As soon as voting closed on 19 May, Congress President Rahul Gandhi accused the Election Commission of India (ECI) of capitulating to pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a number of fronts:
This is a serious set of allegations. Is there any truth to the claim that the ECI designed an election schedule that aided the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign?
The political challenge for the BJP in 2019 was to retain as many seats as possible from its 2014 sweep of northern, western and central India, and to compensate for any losses with gains from the large eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha. Given its weakness in southern India the BJP’s main task there was to hold on its 2014 Karnataka tally as far as possible.
The 2019 election schedule has seven phases, three fewer than 2014, but this is somewhat misleading. The average number of phases per state and union territory has increased slightly from 1.9 in 2014 to 2.2 in 2019. However there are 12 states with 20+ seats each that account for 79% of 543 Lok Sabha seats. It is these states that will determine who forms the next government. Here, the number of phases has risen from 2.5 in 2014 to 3.2 in 2019, an average increase of 0.7 phases.
It’s clear from the analysis below that the ECI’s schedule has evolved in a direction that appears tailor-made for the BJP. The number of voting phases has gone up (in comparison with 2014) on those states where the BJP would like to maximise its campaigning time.
Let’s categorise states into three categories from the BJP’s perspective: “attack”, “defend” and “ignore”. States under “attack” by the BJP include West Bengal and Odisha where it won only three out of 63 seats in 2014, but saw potential for big gains in 2019. States being “defended” are the seven states where the BJP and its allies outperformed in 2014, and where the party hopes to hold on to as many seats as possible. And “ignore” includes Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala where the BJP alliance has poor prospects.
The picture is as follows: the number of phases that “attack” states undergo has gone up by an average of two between 2014 and 2019, while the number of phases in states the BJP needs to “defend” has risen by an average of 0.7 phases. In states where the BJP sees little prospect of gains, the average has gone down by 0.3 phases. The fractions may seem small, but the gap between “defend” and “ignore” states is equivalent to a full phase, giving BJP leaders one extra phase in which to campaign there.
Things are rather different from the perspective of the Indian National Congress (INC). The INC alliance is on the “attack” in Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan, and is “defending” Kerala. It has limited prospects in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.
And what we see is a 0.6-phase increase in the INC’s “attack” states, mostly because six of the seven states are those that the BJP happens to be “defending”. In states where the INC is not in contention, the ECI has increased campaigning by a full phase, while there is no increase in the one state the INC is “defending”. All in all, not a sequence particularly helpful to the INC.
Rahul Gandhi’s charge that the election phases were designed to help the BJP appears supported by the evidence. Unless the ECI has a more convincing argument that we are yet to see.