A curious, incipient phenomenon in Indian politics is the growing homogeneity in the way people vote.
Some political parties are being voted out of the equation in various parts of the country while others are receiving bumper mandates for similar reasons, in states separated by a thousand or more miles.
While quantification remains elusive, a qualitative forecast of general trends is gaining greater commonality.
For example, most political pundits rightly expected the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to win the March 2022 assembly elections in Punjab. The only disagreement was on the degree of victory.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttarakhand went into recent provincial elections in monumental disarray. They had to change their chief minister thrice in a year. Pre-poll election surveys reported palpable discontent. Anti-incumbency hung heavily in the misty Himalayan air. And yet, the highest probability was for a return of the BJP.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress hogged the headlines for a year before the state went to the polls. You couldn’t open the papers or switch on the television without news of party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra hurling accusations at the BJP.
Still, for all that, the biggest talking point among pollsters and electoral analysts was whether the party would get 5 per cent of the popular vote, or 6. In the end, everyone got it wrong, since the Congress won only 2 per cent, and two seats out of 403.
In May 2021, this writer predicted that the BJP would dent Mamata Banerjee’s resolute Muslim-Dalit axis in West Bengal, but certainly not enough to secure a majority. That forecast was buttressed by indications from Punjab, that the popularity of the BJP among Dalits there was starting to grow.
The BJP did dent Banerjee’s axis, but their early flutters in Punjab were drowned out by an AAP deluge.
The point is that people in different parts of the country are starting to vote roughly the same way, for broadly similar reasons, even if the degree of intent varies from state to state.
Now, connecting these tiny dots is a laborious affair, but sometimes, they flash so brightly that it is impossible to exclude them from our analysis.
Karnataka is one such state. It goes to the polls in May 2023. As things stand, the BJP has 121 seats in the house of 224, but that was not the case after the last election of May 2018.
As Table 1 shows, the BJP was eight seats behind a simple majority and took a year to gain power by engineering defections from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), the JDS, and then winning a dozen by-elections in 2019 December.
The assembly elections are, however, still 10 months away, and it is way too early to expect representative opinion polls of a meaningful sample size. In such a situation, the most prudent approach to identifying potential electoral trends is by interpreting past data using novel means.
Historical electoral data from 2008 to 2019 is presented in a table below:
The Congress and the JDS first:
Chart 1 shows changes in vote share separately for assembly and general elections.
The first observation is that while the Congress vote share in general elections has declined dramatically since the advent of Narendra Modi on to the political scene (blue curve), its vote share in assembly elections has risen slightly (green curve), and consistently, between 2004 and now.
Second, while the JDS has experienced a decline in its vote share over the past two decades, there is a key difference — even as the party stands to get wiped out at the national level, with its vote share crumbling from over 20 per cent in 2004 to below 10 per cent in 2019, the rate of decline in assembly elections is far less. Between 2004 and 2018, the party lost just 2 per cent of its vote base and remains a clear third in Karnataka.
The obvious inference is that if the two parties were to formally tie up, they could put on an excellent show, restrict the BJP to under a hundred seats, and form a coalition government.
But this is where the incipient phenomenon referred to at the start of this piece kicks in. The JDS and the Congress tried precisely such an alliance in 2019, to devastating, counterproductive effects. Instead of badly jolting the BJP, the Congress-JDS alliance instead triggered a massive counter-consolidation to hand the BJP a sweep.
The Congress and the JDS got just one Lok Sabha seat each while the BJP won 25, and their independent ally, Sumalata Ambareesh, won the JDS stronghold of Mandya in old Mysore state.
Here is a map showing the extent of the BJP’s phenomenal performance in 2019:
How did this happen?
As Chart 2 shows, the BJP’s vote share shot up by over 10 per cent from 2014, and by a staggering 17.4 per cent, from the 36.4 per cent it got in the 2018 assembly elections. (Readers may note that the 2019 value of 53.8 per cent includes the votes received by the BJP’s independent ally in Mandya.)
Why did this happen, and why is this not an outlier event?
While it’s clear from the data that the BJP fares better in general elections than in elections to the Vidhana Soudha, a 10 per cent jump over 2014 and a 17 per cent jump over 2018 means that a very large number of electors, who had never voted for the BJP before, did so in 2019.
This surge was the result of a collective, conscious decision taken to counter the JDS-Congress alliance, which sought to consolidate the identity vote (the negative aspect), as well as a vote for a better tomorrow (the positive aspect).
‘Vikas’ sells; secularism doesn’t.
It is a paradigmatic shift that will be carried forward into the 2023 assembly elections to some degree. The BJP has now robustly expanded into areas where, previously, it used to be hard-pressed to get even 10 per cent of the vote share in assembly elections (the micro-detailing and in-depth seat-wise analysis will be provided in a special Karnataka series closer to election time).
As it is, the data shows that the BJP’s vote share in the state had been rising gradually, and would have risen at a faster clip but for B S Yediyurappa’s rebellion of 2013, which put the party’s growth back by a decade.
The direct inference is that if the 19.9 per cent the BJP got in 2013 was a nadir, if the 36.4 per cent of 2018 was a recovery, and if the 53.8 per cent of 2019 was a hint of things to come, then the BJP will get at least a few more percentage points than it did in 2018.
Now, there are those who would say that the BJP faces anti-incumbency, dissent, and the absence of Yediyurappa at the vanguard, that it would thus struggle to hold on to the votes it got in 2018. All fair points, but the outcome of this analysis indicates that any such vote erosion could be more than offset by new votes from new areas.
For proof, naysayers and sceptics are invited to study Map 2, which compares the BJP’s performance at the assembly seat level with that of 2019 at the assembly segment level.
Central-plus-coastal Karnataka was always the BJP’s stronghold, but the party has had to struggle to hold its own in the northern regions of Bombay and Hyderabad Karnataka, or to make a splash in Southern Karnataka. And it had traditionally fared particularly poorly in Kolar, where, in 2018, for example, it didn’t pick up a single seat.
Yet, in 2019, the party swept nearly every segment in the northern region barring a few seats in the Bellary tribal belt, won well in the south, and trounced the Congress in Kolar (where one third of the population is Dalit — the highest concentration in the state). In fact, the Congress won only one segment in Bombay Karnataka, and one in Kolar.
This puts the Congress and JDS in a cleft-stick situation: if they don’t ally, they will cut into each other’s votes to the BJP’s benefit; and if they do, they will have to suffer a counter-consolidation.
Simultaneously, the data shows that the contest in Karnataka is gradually becoming bipolar. Note how the Congress and BJP vote share is rising slowly over time while that of the JDS and others is on a decline. The rate of change is slow in assembly elections, but it is happening. That is the key point.
Thus, in conclusion, an early, qualitative forecast for the 2023 Karnataka assembly elections would be: increasing bipolarity between the Congress and the BJP, the JDS vote share reducing as its Muslim base gravitates to the Congress, the material advent of the Dalit vote into the BJP’s ranks, and an increase in the BJP’s vote share by at least a few percentage points over what it got in 2018.
By and large, this is roughly what we saw in the recent assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand, and Goa, and in the by-elections across many states of June 2022 — a positive vote for development and a remarkable counter-consolidation against any efforts to amalgamate the identity vote.
Now, if these inferences are correct and the trends hold, then the BJP could win 130 seats in Karnataka in 2023.
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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