How the Election Commission aided the BJP in its phasing of the 2019 election

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 which political alliance 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.

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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.

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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.

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The “Modi tujhse bair nahi” fallacy

Stunned by the 0-3 verdict in the Hindi heartland, many BJP supporters are hoping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma will counter the anti-incumbency that led to the party’s defeat in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Some point to the slogan “Modi tujhse bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi” as a sign that voters were angry with state leaders rather than with the PM, and that this setback was a one-off.

This is somewhat optimistic. There was undeniably a national element to the state campaigns. Many of the issues that afflicted the incumbent BJP governments were national – agricultural distress, demonetisation impact, GST. Congress President Rahul Gandhi campaigned at length on the alleged failings of the Modi government, and Modi also spent a lot of time criticising the Congress Party.

That said, issues and candidates do differ between state and national elections, so we can’t rule out the possibility of some voters in those states voting differently in the coming general election. However recent history is not encouraging for the BJP, at least when it comes to Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Consider the average swing for the winning and losing parties in these three states over the past 15 years.

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The party that wins a state election on average gains 7-9 percentage points in the following general election. The party that loses also gains 1-2 points. The overall share of the vote going to smaller parties and independents usually shrinks between state and national elections, benefitting national parties.

If this pattern holds, the INC can expect to increase its lead over the BJP in these states in the coming general election. And even if there is a Modi effect on some voters, the state winner effect could neutralise it.

Some might argue that Modi is sui generis, and that his personal charisma will suffice to see the BJP through, especially in the Hindi belt. The historical record suggests otherwise. Consider 2013-14, when the INC was at a low point and dealing with serious anti-incumbency. In Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the party lost only 1-3 percentage points between the 2013 state election and the 2014 general election.

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This means that very few INC voters in the state election switched to the BJP – or at least those losses were offset by incoming voters who had previously voted for other parties or independents. The INC lost such few votes at arguably its lowest point that it seems unlikely that it will slide when it is resurgent, and when the BJP faces anti-incumbency after five years in office.

The BJP could still jump ahead of the INC, as occurred early in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era. The former won Madhya Pradesh (which included Chhattisgarh then) decisively in the February 1998 and September 1999 general elections, even though in between it had lost the November 1998 state election to the INC. Again, the INC held on to its vote share but the floating vote moved towards the BJP.

The problem is that the momentum is now going the other way. The BJP could in theory reverse its losses in the Hindi belt, but it won’t be easy.

Watch out BJP, you’re trailing behind the UPA in your bypoll performance

How can Modi be beaten in 2019? Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s byelection reverses last week, the consensus in the commentariat clearly leans towards a grand alliance (or mahagathbandhan) of opposition parties of the sort that humbled BJP in Bihar in 2015 and in three recent Uttar Pradesh parliamentary byelections. The subtext is that an “arrogant” Indian National Congress should be more generous towards regional parties, possibly even putting forward a non-Congress candidate as prime minister to cement a grand alliance.

https://twitter.com/sardesairajdeep/status/1002079250424434688

https://twitter.com/sardesairajdeep/status/1002079250424434688

But is it valid to extrapolate from parliamentary bypolls to national politics? Gilles Verniers and Rajkamal Singh argue not, saying “bypolls do not have a predictive value for the following state or general election” and that they reflect mostly local factors, such as the interplay among influential political families in Kairana. There does seem to be some truth to this — the United Progressive Alliance won 6 of 12 bypolls in 2012 and 2013 and the simple average of its vote rose 2 percentage points vis-à-vis the 2009 general election. Yet it was routed in 2014.

If you look closely at parliamentary – as opposed to state – byelections though (see charts below), there does seem to be a correlation in terms of vote swing between how the UPA did in the by-elections and in the subsequent general election. The simple average of the vote swing away from the UPA in the seats that had byelections is similar to the national swing in 2014, implying that they may have been representative of the national picture.

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It is striking how poorly the BJP has done in comparison with the UPA, winning only one of the 13 seats that had parliamentary byelections in 2017 and 2018. It seems difficult to imagine the BJP reversing all of the ground it has ceded in those seats between now and 2019. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra are all states that were central to Modi’s 2014 victory. It might be challenging for the BJP to make up these losses with evident gains in eastern states such as West Bengal. There is reason for the BJP to worry.

Do the byelection results support the proposition that the opposition cannot win in 2019 without a mahagathbandhan? Not really. Of the 15 seats that just had elections, only four were won by an opposition grand alliance. Non-BJP parties won three seats fighting alone and another five were won by longstanding state alliances in Bihar (RJD-Congress) and Maharashtra (Congress-NCP).

