It’s old news by now: the Indian National Congress (INC) has won the 2023 Karnataka Legislative Assembly election in a landslide, winning 135 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came second with 66 seats, while the Janata Dal (Secular) won 19 seats. The election saw a voter turnout of 73.19%, the highest ever recorded in the history of Legislative Assembly elections in Karnataka. The Congress’s victory was attributed to a number of factors, including its strong campaign, the unpopularity of the BJP government, and others. The BJP’s defeat was seen as a major setback for the party, which had been in power in Karnataka for the past 3 years and 10 months.
The reactions are not far from expected: INC is hoping to capitalise on its victory in Karnataka and win back power at the Centre. The BJP, on the other hand, is sticking to its game of trying to control the narrative by using the familiar tools of misdirection and half-truths. Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the honourable Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, has reportedly recently said, “BJP never got more than 36% votes in Karnataka. This time also BJP got 36%. Five years ago, BJP got 104 seats, but this time our number of seats went down. It’s not defeat. It’s mathematics.”
Well, is it? Let us look at this so-called ‘mathematics’ a little closely and see why the pooled vote share is not at all a good or healthy way to look at the outcome of any election in India using a simple toy example followed by a real one.
As we all know, India has a multi-party, first-past-the-post electoral system. This means that the candidate who receives the most votes in a constituency wins, regardless of the margin of victory. As a result, the vote share does not directly translate into the number of seats won by a party. There are a number of socio-political factors that can impact the vote percentage in India, including regional variation, polarisation, voter turnout, lines of segregation along economic or caste lines, and so on.
However, we will not go deep into those trenches, at least not here, this time. We will stick to just one unambitious goal: showing that the total vote share has very little to do with who ‘wins’ the election. Let’s start with a “toy” example, albeit carefully chosen to drive home the point. In a fictional district, we have 3 constituencies (A, B, C) and 3 parties (X, Y, Z). Suppose their vote shares are as in Table 1. Roughly speaking, party X receives the highest percentage (38%) of the total votes, and yet fails to win even a single seat. Party Y, on the other hand, gets the lowest share (29%) of votes and wins 1 out of the 3 seats. Party Z, with the second largest vote share but the highest number of seats, forms the fictitious government because of its absolute majority!
If you find tables and numbers a bit dry, you can look at the following figure as well.
Is this surprising, or, a concocted, pathological example? Not at all! Let us go back in time a little bit and look at the Mysore district assembly election results in 2018. As per https://www.indiavotes.com/
Mysore, with its 11 seats, witnessed an intense electoral battle as all three major parties vied for victory across each constituency in 2018. In the absence of any alliances that could have influenced vote shares, an interesting picture emerges. Despite JD(S) securing the second-highest vote share, it emerged with the maximum number of seats. Interestingly, Congress garnered more than double the votes of BJP, yet both parties ended up with an equal number of seats. Delving deeper, we discover a strategic move by BJP, as it refrained from fielding strong contenders in seats like Hunasuru, Periyapatna, Chamundeshwari, T Narasipur, and Krishnarajanagara, where its vote shares ranged from 1.5% to 8%. Instead, the party focused on just six seats, successfully securing three of them. In the aforementioned five seats, the battle predominantly unfolded between JD(S) and Congress, with JD(S) emerging victorious in all five contests. Many observers interpreted BJP’s absence from these seats as a subtle alliance between BJP and JD(S),
Going back to the comment of Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the honourable Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, if this is indeed a “half-truth”, then where is the other half? What he remained silent about is how the Congress vote share was the highest achieved by any party in the last 34 years of Karnataka’s election history. Furthermore, the Congress vote share in the state has steadily increased since 2008, keeping in mind that Karnataka traditionally has been a three-party race since 2004. However, the 2023 assembly election looked more like a two-party race. Total vote percentage polled by the top two parties in Karnataka was 63.6% in 2004, 68.7% in 2008, 56.8% in 2013, 75% in 2018, and 78.9% in 2023. This indicates a strong consolidation and people’s increasing preference towards a two-party system. Despite the polarisation, the consolidation favoured Congress, while BJP simply managed to retain its stable vote share.
Another way to interpret Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s comment is that BJP’s core loyal vote share in Karnataka has never been more than 36%, in spite of their huge investment in social engineering, propaganda bandwagon and shamelessly divisive politics. This gives a scope (and a faint ray of hope) to the Congress to work on the fence-sitting voters, i.e., the voters who do not align with the core of extremist Hindutva, and consolidate more anti-BJP votes in its favour in 2024. Will that really happen? What will it take for Congress or other political parties, both regional and national, to strategize against the behemoth of a well-oiled machinery and strictly loyal voter base? We don’t know yet, and it’s too early to extrapolate Karnataka 2023 to pan-India 2024. As Winston Churchill, the former honourable Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, famously said, “the past no longer enables us even dimly to measure the future”. The optimists of the present may, however, hope whatever Karnataka thinks today, India will perhaps think tomorrow.
(Jyotishka Datta is an assistant professor of statistics at Virginia Tech, USA and an author. Sudipto Pal is a corporate leader, statistician, novelist and diversity champion for the LGBTQ community in the tech industry. Parthanil Roy is a professor of mathematical statistics at Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore Centre and a fellow of Indian Academy of Sciences. All views expressed in the article are solely based on the authors’ opinions, interpretations and analysis)