The India, 2014, result: district-level patterns

Some revision of the thesis the other day is in order, now that I have had a chance to look at the district-level results (as part of a project with Royce Carroll). Again, these are preliminary results, but final results are unlikely to be substantially different.

A key point of my earlier thesis was that this was less a smashing electoral mandate for Modi than it was a product of strategic alliance-building by the BJP and fragmentation of the rest of the field. The BJP, after all, won a majority of seats on a mere 31% of the vote. I think most of that thesis remains accurate, but should be modified in one crucial respect now that I have seen the district-level patterns.

First of all, the BJP’s biggest advantage was not that it faced fragmented opposition, but simply that it had a highly efficient distribution of its votes. Had fragmentation been the key to its success, we would expect it to have won many seats with under 45% of the vote, maybe under 40%. In fact, its mean winning percentage was 48.8%. If anyone benefited from fragmentation, it was the Indian National Congress, whose mean winning percentage was only 42.8%. (The difference is statistically significant–easily.) The BJP averaged 32.6% where it came second, so it is not as if it lost many close races. In fact, out of the 54 seats where it came in second, there were just ten seats in which the BJP had over 40% of the vote. (Congress averaged 33.0% where it came second; that was 223 districts, including 44 where it had over 40%. In percentage terms, that’s about the same failure rate in 40%+ districts.) It seems that the BJP put its resources into winnable seats and thus wasted few votes outside of places where it could harvest seats.

[Paragraph that contained an incorrect statement about the 1999 national result removed.]

Moreover, as I said in the earlier post, alliances were indeed critical. It is impossible to know how many fewer seats the BJP might have won without stand-down agreements with parties like Shiv Sena (Maharashtra) and Telugu Desam Party (Seemandhra), but these and other parties’ voters gave votes to BJP candidates that could have been decisive in many seats in their respective states.

The efficiency of both the BJP and its ally is really on display in Maharashtra. There, the BJP contested 24 districts, and averaged 54.6% of the votes; it won 23. Its ally, Shivsena contested 20, averaging 50.4%, and won 18. In those 18 seats won by Shivsena, Congress was the runner-up in 8 (averaging 34.4%) and its ally Nationalist Congress Party was runner-up in 7 (averaging 33.1%). The results are remarkably stable across the alliance pairings.

All in all, the victory is a combination of a very favorable swing (the BJP had won less than 19% in 2009), an organization that allowed it to target seats where it could win close to a majority of votes and not spread itself thinly around the country, and assistance from key regional allies.

Bihar and Indian electoral alliances

Continuing the theme of why I do not think the big BJP win means a fundamental change in how India is governed, let’s look to the case of Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal (United) party of the state of Bihar. He has now resigned as Chief Minister of the state, and there is speculation about whether the BJP will attempt to form a government there. It would probably fail, but then that would set up early elections in the state that the BJP would be well positioned to win.

Kumar’s party is in disarray–thereby not living at all up to its (name)–following its disastrous result in the polling for the state’s Lok Sabha delegation. The JD(U) won only two of the state’s 40 LS seats. The BJP won 22.

In votes, the JD(U) sank to third place, on only 15.8%, although the BJP’s majority in the new Bihar delegation comes on only 29.4% of the votes. Another regional party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) came in second in votes, with 20.1%, yet managed only 4 seats.

What is the significance of this for my thesis of Indian politics not having changed fundamentally? When Kumar became Chief Minister in 2005 and then was returned following the 2010 election, he was suddenly the media darling. Bihar voters supposedly rewarded him for his laser-like focus on development, and various stories suggested not only that he offered a model for a more results-oriented government, but that he was on track to be a serious candidate for Prime Minister of India. This was an idea Kumar himself took seriously even during the run-up to the recent campaign. And now his party will hold 2 seats in the first chamber of the federal parliament.

What changed? Alliances! His victory and reelection as Chief Minister were at the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state. However, reliant as he is on Muslim voters in his state, he broke with the BJP (the central party in the NDA) when it became clear that the BJP would project Narendra Modi as its leader. Competing separately, obviously the JD(U) was no match for the BJP in the current Lok Sabha polls.

Kumar is now “rethinking” his resignation, and one possibility is a new alliance with the RJD and the Indian National Congress.* Had such an alliance been put together before these LS elections, the BJP surely could not have won over half the state’s LS seats, and possibly would not have a majority in the incoming Lok Sabha. For that matter, had Kumar not had the alliance with the BJP in past elections, he probably never would have been Chief Minister, would not have had the 20 seats the JD(U) won in the 2009 Indian general election**, let alone been a alleged PM-in-waiting.

Modi will need to keep this lesson in mind, as some of his alliance partners will not be as keen on some of his projects as are the more Hindi-nationalist and economic-liberalizing elements of his own support base.

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* Based on the 2010 Bihar state assembly results, this combination would have about 48% of the seats (JDU 115, RJD 22, Cong 4). The BJP won 91 (meaning the then-alliance won 206 of the 243 seats, or almost 85% by the two parties’ not competing against one another). Obviously, the potential new JD(U)-led alliance in the assembly would require either the support of parties/independents, or defectors that it may have brought in since the election.

