This week’s India in Transition (IiT) article was written by Michael Collins, a doctoral student in South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Collins has described the impact of campaign finance laws in India and the creative ways that political parties have circumvented them.“Two months ago, India conducted the largest democratic exercise in history. The 2014 General Election, enacted in nine phases over a five-week period, witnessed 553.8 million voters cast ballots to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha. The resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) captured headlines and, in effect, diverted attention from a disconcerting growth in gross electoral spending. With an estimated $5 billion price tag, including a cost of nearly $600 million to the government exchequer, the recent election ranks among the costliest in the history of democracy…” Continue reading
The 2014 General Election generated India’s highest ever voter turnout rate, at 66%, a sharp increase from the 58% turnout in 2009. However, many questions remain about the precise relationship between turnout and the outcome of the election.
In these elections, the BJP won 282 out of 543 contestable seats on just 31% of the vote share. In my last piece, I showed how this outcome was a function of BJP’s strike rate in head-to-head contests against Congress (and against embattled regional parties in two states, Bihar and UP), which demonstrated BJP’s ability to project a convincing national vision (unlike Congress). At the same time, there was extreme regional polarization in BJP’s support, which pointed to the limits of BJP’s message in states with strong regional parties and identities.
A deeper analysis of the voter turnout in these elections provides more evidence for these arguments, while clarifying the relationship between voter turnout and BJP support and shedding light on BJP’s prospects for holding on to power in the future.
Changes in Turnout and Partisan Support
The dominant narrative in this election was that of a “Modi Wave,” which referred to then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s ability to bring new (or passive) voters to the polls and create a swell of support for the BJP.
In order to test this narrative, I have analyzed the change in the voter turnout rate between 2009 and 2014 across parliamentary constituencies and the likelihood of BJP winning in a constituency in which it was contesting the election. The data provides strong evidence for the Modi Wave narrative, showing a clear relationship between an increase in voter turnout and support for the BJP.
In the 116 constituencies in which the BJP contested the election where the increase in the turnout rate was less than 5 percent (to include constituencies where turnout stagnated or declined since 2009), it won only 24 percent of the time. By contrast, in the 312 constituencies in which the BJP contested and the turnout increase was more than 5 percent, the BJP won 81 percent of the time. For the more statistically inclined, figure 1(b) displays a flexible empirical model demonstrating the relationship between differences in turnout and the likelihood of BJP victory. According to the model, the BJP crosses the threshold of an even chance of the winning the constituency at approximately a 5.3 percent increase in voter turnout. As the increase in turnout moves towards 20 to 25 percent, a BJP win becomes almost a certainty.
The relationship between increasing turnout and BJP support does not necessarily imply that new voters supported the BJP more than existing voters, but it seems likely that new voters were disproportionately supporters of the BJP. The post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti/CSDS provides some suggestive evidence on this front. Newly enfranchised young voters, aged 18 to 22, supported the BJP over Congress 39 percent to 19 percent. By contrast, those over the age of 56, more likely to be seasoned voters, supported the BJP over Congress 31 percent to 23 percent. In fact, it may very well have been the energy generated in mobilizing new BJP supporters that engendered large shifts in the existing electorate.
While this analysis tells us that when new voters were mobilized the BJP tended to win, it does not tell us the extent to which voters explicitly showed up for the BJP. In other words, did voters specifically show up for the BJP, and, if so, when?
In this analysis, as in the previous piece, a party was said to be competitive if it was one of the top two vote getters in a constituency. I also showed that in head-to-head contests between the BJP and Congress, where the BJP and Congress were the top two vote getters, the BJP had a spectacular strike rate of 88 percent.
The data show that voters were not particularly mobilized when the BJP was not contesting or, indeed, competitive. In the 115 constituencies in which BJP did not contest election, the average increase in voter turnout was 4.3 percent, and in the 92 constituencies in which the BJP was not competitive, the average increase in vote turnout was just 2.1 percent.
