The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) majestic sweep of Karnataka in the general elections of 2019 is one of the most remarkable performances in the party’s electoral history.
For sheer scale, depth, challenge, and the fact that the BJP was up against a formidable alliance comprising of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), the JD(S), it is nearly without parallel.
The BJP, and its lone independent ally in the Lok Sabha seat of Mandya, won 26 seats with 54 per cent of the popular vote. That is 177 assembly segments, out of 224.
To invoke an apples-to-apples comparison, the BJP gained 73 segments over the 104 it won in the assembly elections of 2018, and its vote share went up by a whopping 17.3 per cent.
In spite of this, perception managers in the usual corners of mainstream media are labouring to create a narrative that the BJP is beset with internal dissent, compounded by anti-incumbency, and, that there is no way the forthcoming assemble elections will mimic the sweep of 2019 even remotely.
Instead, their ‘opinion polls’ indicate that the BJP will lose vote shares and seats from what they got in 2018. Their reasoning: the state votes differently in assembly and general elections.
But is that really true? Was the BJP’s performance in 2019 a flash in the pan?
The best way to find out the truth is to look at recent history, and then at the numbers.
By 2004, the BJP had established itself on a steady growth path in Karnataka. District by district, in region after region, the party’s grassroots activity had begun to achieve critical mass.
And, while it is true that the BJP got far more votes in a general election than in provincial ones, the overall trend was an upwards one.
Then, disaster struck in 2013. A terrible internal rebellion ruptured the BJP’s growth, smashed its assiduously-cultivated vote bases to smithereens, and set it's ascendancy back by a decade.
While it recovered to some extent in 2014 and 2018, it was still not enough for the BJP to establish itself as the natural party of governance in the state.
But something curious happened in the 2019 general elections.
Even as the Congress and the JD(S) joined hands to consolidate the identity vote, the BJP turned the tide by engineering a massive counter-consolidation.
The statistics were staggering, both in terms of vote share and vote swing. Not even in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP managed a similar civilizational churning (there is no other phrase to describe this phenomenon) against a nearly-similar index of opposition unity, was the shift anywhere near this stark.
The significance of what transpired in Karnataka is highlighted best by conducting a vote share tranche analysis exercise at the assembly segment level.
In this exercise, the votes polled by both coalitions are segregated into groups, so as to bring out the actual strength of their performances in 2019.
As the table above shows, the BJP and its ally in Mandya won 164 of 224 segments with over 50 per cent of the popular vote. In 47 of these, they polled over 60 per cent.
Significantly, the BJP gained 73 segments in this tranche from 2018, and held on to 91.
In contrast, the Congress-JD(S) combine got above 50 per cent in only 31 segments, held only 24 from 2018, and gained just seven segments.
That is the net worth of a temporary alliance which came apart soon after the general elections, and is absent in 2023. Instead of acting as a force multiplier in which vote transfer took place neatly between the two allies, it instead had to suffer a withering backlash from an incensed electorate.
The magnitude of that backlash is best quantified by conducting a vote swing tranche analysis. It clearly brings out the extent to which an alliance based on identity politics drove voters in hordes towards the BJP.
The geographical distribution of the BJP’s performance in 2019 vis-à-vis that of 2018 is presented in a vote swing map below:
The first point to be noted is that the BJP suffered a negative vote swing in only twelve segments. And even then, it managed to retain five segments which it won in 2018.
Second, of these twelve segments, the negative vote swing away from the BJP was less than 4 per cent in 11.
Third, the BJP managed to win in 60 segments with a positive vote swing of 0-10 per cent, retaining 49 from 2018, and gaining 11.
In fact, the inefficiency and inherent fragility of the Congress-JD(S) alliance is highlighted further when we narrow the BJP’s vote swing band to just 0-5 per cent: the party won 29 segments while gaining four.
The point to be noted here is that in spite of a near-total index of opposition unity, even minor vote swings towards the BJP are enough to not just force a win, but to make gains as well.
This becomes all the more important when we consider the fact that the Congress and the JD(S) are not in alliance in 2023.
Fourth, the vote swing to the BJP was greater than 20 per cent in 77 segments, 52 of which were gains from 2018. Remarkably, the BJP’s vote share went up by over 30 per cent in 47 of these 77 segments, 34 of which were gains.
And, fifth, in contrast, the Congress-JD(S) alliance suffered a negative vote swing in 199 segments. In 117 of these, their vote share decline was greater than -10 per cent, and greater than -20 per cent in 67.
There are two ways to look at this event, neither one of which is directly quantifiable: if the extremely poor performance of the Congress-JD(S) is interpreted as a rejection of identity politics and opportunistic khichdi alliances, then the tremendous gains made by the BJP can be equally inferred as a resounding validation of the policies followed by it, and of its leadership. And, frankly, there is a bit of truth in both.
But the key takeaway of the 2019 results is that the BJP has clearly reverted once more to a growth phase which was disrupted by the rebellion of 2013.
Many people who had never voted for the BJP did so in 2019, particularly in areas where the party barely existed. Many of them will do so again in 2023.
For proof, look at the BJP’s performance in an area where it was traditionally weak — 139-Sira constituency, in the Vokkaliga heartland of Southern Karnataka. In 2018, it got just 9 per cent. In 2019, it polled 50 per cent in this segment — a vote swing of over 40 per cent.
Those who discounted this tremendous surge as a Lok Sabha effect were stunned the next year, when the BJP won Sira seat in a by-election with 42 per cent, and a handsome margin of over 13,000 votes.
The bulk of the BJP’s gains were from the JD(S), who won this seat in 2018.
Therefore, it is more logical to infer this as a pan-state shift in voting patterns, in favour of the BJP, rather than as a rejection of the Congress-JD(S)’s style of politics.
We can view this as a vote for policies, rather than for politics.
So, what is the relevance of the 2019 results to the forthcoming assembly elections in Karnataka?
History says that the vote shares the BJP gets in a general election decline by 6-8 per cent in the next assembly election. By that yardstick, we can expect the party’s vote share to decline from 54 per cent in 2019 to at least 46-48 per cent, if not less. That would hand the BJP a thumping sweep.
As a test, let us be generous to the Congress and the JD(S), and arbitrarily assume that the BJP’s vote share will decline by double the usual trend, by 14 per cent. Even then, the BJP touches 40 per cent — up 4 per cent from what it got in 2018, and well above what a number of opinion polls are saying. And that would still put the BJP very close to, or on, the majority mark.
Therefore, in conclusion, there is no doubt that the BJP’s vote share will go up in 2023. Whether that is enough for the BJP to secure the popular mandate, or not, will be a function of two factors — a possible disintegration of the JD(S) in some regions of the state, and a resultant increase in bipolarity, with more two-way contests between the BJP and the Congress.
Bottom line: voting patterns changed abruptly and decisively in the 2019 elections; it was a reset which has a high possibility of being repeated to a significant extent in 2023, wherein the main beneficiary would be the BJP.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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