** In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in addition to the JD(U)’s 20, its pre-poll ally the BJP won 12 seats in the state.

Indian election result, 2014

Does the dramatic result of the Indian election re-write the fundamental rules of Indian politics? I don’t think so.

One disadvantage of waiting all day to write something about the Indian election is that others beat me to many of the points I was thinking of making. Or is that an advantage? Manuel offered some important perspective on the votes-seats translation in a comment to the earlier thread. Adam Ziegfeld, writing at the Monkey Cage, has made the correct–in my view–point that this election was not as “historic” as many think.

Inevitably, some of what I write here is going to duplicate some points, but maybe offer slightly more detail or different emphasis along the way. Who knows, maybe I’ll even say something original.

All results are preliminary, so I am going by what is on the Electoral Commission website as of around 6:30 AM, Delhi time, 17 May (about 6:00 p.m. Friday my time).

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is sitting on 282 seats. In further detail, that is 278 won, 4 leading. This is important, because 272 is a majority, and the Commission says it has “won” enough to clear the majority threshold. Congress, the lead party in the incumbent coalition government and the party that has ruled India far more than any other, has 44 seats. This is a stunningly bad result. In fact, it is only seven seats more than the third largest party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is a party based solely in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu.

The media narrative is all about a landslide and a “Modi wave”–the latter referring to BJP PM candidate, Narendra Modi, the current Chief Minister of Gujarat. In terms of seats, one can hardly argue with the outcome being characterized as a landslide. We have a majority party that has 7.6 times the seats of its closest rival. (Mull that over a bit!) And no doubt Modi was a central factor in the campaign and result. However, the media coverage that I have seen does not even mention the voting breakdown (though Ziegfeld, in the post linked above, makes it central to his argument).

The BJP has won 31.1% of the vote (based on preliminary results). Yes, that is 51.9% of the seats on not even a third of the votes. Congress trails far less in the votes than in the seats, with 19.3%. Still a terrible result, but it drives home just how disproportional the electoral system is. In recent elections, disproportionality has not been as high as in many single-seat district plurality systems, but in this election, the result is highly disproportional. That is mainly due to the fact that there was no one clear alternative to the BJP. Congress was discredited by ten years in power marked by recent slowdowns in growth and numerous corruption allegations. Its pre-electoral coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, partially split up, meaning Congress and regional parties did not put up a united front.

On the other hand, an important thing to consider is just how much the BJP’s allies in its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have contributed to this victory. Obviously, the BJP does not need allies in the Lok Sabha, having a majority on its own. However, it is certain that stand-down agreements it negotiated with its various partners before the election were essential to winning this majority. (I will give one critical example below, but surely there are others as well.) I would imagine there will be a coalition government for this reason. Moreover, assuming Modi and its other leaders are smart (and I think they are), the BJP will not govern as if it has a sole mandate. (It will have to restrain some unsavory radical elements within, and that will be a major challenge.)

I will not pretend to offer a systematic account of the state-level and alliance dynamics, but some things stood out for me in perusing the results.

The BJP made a huge breakthrough in Uttar Pradesh (UP). This does not surprise me, as that state (India’s largest) has multi-party politics. In recent Lok Sabha and state assembly contests the BJP has often been the second or third party in numerous districts that another party won with well under 50%. So it was well positioned to swing a lot of seats its way even if it came well short of a majority of the statewide vote. And that is what happened. In the state, the BJP won 71 of the 80 seats on 42.3% of the vote. The Samajwadi Party, which had won a majority of the state assembly in 2012 on only about 29% of the vote, came second in this election, with 22.2%. But that netted it only 5 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats.

In Maharashtra, the BJP has won 23 of 48 seats on 27.3% of the vote. However, this understates its victory. We can’t overlook the alliance it has with a state-based party, the Shiv Sena. This ally won another 18 seats on 20.6%. So the NDA has 41 seats (over 85%) on 47.9% of the votes. Congress and its in-state ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, combine for only 6 seats; their combined votes were 34.1%–obviously a far better result than the Congress itself nationwide. Many of the seats the BJP has won in the state are due to its not facing competition from a Shiv Sena candidate (and, of course, the reverse is also true, in other districts).

These two state results are important, because they contain a key message for thinking about the broader implications and possible future trends: Alliances remain the key to Indian politics. If the BJP had not had an alliance in Maharashtra, it would not have won a majority in the Lok Sabha. And if the Congress were able to forge an alliance in UP, it could potentially wrest many seats back from the BJP. Making an alliance is something it tried to do on various occasions in recent years, but separate party interests always got in the way. Things might look rather different to the various parties now that they face a strong BJP. The point is that this strength is conditional to a considerable degree on parties’ strategic pre-election behavior.

As for the Modi wave, if it were so strong, then why did his party get only 31%? I just don’t see it. Sure, he was important; the BJP has a higher vote share than it has had before, and much of that is surely do to the strong personal reputation of Modi. But don’t look at this as if it was equivalent to a national presidential election. It was not. Modi benefitted from the disproportionality of the plurality electoral system for parliamentary elections and strategic alliance behavior. The existing practices of Indian politics do not seem to me to have changed fundamentally.