However, when the BJP was competitive, especially in head-to-head contests with Congress, voters were extremely mobilized. In the 189 constituencies in which the BJP went head-to-head against Congress, the average increase in voter turnout was an astonishing 11.4 percent. Even in the 147 constituencies in which the BJP was competitive against other (non-Congress) parties, the average increase in voter turnout was 9.7 percent.
Regional Variation in Changes in Turnout
Much like the vote share for the BJP, the change in voter turnout displays significant regional variation at the constituency level. As the analysis above suggests, changes in turnout closely track constituencies in which the BJP won. Figure 3 displays, side-by-side, a heat map of increases in voter turnout and a map of where the BJP won.
Historically, the variation in voter turnout in Indian general elections has been driven by differences at the state level. One of the major stories of this election is the narrowing of differences in turnout between “high” and “low” turnout states. Of the 15 most populous states in India, 4 states had a turnout rate less than 50 percent in 2009, with Bihar the lowest at only 44 percent. In 2014, turnout rates of the low turnout states increased significantly; the lowest turnout rate of these 15 states was 56 percent (Bihar again). At the same time, most of the high turnout states did not register significantly greater turnout rates in 2014, suggesting little room for additional mobilization in these states.
In the previous piece, I identified six states in which the BJP did particularly well, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. In these states, the BJP had a strike rate of 91 percent and won 69 percent of their total seats. Figure 4 demonstrates that these six states are among the lowest turnout states, in both 2009 and 2014, out of the 15 most populous states in India. Starting from a low base, these states provided a natural reservoir for the BJP to bring in new voters.
I also demonstrated that the BJP did particularly poorly in five states, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, with a strike rate of just 7 percent. These 5 states are among the 6 highest turnout states in figure 4. With the exception of Odisha, they also display small changes in voter turnout. With populations already mobilized through strong regional parties, and little existing electoral base, the BJP had little scope to mobilize a large share of new voters in these states.
Interpreting the Data
These data demonstrate that there was, in fact, a Modi Wave; the success of the BJP was closely tied to mobilizing new voters. When many new voters were mobilized, the BJP was very likely to win the constituency. Voters also specifically came out to vote in constituencies where the BJP was competitive, and more so in constituencies in which the BJP was engaged in head-to-head battles with Congress.
The data also show that the states in which the BJP has performed poorly are precisely the states with very high turnout. This means that if the BJP is to consolidate power in these states, it will have to do so without mobilizing new voters but converting existing ones. In other words, in addition to dealing with a weak electoral base, the BJP will have to change the minds of voters who may already be mobilized through strong regional parties.
In this election, the BJP projected a national vision of restoring economic growth and macroeconomic stability to India. The scale of voter mobilization suggests that the BJP was offering a national vision that especially appealed to previously apathetic voters. Voter apathy results from believing that all of the existing choices offer little scope for political or economic change.
The BJP presented a different option, but if it wants to consolidate power it will have to deliver on its mandate. The BJP’s particular ability to mobilize voters against Congress only underscores the popular frustration with Congress’ handling of the economy.
Modi will have to disregard the many countervailing pressures being placed on him and act decisively on his “economy-first” mandate. Previously apathetic voters are more likely to become apathetic again, and the BJP is unlikely to extend its base too much regionally. If Modi wants to hold on to the voters he mobilized, he will have to demonstrate that he can stay away from political appeasement and focus on righting the economy. The upcoming budget is his first test.
Neelanjan Sircar is a Visiting Dissertation Research Fellow at CASI
This article also appears on India in Transition.
In the 2014 General Election post-mortem, much has been made of the fact that the BJP won 282 seats, 52 percent of the contestable seats, on just 31 percent of the vote share. By contrast, in 2009, the Congress got just 206 seats, 38 percent of the contestable seats, on 29 percent of the vote share. What explains this great disparity in the number of seats won given similar vote shares?
At the outset it should be clear that in a multi-party first past the post system discrepancies between vote shares and seat shares are the norm, not the exception. In the last UP Assembly election, the SP won 224 seats with 29 percent of the vote while the BSP won just 80 seats with 26 percent of the vote. A closer look at the election numbers not only explains the BJP’s ability to convert vote percentage into winning seats, it also sheds light on attitudes in the Indian electorate.
