP, the grand old party led by Sonia Gandhi acted proactively to form alliances and put together a UPA government, comprising over a dozen parties. The Left played a key role.

Not only did the Congress form a government in 2004, it did a repeat in 2009, when Manmohan Singh returned to power as Prime Minister on the back of a historic nuclear deal.

Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani later said in his autobiography that the BJP’s 2004 election slogans “gave an opportunity to our political opponents to highlight other aspects of India’s contemporary reality — poverty and uneven development, unemployment among the youth, problems faced by farmers, etc. which questioned our claim”.