The essence of objective electoral analysis is an ability to question one’s own views and inferences from multiple angles, in order to heighten the confidence levels of the conclusions we draw.
So, if it appears from ground reports and historical data that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have reverted to a strong growth phase in Karnataka — following a period of debacle and recovery between 2013 and 2018 — then, impartiality also demands that an exercise be run to find those factors, which may prevent the party from gaining a majority in the forthcoming assembly elections there.
To that end, Swarajya has sought to identify the BJP’s weak areas, and, by corollary, the strong points of its principal opponents — the Congress party, and the Janata Dal (Secular), the JD(S).
Three assembly elections have been held in Karnataka since the delimitation exercise of 2008.
The BJP failed to win even once in 77 seats. That’s a large number — 34 per cent of an assembly with 224 seats, and probably the main reason why the party has struggled so hard to cross the halfway mark.
As a map below shows, most of these seats are located in the south of the state. This has much to do with the BJP’s inability to expand into that region, at the same pace as it did in the central and northern regions between 1999 and 2008.
This is a bit like eastern Uttar Pradesh, where, too, the BJP has been unable to propel the vote in its favour satisfactorily, even as it regularly sweeps the rest of the state with handsome margins.
However, 18 of these 77 seats are located in the north — 13 in Hyderabad Karnataka and the balance five in Bombay Karnataka.
The hindrances are mainly demographic, which means that the BJP will have to work at the grassroots level to engineer a supra-caste consolidation if it is to do even better in this region in 2023.
And it will need to, because there is every possibility that the JD(S) could get squeezed this time, with a tactical exodus of the Muslim vote to the Congress giving the latter an edge in the north.
Compounding this handicap is another set of problems which the BJP has to contend with — the flux caused by the departure of some senior leaders after they were denied tickets, and anti-incumbency, the stock woe of any sitting government.
The list of disgruntled defectors, small as it is, includes former Chief Minister Jagdish Shettar and ex-minister Laxman Savadi. Both hail from Bombay Karnataka and belong to the electorally-powerful Lingayat community, which is a mainstay of the BJP.
So, perhaps Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wasn’t wrong when he gleefully crowed that Shettar’s defection would help his party win over 150 seats in the 2023 elections.
That is not dissimilar to a slew of recent ‘opinion polls’ which suggest either that the Congress will win, or, that the elections will throw up a hung assembly.
Every opposition political entity, along with its twelve best friends in mainstream media, is feverishly trying to set a narrative, that come what may, the BJP will not be able to overcome its inherent shortcomings. 77 seats is simply too tall a summit for the BJP to climb.
But the opposition and mainstream media are making a fundamental mistake — they are basing their statements on the assumption that the results of the 2019 general elections, when the BJP swept the state, will not manifest themselves again in the coming assembly elections.
Swarajya’s analysis shows just how wrong they are.
Until 2019, the BJP always enjoyed a moderate improvement during general elections, by around 6-8 per cent in vote shares. As the table above shows, that let is win a few segments of the 77 it failed to win in assembly elections. In this period, the contests were always triangular.
Even at its best in 2009, for example, the BJP still led in less than a third of these 77 segments (23 leads). In 2014, it actually fared worse in spite of a Modi wave, leading in just 18.
But everything changed in 2019, when the Congress and the JD(S) decided to form an alliance. Instead of wiping the BJP out of the state, the allies were obliterated by a phenomenal counter-consolidation in favour of the BJP.
We can see just how emphatic the message from the electorate was: in 2019, the BJP didn’t just gain the lead in 44 of these 77 segments, but it gained a stunning additional 27 per cent vote share as well. The party’s lack of growth over the preceding decade was made up for in one fell swoop.
The true nature of this radical change in voting patterns is shown in a vote share chart below. The blue, red, and white dots represent the BJP’s vote share in these 77 seats in the assembly elections of 2008, 2013, and 2018, respectively. Note how these three sets of dots cluster so intensely and consistently in the under-20 per cent band.
In contrast, note how the yellow dots, representing the BJP’s vote share in 2019, rise with such frequency to the plus-50 per cent band.
From polling less than 10 per cent of the vote in many of these seats, the BJP in fact polled over 40 per cent in 63 of these 77 seats, more than 50 per cent in 36, and more than 60 per cent in six.
Another important statistic is that the BJP polled under 25 per cent in 48 seats in 2008, in 67 seats in 2013, and in 42 seats in 2018.
In 2019, however, it polled this low in just two segments.
The dramatic shift is just as visible in a chart of vote swings from 2018 to 2019.
Now, even as perception managers strive to make us believe that the trends of 2019 will not spill over onto 2023, the ground reality is very different — not only will it, but it already has!
Seven of these 77 seats have already been won by the BJP, in byelections held after a number of Congress and one JD(S) MLA defected to the BJP. Most of them will win again.
In addition, the BJP is also set to win other seats on this list of 77, like Arkalgud and Chamundeshwari. This is an important point: the BJP is set to breach a host of secular firewall seats which it has never won since the delimitation of 2008.
It also means, equally importantly, that the BJP’s vote share would cross 40 per cent in 2023. It is simple math. If the BJP gained a third of the vote share in a third of the seats in 2019, that translates to a plus-9 per cent positive vote swing. Numerically, this would raise the BJP’s 2018 vote share of 36.4 per cent to around 45 per cent.
Also, even if we are unnecessarily generous to the opposition, and their narrative builders, and arbitrarily assume that only half of the 2019 swing would carry forward into 2023, that is still around 5 per cent, and would raise the BJP’s vote share to the 41-42 per cent band.
Further, there is, therefore, no way the BJP’s 2019 vote share in seats like Mulbagal, Sidlaghatta, Chikballapur, Gokak, and a number of others, is going to fall back to the meagre levels the BJP polled in three consecutive assembly elections between 2008 and 2018.
Or, to put it another way, if the BJP is to breach firewall opposition seats, it can do so only if its vote share increases to the 41-42 per cent.
Not to mention, that if the BJP managed to win 104 seats in 2018 with 36.4 per cent, then a vote swing of 4-5 per cent in its favour (a portion of which has already been achieved with the bypolls of 2019), would put the party on or above the halfway mark.
Thus, in conclusion, this is the reality which many analysts, pollsters, and politicians are ignoring: the BJP’s vote share has already risen from what it got in 2018, it has reverted to its pre-2008 growth phase. Defectors from the BJP will struggle to win on an opposition ticket, and the BJP will win a number of seats which it did not in the past three assembly elections.
As explained in an earlier piece, the fact is that a magnificent civilizational churning is taking place across Karnataka, and it will manifest itself to a material extent in 2023.
Those who refuse to see it are simply being obstinately delusional, and those who act as if it doesn’t exist are indulging in faux bravado. Change is here.
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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