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The case for a mahagathbandhan is obviously strongest in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP remains ahead of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party individually by quite a margin. It suffered a major vote erosion only in Phulpur; in Gorakhpur and in Kairana it slipped but still polled strongly in the high 40s.

That doesn’t mean that a grand alliance is the answer everywhere. The BJP and its allies rule 12 of India’s 20 biggest states, and the INC is in a position to defeat it – either singly or with its existing allies – in all but Uttar Pradesh. The one ally that could make a difference is the BSP whose vote base overlaps with that of the Congress, as in Madhya Pradesh where an alliance seems to be in the works. In a close election, the addition of the BSP vote could make the difference between victory and defeat in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, states that contributed 62 of 65 seats to the BJP in 2014 and will hold elections in a few months.

Whether Mayawati is amenable to a broader alliance, and on what terms, remains to be seen. It is often said that the BSP suffers because allied parties do not transfer their votes even as they they benefit from the BSP’s vote bank. However this does not appear to be the case in the BSP’s biggest alliances. In 1993 and 1996, the BSP allied with the SP and the INC respectively in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. The BSP’s vote share in the seats it contested was only about percentage point lower than its partners’, suggesting that a smooth transfer of votes occurred.

To sum up, the BJP is facing a serious erosion of votes that is making the 2019 election much more competitive than in 2014. But with the exception of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, the results suggest that the INC should be judicious about ceding ground to potential allies rather than rushing into a mahagathbandhan. In 2004 and 2009, the INC became the single-largest party by winning 35% and 47% of the 417 and 440 seats it had contested respectively. If the party cedes more space to a mahagathbandhan and ends up contesting, say, 300 seats, it will be difficult for it to come close to the 150 mark needed to block the BJP’s claims and to form a stable coalition.

(Originally published on NewsCentral24x7.)

The compelling logic of a Grand Alliance in UP

There’s nothing like the word Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) to make even the most boosterish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter sweat a little. And it’s not just because of what happened in Bihar in 2015, when an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Indian National Congress (INC) inflicted a defeat on the BJP. Ever since 1977, dominant parties – the INC until the 1980s, the BJP now – have been vulnerable to a united opposition challenge. Which is why Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have both urged the INC to engineer a national-level grand alliance to break the BJP’s current ascendance.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is of course the lynchpin of the BJP’s national dominance, having contributed 71 of its 282 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. That is why its recent state election victory was such good news for the party, since it places the BJP on a strong footing for the 2019 election, only two years away now.

The best way to stop the BJP juggernaut, at this point, seems to be a Mahagathbandhan in UP. After the Emergency, an opposition alliance forced the INC’s Lok Sabha seats in UP down from 73 (of 85) in 1971 to exactly zero in 1977. Its state assembly tally fell from 215 in 1974 to 47 in 1977. Little more than a decade later, another grand alliance knocked the INC down from 83 Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to 15 in 1989. In the state assembly, the INC dropped from 269 seats in 1985 to 94 in 1989. Grand alliances in UP have proved effective in countering dominant political parties.

Like the previous instances, a UP grand alliance might not be more than a stopgap. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) have a history of animosity that won’t be easy to overcome, though the INC could play mediator between former rivals as it did in Bihar.

So what impact might a Mahagathbandhan have had on the just completed state elections? Here’s what the new UP state assembly looks like:

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A simple addition exercise shows that the BJP and its allies exceeded the combined vote share of the SP, BSP and INC in 115 state assembly seats. If we include the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), this number drops to 101.

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What about the Lok Sabha? The BJP and its allies won more votes than a theoretical Mahagathbandhan in only 25 seats (24 if you include the RLD), compared with its 2014 tally of 73. The BJP would still have won the national election, but its Lok Sabha tally would have been down to (a still impressive) 236.

There are obvious caveats: it’s not clear that parties’s vote banks will seamlessly transfer to grand alliance partners. Some portion of BSP and SP voters who dislike the other party could instead vote for a third party, which could even be the BJP. Or party workers could be unenthusiastic for a candidate in their constituency from a different party. For instance, INC candidates on average won fewer votes in the 2017 UP election than did SP candidates, which political scientist Gilles Verniers sees as evidence that “SP supporters did not transfer their votes to Congress supporters to the same extent that Congress supporters did”.

On the other hand, a grand alliance that looks like a potential winner could gain votes purely on momentum. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ 2014 National Election Study found strong evidence for such a bandwagon effect: 43% of voters said that they chose the party they thought was leading the race.