Where did the BJP win its seats?
This analysis uses two concepts that are helpful in examining electoral outcomes: strike rate and competitive party. The strike rate of a party refers to the proportion of constituencies the party wins for a given set of constituencies, and a party is deemed to be competitive in a constituency if it is one of the top two vote getters in that constituency.
The BJP contested a total of 428 constituencies, winning in 282 and accounting for a 66 percent strike rate. However, there is considerable variation in the strike rate by region and by party opponent.
The BJP’s seats are extremely regionally concentrated. Six states alone – Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh – contributed 194 seats to BJP’s kitty, 69 percent of the total number of seats won by the BJP. In these states, the BJP’s strike rate was an incredible 91 percent among seats that it contested (it did not contest every seat in Bihar or Maharashtra due to pre-poll alliances), but these contested seats comprise only 39 percent of the contestable seats in the general election.
The BJP was particularly successful in head-to-head battles with the Congress. Consider the constituencies in which the BJP and Congress were the top two vote getters; there were 189 such constituencies, and the BJP won 166 of them for a whopping strike rate of 88 percent. By contrast, the BJP’s strike rate was even (49 percent) in the remainder of the constituencies it contested. All told, the BJP and Congress were in a head-to-head battle in 35 percent of contestable constituencies, but these constituencies yielded 59 percent of the total number of seats won by the BJP.
Outside of head-to-head battles with Congress, and outside of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (where the strike rate was 86 percent), the BJP contested 144 constituencies, but was competitive in only 56 of them. Even when it was competitive, the BJP had a lower strike rate of 63 percent. In short, the numbers demonstrate that the success of the BJP in this election was due to its spectacular strike rate against Congress and its remarkable performance in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. These two categories account for 247 of the 282 BJP seats won in this election.
How does this help explain the BJP’s ability to convert vote share into seats? The answer lies in the strike rates in the analysis above. When the BJP was contesting head-to-head against the Congress, or when it was in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, its strike rate was extremely high. Outside of this, however, the BJP wasn’t particularly competitive. In other words, there were very few BJP “wasted votes.” When people cast their ballots for the BJP, it was very likely to be in constituencies in which the BJP won.
Where is the BJP not winning its seats?
For as well as the BJP did in these elections, it still had a hard time breaking into states with strong regional parties and regional identities. This may seem like an odd statement given that the BJP did so well in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, but many people discount the fact that the BJP already had strong bases in those states. The BJP had been a part of the ruling coalition at the state level in Bihar until June 2013 and it was the largest party in the 1999 Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha elections (and has had double digit seat share since). In this sense, it was not “breaking into” these states.
To understand this point, consider the state of West Bengal, a state where the BJP received its highest ever vote share at 17 percent. The BJP contested all 42 constituencies and won just 2 seats (one of which it had also won in 2009). It was competitive in just 3 other constituencies. Not only did the BJP fail to convert its vote share into seats, it wasn’t even close. Nonetheless, given the weakening of CPM in West Bengal, the BJP may emerge as the main opposition to the ruling TMC in the future.
Similar patterns were seen in many states with strong regional identities. The BJP won just 3 of the 12 seats it contested in Andhra Pradesh, 1 of the 8 seats it contested in Tamil Nadu, 1 of the 21 seats it contested in Odisha, and none of the 18 seats it contested in Kerala. These five major states yielded a strike rate of just 7 percent for the BJP.
Interpreting the data
In pre-election analysis conducted by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), using surveys from the Lok Foundation, we argued that the major concerns in the electorate – economic growth, corruption, and inflation – centered around the larger macro-economy. These concerns, packaged with the charisma of Narendra Modi, generated a cogent, powerful national campaign. Congress, on the other hand, found itself in no man’s land, unable to find a solid national identity and too enfeebled in the parts of India with strong regional identities to mount much of a challenge. Congress’ attempt to paint itself as the party of welfare benefits never really took off; voters understood that most welfare programs also require coordination of bureaucrats and state-level implementation, and myriad corruption scandals served to chip away at the credibility of Congress in delivering those benefits.
