Deciphering the wave

In interpreting the 2014 verdict, it is crucial that debates on vote shares understand the electoral context. An assessment of national vote shares alone, as some analysts have done, suggest that the vote is fragmented. However, a deeper understanding shows quite the opposite – the context is more competitive than the last 4 elections, but the vote most resounding. The BJP has won the highest average vote share per constituency in the last 4 elections. The victory of the BJP is significant – it highlights the efficacy of an organised cadre delivering a unified message of leadership, and a consolidation of votes among Indian voters. Any responses to this verdict among the defeated parties need to account for all these factors.

A competitive election

Data suggests that the 2014 election is the most competitive of the last 4 elections (Table 1), making fragmentation likely. First, the number of parties contesting has steadily risen since 1999.  The number of parties with only 1 candidate has risen also, though their proportion has remained roughly similar. In 2014, these one-candidate parties cumulatively secured just about 0.6% of the overall vote, a drop since the 3 previous elections, notable in light of the percentage change. This presence of these candidates and parties is a valid explanation for fragmentation in vote share, as these parties have strengths in a few constituencies claim votes that may have otherwise gone to one of the top candidates. Sinister explanations by some party functionaries suggest that these parties are sometimes supported and funded by major parties, including the BJP itself, seeking to “cut” votes from another party in perhaps an unsportsmanlike, but nevertheless legitimate, strategy. My own work in Bangalore suggests that the leadership in these parties varies between local social workers, caste/community/religious leaders and street dadas (street leaders). These leaders secure votes, often in the thousands, from loyal supporters or caste members, fragmenting the vote share. This election, looked at in terms of the number of parties, appears to be more competitive than the 3 elections before, with a larger number of tiny parties seeking a share of the pie.

Table 1

2014 2009 2004 1999
No. of parties 485 372 222 170
   with 1 candidate 193 144 97 74
         vote share 0.60% 0.99% 1.10% 1.20%

Second, there were more candidates than ever, and consequently, more candidates per seat. Even if the (notional) new candidate secures a few thousand votes, this should lead to fragmentation in vote share (Table 2). Third, a variety of regional factors, including social movements and local politics, may operate to influence the competitiveness of the electoral contest. For instance, in many seats especially in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, the Aam Aadmi party was competitive despite some loss of face in Delhi. They secured average 2% of the total votes cast in India (20% on average in the above-mentioned states).

Table 2

2014 2009 2004 1999
No. of candidates 8251 8065 5435 4648
    Candidates/seat 15.20 14.85 10.01 8.56
Candidates party-wise
   BJP won seats 15.68 15.61 8.77 8.7
   INC won seats 14.27 14.51 10.33 8.1

The BJP performance in context

It is in this context that the results need to be examined and constituency-level averages are useful here. Interestingly, there were more candidates in the seats won by the BJP than the INC, an interesting phenomenon that occurs in all elections except 2004 (See Table 2). The BJP’s performance on average at the constituency level has been better than themselves in 1999 and the INC in ‘04 and ‘09. Winning BJP candidates have higher average vote share in their constituency than BJP or INC winning candidates, ever. This election also showed the greatest gap between them and the INC ever, more than even their own 1999 success.

When one compares the difference between the BJP and INC won seats, the story gets more interesting. Where the INC won, with BJP placing second, the difference between the INC and the BJP was 9.8 percentage points. When the reverse was true, i.e. in seats where the BJP won and INC was runner-up, the BJP candidate secured, on average, 19.3 percentage points more. In the somewhat bi-polar contests of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, in INC seats the difference was 7.6 percentage points, and 21.2 percentage points in BJP seats.

2014 2009 2004 1999
Winner Vote share , average %
   BJP 49.28 44.1 47.3 48.2
   INC 42.81 44.5 48.4 47.43

Stories of consolidation

The BJP’s remarkable performance has been despite the increased competition. It is possible that some growth in the BJP’s votes has been at the expense of the smaller parties, alongside the accretion of ‘new/young voters’. Assembly Constituency leaders and campaigners within the BJP in Bangalore targeted these groups (and their leadership) strategically, aided and advised by a ground-level cadre and booth level agents, many a time from the RSS and its affiliates. In Bangalore, the BJP’s efforts in this direction were also aided by the support of large numbers of white-collar campaigners for the BJP who were unfettered by the traditional caste and community boundaries in campaigning. This approach, buttressed by a combination of extensive outreach, local campaigning and the charisma (and marketing) of Narendra Modi, has yielded rich dividends. It has also possibly led to some erosion of the INC strength, which may have relied on fragmentation to push it ahead.

Equally, the explanation for the result may lie in the changing aspirations of the people, as the BJP likes to argue. This election has seen discursive emphasis on development, aspiration and jobs. However, this aspirational change alone is a limited explanation. The election is equally an indication that voters don’t just vote their identity, but also strategically assess who is likely to win, indicated in the decline of smaller parties. The language that (Bangalore) voters use in assessing politics is also indicative – they find proof in the ‘Gujarat model’ and speak of Modi’s executive experience.

It is quite likely that this combination of factors has enabled the accretion of voters for the BJP, . This resounding triumph must give pause to any party planning its response. Party campaigns, and scholars, can rue this result, and there is much to rue, or respond to this – through a well-crafted repertoire of strategies.

All data from Many thanks!

Many thanks to @puram_politics for advice and feedback.

Published on at

(c) Sarayu Natarajan, 2014





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