Either way, the compelling logic of a grand alliance in UP suggests that the parties the BJP defeated in 2017 will put in a serious effort to get one going. Whether it happens or not is the 80-seat question.

An upper hand in the Upper House

Now that the dust has settled on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, let’s get down to the big question: how close does it get the ruling National Democratic Alliance to a Rajya Sabha majority, and when? The government’s minority status in the RS has slowed and even halted important elements of its legislative agenda, such as the GST and land acquisition amendments. An upper house majority would greatly strengthen its ability to pass bills, but it could also embolden the Sangh Parivar to push its core ideological issues such as a uniform civil code, eliminating Article 370 and perhaps even transforming India into a “Hindu Rashtra”.

Here’s what the Rajya Sabha currently looks like:

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UP is clearly the prize in the RS: it contributes 31 of the upper house’s 245 seats, of which ten will have elections in 2018 and another ten in 2020. With a supermajority in the UP state assembly, the BJP is likely to win seven new seats from UP in each round (it already has three RS MPs in UP).

Adding up all the states, the NDA will gain a total of 18 seats in 2017 and 2018 (including two grabbed from the Congress Party in Goa and Manipur), while the Congress Party and its allies’ tally will drop by a similar amount.

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Those are meaningful shifts in seats, but not enough to give the NDA control of the upper house, where it will remain short by about 30 seats (as this blog anticipated in 2014). It will continue to require the support of regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, AIADMK and Samajwadi Party to pass bills through the RS.

Things improve for the NDA in 2019 and 2020. If we assume no major changes in the state elections held in 2018 and 2019 (a strong but unavoidable assumption since we can’t predict the future), the NDA approaches an RS majority only in 2020.

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The ruling coalition will still fall a few seats short, but should be able to corral support from a wide selection of regional parties to pass bills. The good news, at least for people wary of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, is that the BJP will lack the power to change India’s constitution. But it should be able to push economic reform bills through both houses if its allies are supportive.

The bad news: the BJP has every intention – as revealed by Adityanath’s anointment as UP chief minister – to push ahead with hardline Hindutva. And if the environment is polarized enough, there is no guarantee that the BJP’s allies won’t cave to an aggressive right-wing assertion. Assuming, of course, that 2019 is in the bag for the BJP.

Uttar Pradesh is the BJP’s to lose. Or is it?

As counting day on 11 March approaches, it seems as difficult as ever to gauge which way the political wind in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is blowing. Even before the campaign began, pre-election opinion polls offered little help, showing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance neck and neck, with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lagging.

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We know from elections in Delhi (2015), Bihar (2015) and West Bengal (2016) that a dead heat in pre-election polls is almost never a good predictor of the eventual outcome.

So what are the BJP’s chances of pulling off a win? If the starting point is the BJP’s historic 2014 victory, its lead seems unassailable. The BJP won 328 of 403 assembly segments, including 253 with more than 40% of the vote, and as Praveen Chakravarty states, for it to win fewer than 200 seats even if “two of the opposition parties get together, the BJP would still have to lose more than 10% of its voters”.

But if the baseline is the 2012 state election, the SP-Congress alliance begins to look formidable. As Karthik Sashidhar writes: “it will take a 7 percentage point swing from the 2012 elections to pull the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance below the halfway mark”. While this sounds big, it is well within the realm of possibility: in 2014, the SP dropped seven percentage points from its 2012 tally, giving the BJP a sweep in that four-cornered contest.

So which is it? The opinion poll numbers suggest that 2014 is, in fact, the appropriate baseline: 33% represents a near doubling of the BJP vote in the past three state elections and a decisive break from UP’s two-party dominant system. Yet it is undeniable that the SP-Congress alliance has raised the threshold of votes any party needs to attain a majority, transforming the contest from a seeming BJP walkover to a tough fight.

One way to resolve this impasse is to look at UP by-elections. Since the 2014 general election, the state has had 18 assembly by-elections: 11 in 2014, two in 2015 and five in 2016. These constituencies are fairly representative of the state: they are distributed across UP, and their combined 2014 general election vote shares approximate how the whole state voted in 2014, albeit with a slight bias of 3-4 percentage points each towards the BJP and INC (see table below).

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And this is how those 18 constituencies’ votes moved, from 2012 to 2014 to the subsequent by-elections:

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Note that the BJP’s vote share fell about 11 percentage points in the by-elections, while that of the SP rose more than 24 percentage points. The BJP retained only three of the 14 assembly constituencies in which it had a lead in 2014, and lost 11 to the SP. That’s a sharp fall in votes compared with 2014.

