An analysis of victory margins in elections is a useful technique for gaining insights into the nature of a contest, and for gauging the inherent resilience of political parties.
It also highlights weak spots and offers indicators on how outcomes may be affected by changing electoral dynamics on the ground.
As Karnataka gears up for a tightly-challenged assembly election next month, we have applied this technique to evaluate the status and potential of the three principal parties in the fray — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and the Janata Dal (Secular), the JD(S).
For reference, the results of the past three assembly elections are given below:
Discounting the BJP’s performance in 2013, when it was hit by an internal rebellion, we see that vote swings normally range between 2-3 per cent in Karnataka.
The first set of surveys which were released over the past week indicate that matters are not expected to be wildly different this time round either.
Having set the frames of reference, the results of the 2018 assembly elections were analysed by tranches.
Three broad groupings were noted: tight fights in which the victory margin was less than 6,000 votes, stock wins where the margin range was 6,000 to 10,000 votes, and solid wins with margins of above 10,000 votes.
On an average, 6,000 votes translate to about 3 per cent, which is roughly the upper end of a vote shift expected for a party (in either direction — towards, or away). 10,000 votes correspond to around 6 percent.
This approach also resolves a persistent, apparent incongruity, of why and how the BJP managed to get more seats than the Congress in 2008 and 2018, in spite of polling less votes than the Congress.
The reason is that the BJP’s votes were more concentrated in Northern and Central Karnataka, and Bengaluru, while the Congress’s vote was spread more evenly, over more of the state.
These are the results:
These results are depicted visually in three maps below — one of each party.
First, we see that 26 of the Congress’s 80 wins in 2018, or a full one-third, were close contests. Indeed, 16 of these were won by the proverbial whisker.
The BJP won by narrow margins in only 12 seats, of the 104 they got, and the JD(S) had its heart in its mouth on just six occasions.
Second, the Congress registered a victory margin of over 10,000 votes in only half the seats it won. In contrast, three quarters of both the BJP and the JD(S)’s victories were solid wins (although, it must be noted that the scale of the JD(S)’s performance is far smaller, and more geographically restricted, than that of the BJP).
Third, the Congress increasingly struggles to register thumping wins as the victory margins go up, especially in comparison to the BJP. In the 20,000-30,000 margin band, for example, the Congress secured nine wins, less than half the 22 wins which the BJP got. It is the same in the 30,000-50,000 tranche, where they won just seven seats, compared to the BJP’s 15.
Four, this technique is also a measure of a party’s core strength, and of its sensitivity to vote swings. One inference is that the Congress will have to struggle harder than the BJP to outperform the latter. The corollary is that the Congress will do worse than the BJP for the same negative vote swing.
Thus, our margin tranche analysis shows that the Congress’s ground strength is actually shakier than its campaign would have one believe.
If the infighting between its two main leaders, D K Shivkumar and K Siddaramaiah, is not resolved, then the inherent fragility of the party’s victory margins could be exacerbated, thereby giving an advantage to the BJP.
But these are not static metrics. The margins will change in 2023.
The main reason is that the JD(S) is set to get squeezed between the Congress and the BJP in North and Central Karnataka. Already, the party has been all but wiped out in Coastal Karnataka.
Even slanted surveys suggest that the JD(S)’s presence would shrink further, to the Mysore region. This shrinkage will be compounded by the BJP’s growth in Southern Karnataka.
As a result, many of the three-cornered contests will become increasingly bipolar. A sense of these dynamics can be gleaned from the JD(S)’s 2018 vote share map below.
A lot of this has to do with the ‘secular’ style of identity politics practiced by the JD(S), and some erosion of its distinct political identity after the party allied with the Congress in the 2019 general elections.
That created a massive counter-consolidation in favour of the BJP, some of which will be propagated into the 2023 assembly elections as well.
The problem for the JD(S) is that if some of its vote base shifts to the BJP, then its crucial Muslim support will shift en masse to the Congress.
There’s no point in whining because the JD(S) of all parties should know that if the game is identity politics, then the smart play is tactical voting. That’s how the secular cookie crumbles.
Also, in a sense, the Congress will want the BJP to eat into the JDS’s vote base, since the more that happens, the higher the chances of the Congress benefiting.
Under such circumstances, the party which will better weather these shifting dynamics will be the one with the more robust victory margins — in this case, the BJP. Obviously, the picture will become clearer only next week, after all parties have announced their candidate lists.
But this much is clear as on date: the Congress is clearly the most susceptible to even minor negative vote swings, and the BJP stands to benefit significantly if it plays its cards right.
What will be interesting to watch out for, is the manner in which the vote shifts, if indeed the JD(S) crumbles north of Shivamogga.
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