Karnataka 2023 — The Reality Of Triangularity

Venu Gopal Narayanan

Apr 05, 2023, 04:21 PM | Updated 04:24 PM IST

(L-R) K Siddaramaiah (Congress), H D Kumaraswamy (JD-S) and current Karnataka CM Basavraj Bommai (BJP).
(L-R) K Siddaramaiah (Congress), H D Kumaraswamy (JD-S) and current Karnataka CM Basavraj Bommai (BJP).
  • Genuine three-way contests will form a minor, but vital, part of the forthcoming assembly elections in Karnataka, especially in the central and southern regions. Read on for the analysis.
  • One theme frequently used by commentators when discussing the assembly elections in Karnataka is that they are intense triangular contests between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and the Janata Dal (Secular), the JD(S).

    This is not true. While genuine three-way contests do take place, the reality of electoral triangularity in Karnataka is that the majority are, in fact, a collection of bipolar fights.

    However, since there are three political parties who will be contesting separately in 2023, it becomes necessary that the degree of triangularity in Karnataka be analysed and quantified.

    Apart from being an excellent indicator of a party’s weaknesses, this exercise is all the more important because there is a growing sense that the smallest party of the three, the JD(S), may get squeezed between the other two, thus making these contests more bipolar in some regions of the state.

    At a numerical level, three-way contests are different from bipolar ones because the vote share required to win a seat goes down.

    As multiple triangular elections in Uttar Pradesh have shown, this splintering of a mandate means that parties are often able to secure simple majorities with less than a third of the vote. Consequently, they are also notoriously difficult to forecast.

    Therefore, for this exercise, the first step was to draw up a list of those seats in which all three parties got at least 20 per cent of the popular vote in 2018.

    A cut-off of 20 per cent was chosen because it is the lowest point at which a party’s vote share will be larger than the win margin in a seat.

    The next step was to study the geographical distribution of three-way contests, and then, to interpret specific electoral data sets within the boundaries of prevailing political dynamics.

    These are the findings of the exercise:

    One, using a base cut-off of 20 per cent vote share per party, 35 seats saw a three-way fight in 2018. All three parties got roughly a third of the votes in these seats. The Congress polled the lowest average victory margin, and the BJP, the highest.

    Two, wins in triangular contests constitute roughly the same proportion of overall wins for the three parties — between a sixth and a fifth of their totals. This is in line with the state figures, with 35 of 224 seats being 16 per cent.

    Next, the geographical distribution of three-way frays was analysed to extract both the dependency factor of a party on such wins, and their weak areas.

    A map below shows the spread of these 35 seats across Karnataka in 2018.

    These findings were also tabulated by region, and by party, to better bring out relevant inferences.

    Three, the bulk of the triangular fights are in Hyderabad Karnataka, Central Karnataka, and the southern part (including Bengaluru).

    Bipolarity prevails in Bombay Karnataka and the coastal belt; two of the four three-way contests in Bombay Karnataka, Indi and Devar Hippargi, in fact, lie on the border of Hyderabad Karnataka.

    Four, the BJP shows more dependency on triangularity to win seats in two regions.

    In Central and Southern Karnataka, around one third of its victories were wrested this way: 6 of 21 seats in the central belt, and 4 of 11 in the south.

    This is an important point for two reasons. The BJP has been busy tackling internal unrest in Central Karnataka over the selection of candidates, and the performance of those who won in 2018.

    Now, under these circumstances, and as assessed in a recent piece, if the JD(S) vote base crumbles to make the contests more bipolar, then the BJP will have to work that much harder to win such seats, since the identity vote would shift from the JD(S) to the Congress.

    Similarly in Southern Karnataka, a region where the BJP has not performed as well as it traditionally does in other parts, reducing its dependency on triangular contests will be an additional hurdle to overcome.

    However, be that as it may, ground reports seem to suggest that the BJP will increase its vote share in this region in 2023. The extent to which that aids the party in overcoming this factor, remains to be seen.

    Five, the Congress is the most dependent of the three parties on the benefits of a three-way vote split.

    At the state level, a fifth of its wins came this way in 2018. At the regional level, the figures go up further to between a quarter and a third in Hyderabad Karnataka, Central Karnataka and Southern Karnataka.

    That makes the Congress more vulnerable to negative vote swings, and much more dependent on vote banks. Unfortunately for them, the Congress does not yet possess the ability to draw the Muslim vote in bulk from the JD(S) in Southern Karnataka, although it may be successful in doing so further north.

    Six, the JD(S)’s presence has already diminished significantly in Northern Karnataka.

    That makes the party more vulnerable to tactical voting by its secular supporters. This is evident in the table above: the JD(S) is quite dependent on triangularity to eke out wins across northern Karnataka, from whatever dwindling presence it has left there.

    To summarize, the reality of triangularity is that genuine three-way contests will form a minor, but vital, part of the forthcoming assembly elections in Karnataka, especially in the central and southern regions.

    The BJP will thus have to play its cards carefully in Southern and Central Karnataka to overcome this factor. Grassroots campaigning and the Modi factor aside, candidate selection will be central to this effort.

    The Congress is the most dependent of the three parties on triangularity, and would thus need to attract either identity votes from the JD(S), or anti-incumbency votes from the BJP, to counter this situation.

    If they don’t, the Congress could lose a dozen seats which it presently holds.

    The JD(S) stands to lose around six seats by this factor alone, if voting patterns change even slightly from 2018. The higher probability is that they will.

    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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