There are two obvious caveats. One is that ruling parties tend to do very well in by-elections. Voters calculate that having a ruling party legislator is more beneficial for their constituency, and parties in power tend to win by-elections about 2/3rds of the time. The second is that the BSP does not generally contest by-elections, so the 2014-16 numbers aren’t strictly comparable to 2012 and 2014 when the BSP was in the fray.

But that’s also the bad news for the BJP. One reason it did very well in the general election is that many BSP voters – including Dalits and MBCs – preferred Modi in 2014. But in the subsequent by-elections, the BSP’s vote appears to have gravitated towards the SP rather than to the BJP. It’s possible that incumbent advantage, including control of the state’s law-and-order machinery, contributed to this shift, but the BJP will have to fight to retain its 2014 voting bloc.

Such big drops in vote share are not unheard of in the wake of “wave” elections, such as in 1984. In November that year, the INC won 51% of votes in Uttar Pradesh, only to slip three months later to 39% in the state election that followed. Even bigger dips have occurred: in 1987, the INC won 29% in Haryana, a sharp drop from the 55% it received in 1984.

Now 1984 was a long time ago, and the obvious counter-argument is that UP has seen many big political events since the by-elections that could put wind beneath the BJP’s wings. These include the army raid across the Line-of-Control, demonetisation, the civil war in the SP and the high-pitched election campaign in which the BJP has brought out its big guns. And voters could decide that the BJP deserves a chance to run UP after successive BSP and SP governments.

But the reality is that the BJP’s vote share has dropped substantially since its 2014 victory, and the SP-Congress alliance has built a vote chest that makes it imperative for the BJP to outperform. As it happens, in the 2015 Bihar election, by-election vote shifts overstated the ruling alliance’s vote share but captured the drop in the vote share of the BJP and its allies. The BJP should hope that it won’t be the same story in UP.

The use and abuse of President’s Rule

After the furore over the Modi government imposing President’s Rule in Congress-ruled Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand  — in seeming defiance of the Supreme Court’s 1994 Bommai judgement — supporters have pointed out that previous governments have used Article 356 more frequently to remove state governments:

There are two obvious problems with this line of argument:

  1. Legitimacy. It fails to distinguish between the use and abuse of President’s Rule. To take the most recent examples, the Modi government had little choice but to impose President’s Rule in Maharashtra (2014) and Jammu and Kashmir (2014, 2016), but arguably used state power for partisan ends in the cases of Arunachal Pradesh (2016) and Uttarakhand (2016).
  2. Propensity. There is no attempt to control for the length of time a government might have been in office. In the chart above (drawn from here), Prime Ministers Chandrashekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee invoked Article 356 five times each, but the former did so over an eight month period while the latter did it over six long years. There is clearly a difference.

So how to evaluate Modi’s record?

Here we look at 113 cases of President’s Rule since 1950 (drawn from a very useful data set put together by The Hindu’s Rukmini S and Samarth Bansal), and divide them into three categories: routine, controversial and for reasons of law and order. Note that the “controversial” category casts a wide net, and includes many instances that the 1988 Sarkaria Commission (PDF) report disapproved of on procedural grounds, even where no injustice was apparent (viz. categories A, B and C from Chapter 6).

And we find:

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President’s Rule was most frequently invoked between the late 1960s and early 1980s, a period of political churn. The leader of the pack turns out to be the Janata Party government, which in only three years racked up the same tally as Indira Gandhi did in her first 11 years in office (1966-77). The most egregious misuse of Article 356 occurred on 30 Apr 1977 when the Janata Party dismissed nine Congress state governments, well, just — because. This fact should give pause to those who think that strong central parties are mostly to blame for the abuse of Article 356. Indira Gandhi paid her opponents back in the same coin when she returned to power and dismissed nine opposition-ruled states on 17 Feb 1980.

The misuse of Article 356 declined considerably after that, averaging between zero and three “controversial” invocations per prime ministerial term. One reason was the Bommai judgement, which laid down the conditions under which Article 356 could be invoked, such as requiring a governor to carry out a floor test to ascertain the support of a state government.

That said, a crude count gives us limited information. Remember that the 1977-80 Janata government equalled Indira Gandhi’s record in about a quarter of the time she had taken. Controlling for the length of a government’s tenure, we find a starker pattern:

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Turns out that shorter, less secure governments have a greater propensity to misuse President’s Rule. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and PV Narasimha Rao were most cautious, at least in part because of the restraining effect of the Bommai judgement: Rao never invoked Article 356 after that.