Those constituencies in which BJP went to head-to-head against Congress served as a referendum on the parties’ respective national visions. The spectacular strike rate of the BJP in these constituencies suggests that Congress never really developed one.
It will be interesting to speculate where the parties go from here. As the data suggests, it will be difficult for the BJP to seriously break into states with strong regional identities. Will it devote significant resources toward this effort or instead, consolidate its power in the places it has already swept? The Congress party, for its part, needs to completely reinvent itself, address its leadership dilemma, and develop a more compelling national vision.
The BJP emerged as the only party with a persuasive national vision in this election, but, as its vote share reveals, this does not mean it is representative of all of India. Apart from the apprehensions of India’s Muslim community, the data show that significant swaths of India were relatively unaffected by the “Modi Wave.” One of the new government’s challenges will be to address the obstacles generated by this regional polarization. Much will depend on the personal equations that the Prime Minister establishes with the regional leaderships. This will likely be relatively easier with Tamil Nadu, somewhat less with Odisha, and perhaps most difficult with West Bengal.
Notes: On its website, the ECI reports 428 candidates for the BJP; I count 427. The results should not be materially affected. In an earlier version, I reported the strike rate in Bihar and UP at 85%; it is 86%. I have included the seat given to S. Gurumurthy by the BJP in the calculations, even though his nomination was rejected. Again, this does not materially affect the results.
I wish to thank Milan Vaishnav for providing me with elections data in a usable form. On editing, I want to thank Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav for making sense of what I wanted to say, and then making it make sense to you, the reader. All opinions and calculation errors are my own.
The votes are in. In a historic vote for change, the BJP has become the first non-Congress party to achieve an outright majority in the Indian parliament.
Devesh Kapur, Director of CASI, discussed the election results with Bobby Ghosh, TIME World editor; Vani Tripathi, national secretary for the BJP; Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to India; and Marshall Bouton of the Asia Society Policy Institute at an event hosted by the Asia Society in New York on May 19th. Watch the full video here (1 hour, 25 mins). Find coverage of the event in this Business Line article.
Read further election analysis from Milan Vaishnav, Associate at the Carnegie Endowment and research affiliate on the CASI Lok project: India’s Congress party: Down but not out, BJP landslide shatters 4 electoral myths, ‘Quick economic turnaround’ expected of Modi, and A Devil Called Policy Paralysis.
Watch the Asia Society event video here.
The Roosevelt House and Political Science Department at Hunter College will be hosting an exciting panel discussion event on Monday May 5, 2014 in New York. If you are in the city, be sure to check it out. You can read more details and register for the event here.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Reception 5:00 PM, Program 5:45 PM
Roosevelt House at Hunter College
47-49 East 65th Street
between Park and Madison Avenues
New York, NY 10065
India’s general elections are not only fascinating and consequential in their own right; they are also an important indicator of democracy’s global health. This campaign season party competition is intense and public advocacy full-throated; Indian democracy is in vigorous condition. Yet, trends such as economic inequality, rampant corruption, and social violence raise concerns about the direction in which politics may be heading. Join us for a roundtable on the significance of India’s elections – in which, to put things in perspective, newly eligible voters (those who turned 18 since India’s last election in 2009) exceed the entire voting electorate in the 2012 US presidential election.
Atul Kohli David K. E. Bruce Professor of International Affairs, Princeton University
Sanjay Ruparelia Assistant Professor of Politics and Fellow of the India China Institute, The New School
Milan Vaishnav Associate, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Lok Surveys Research Affiliate at CASI
Rob Jenkins Professor, Department of Political Science, Hunter College
The Carnegie Endowment has partnered with Mint newspaper to produce a 10-part series on the post-election national agenda. The first piece in the series, written by Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment and member of the CASI International Advisory Board, highlights the challenges that the new government will face. CASI Director Devesh Kapur and Carnegie Associate Milan Vaishnav will explore ways of strengthening the rule of law in a later installment of the series. These articles draw from a new book Getting India Back on Track: An Action Agenda for Reform which will be released in June. New installments in the series will be published each Wednesday until mid-June and can be found on the Livemint website.