Offered a choice, voters pick horses for courses - Hindustan Times
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Offered a choice, voters pick horses for courses

May 22, 2024 10:10 PM IST

Why electorates sometimes back different parties when elections are held simultaneously for Parliament and legislative assembly

Polling is now over in more than three-fourths of the Lok Sabha seats. Amid the campaign heat, what has received less attention but remains equally significant is the simultaneous assembly elections in four states. Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh voted for their assemblies in the first phase itself, Andhra in phase four; and the exercise has begun for Odisha, where voting will take place in all the remaining phases.

**EDS: IMAGE VIA PIB** Berhampur: Voters display identity cards while standing in queue to cast their votes during the 4th phase of general elections, in Berhampur, Odisha, Monday, May 13, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI05_13_2024_000312B)(PTI) PREMIUM
**EDS: IMAGE VIA PIB** Berhampur: Voters display identity cards while standing in queue to cast their votes during the 4th phase of general elections, in Berhampur, Odisha, Monday, May 13, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI05_13_2024_000312B)(PTI)

What does the voting pattern in these states say about Indian politics? An interesting feature of electoral politics since 2019 has been that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) record in assembly elections has remained mixed despite its massive victory in general elections. In most states, the party’s vote share in assembly polls has been significantly lower than that in national elections. This difference in the BJP’s vote share in the two elections is described in popular commentary as the “Modi factor” — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to draw voters towards the BJP when he is on the ticket.

Modi’s campaigns did swing votes in favour of BJP candidates in the past, and it remains to be seen whether this will continue to play a role in 2024 or not. However, the claim that the Modi factor alone explains the divergence in the performance of the BJP in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections is exaggerated. So is the theory of substantial “split voting” in Indian politics — the phenomenon of a large chunk of voters shifting allegiances between parties in the national and state elections.

To be sure, the argument is not that no split voting takes place in India. Delhi, since 2014, is perhaps a good example of voters shifting their preferences. However, most other cases, such as Odisha in 2019, are examples of “split outcome” rather than split voting. The reason why the two factors often get equated is rather simple — most observers look at the seat difference between two parties in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections to draw such conclusions. And thereby, they underestimate the vagaries of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, in which how many seats parties win is also dependent on the gap between the two players, and the distribution of the remaining votes.

Let us consider the last two elections in Andhra and Odisha. The outcomes for both Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Andhra were very similar in both 2014 and 2019, albeit with some differences. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the BJP contested the 2014 elections together under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) umbrella, and won a 48% vote share, netting 21 of the state’s 25 Lok Sabha seats. In the assembly elections, the NDA won 102 of 175 seats with a 47% vote share. The Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) had a 45.6% vote share in the Lok Sabha polls and a 44.6% share in the assembly elections. However, this small vote share difference produced a massive difference in seats at both levels — YSRCP won just three Lok Sabha and 67 assembly seats. In 2019, the TDP and the BJP contested separately, which helped the YSRCP win 22 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats with a 49% vote share, and 151 of the 175 assembly seats with a 49.4% vote share.

The YSRCP victory in 2019 was bigger in terms of seats, primarily because the vote-share gap between the YSRCP and the TDP was fairly large. The BJP has a small, but significant, vote base in Andhra, which had helped the TDP in 2014.

The pattern in Odisha was not as straightforward. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in 2014, won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state with a 44.1% vote share, and 117 of the 147 assembly seats with a 43.4% vote share. The BJD’s seat tally in 2019 dropped to 12 seats with a 42.8% vote share. This was a massive loss (20 to 12 seats), with a mere one percentage point loss in vote share. However, the BJD managed to retain its dominance in the assembly (its seats declined from 117 to 112) with a 44.7% vote share. The BJP won eight Lok Sabha Seats with a 38% vote share and merely 23 assembly seats with a 32.5% vote share.

When the winner and the runner-up parties have near identical vote shares at both levels of elections — as in the case of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 and 2019, and Odisha in 2014 — the parties are likely to win a similar proportion of seats in the Lok Sabha as well as the assembly elections. However, if the distribution of votes between the parties changes at the two levels, as happened in Odisha in 2019, it leads to differential outcomes in Lok Sabha and assembly elections, even when the votes are being cast at the same time.

The difference between the BJP’s strike rate and ability to win contested seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly polls was low due to the movement of votes, a difference of just two percentage points. The leading party (BJD) did not have a significant difference in vote share at the two levels. Rather, the runner-up (BJP) netted a better vote share in the Lok Sabha polls in comparison to the assembly. This was largely due to a sharper decline in the Congress’s vote share in the Lok Sabha polls compared to the assembly elections, producing gaps between the BJD and the BJP in the two elections, leading to less competitive assembly elections.

What can be expected in these two states in 2024?

Andhra Pradesh is likely to elect the same party at both levels, unless the Congress party manages to garner a significant share of votes for the Lok Sabha, thereby changing the distribution of voters among major contenders. The Congress is hoping for a revival in the state after winning assembly elections in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Telangana in 2023 and inducting incumbent chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy’s sister, YS Sharmila, into the party. Can YSRCP hold on to its massive lead, or will the TDP’s gambit of stitching up an alliance with the BJP and Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party help in consolidating the anti-Jagan vote?

In Odisha, the chances of a split verdict are high. Pre-poll surveys indicated gains for the BJP in terms of Lok Sabha seats, along with a strong possibility of the BJD retaining office in the state. The key question remains: Is this scenario based on a considerable decline in the BJD’s vote share in the Lok Sabha polls, or does the BJP benefit from a further collapse in the fortunes of the Congress in the state?

The results in these two states, and the granular analysis of data, can inform us better about the sociology and geography of split voting in India.

Rahul Verma is fellow, the Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are personal

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