It’s too soon to make a definitive evaluation of Modi, since he has completed less than two of his five years in office, but his absolute count is already ahead of both Vajpayee’s and Singh’s. Modi’s relative count is a fairly high 1.1 — about the same as HD Deve Gowda and ten times Singh’s — owing to his still-brief tenure. This number could decline to a more reasonable 0.4 if Modi stops here — the same level as Rao and a tad above Nehru’s. But if he continues along this path, placing states like Manipur under President’s Rule, then all bets will be off.

Next, let’s look at the subset of controversial cases in which a governor controlled by a ruling party is making decisions that could result in a different political party either retaining or losing power, as is currently the case in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. While the Sarkaria Commission frowned on the tendency of governments to use Article 356 to bring their own state parties into line, it seems more problematic to use it to remove opposition parties.

And how do various governments fare in this regard?

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Modi is now doing even worse than Indira Gandhi did in her first stretch in power. This is also an artefact of his brief tenure so far in office, and Modi’s score could drop to a more reassuring 0.4 — the same as Rao’s — if no more opposition state governments are destabilised using Article 356.

Now it’s entirely possible that you consider the analysis presented here to be bunkum, or an effort to tar Modi or to bolster the opposition. The good news, dear reader, is that you can simply ignore my categorisations and focus on the pooled President’s Rule data. And this is what we find:

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Doesn’t look good for Modi — he is now the leading imposer of Article 356 in two decades, and within striking range of both of Indira Gandhi’s terms. Once again, this holds true of this first two years, and could drop to 1.0 if he stops here. The nation is watching Modiji.

Data notes

If you’re still a sceptic, here’s the raw data used (let me know if you have any constructive suggestions):

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Note that court judgements are treated here as definitive: this means that some controversial instances of President’s Rule, such as the removal of BJP governments in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the wake of the 1993 Babri Masjid demolition, are coded under “law and order”. Conversely, cases like Bihar (2005), found by the courts to be unconstitutional, are coded as “controversial” even if it was seems unlikely that a stable government would have emerged out of a floor test.

BJP-ruled states still more communally violent

In an article posted on the website Newslaundry on 14 October, Rupa Subramanya argues that government statistics do not support the view that “there’s been some sort of upsurge in communal violence since the election of Narendra Modi”, contending that figures that show an increase of 25% in communal incidents in January-May 2015 vs. January-May 2014 are unlikely to be statistically significant.

She also states the following:

This is a reference to my 15 February 2014 blog post titled BJP ruled states more communally violent. In her article, Subramanya asserts that:

  1. These findings are questionable because “one can get just about any result [by] using different start and end dates”; and
  2. The persistence of communal violence among a variety of different states makes it “impossible for a fair minded person to assert that there’s a greater prevalence of communal violence in either BJP or Congress ruled states.”

Note that the original one-and-a-half year old blog post used 2010-13 data because that’s what was available at the time. So let’s be fair-minded and run the analysis with the data used in the Newslaundry piece (2010-January 2015).

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Lo and behold, there’s no change in the ranking of states. Zip, zero. BJP-ruled states have an intensity of communal violence (measured by casualty rates) that is 61% higher than that of INC-ruled states. Note that both INC- and BJP-ruled states are above the national average, which means that states ruled by other parties are, on average, more peaceful. I’d say that debunks the debunker.

Let’s include communal violence data from 2007-09 to include as much information as we easily can. And here is what we find:

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There is some reshuffling in the ranking of the states, but the basic pattern holds: BJP-ruled states have 64% higher intensity of communal violence than INC-ruled states, and 78% higher than the national average. The only states where neither the BJP or INC was dominant thoughout this period are Jharkhand, Kerala and Rajasthan. The BJP was in power for most of the time in Karnataka and all of the time in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The INC was in office in Assam throughout and in Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana) for most of the period.

The Newslaundry piece does note that several states changed government in 2013 and 2014 (and earlier), so let’s focus only on those that have experienced lengthy periods of government by one party.

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(No) surprise! BJP-ruled states still have a casualty rate 73% higher than INC-ruled states, and 60% greater than supposedly polarised Uttar Pradesh (UP) (remember, the UP figures include the Muzaffarnagar riots).

These findings, though robust, need not comprise the whole story. A thoughtful critique would note that the political party running a state isn’t the sole determinant of communal violence, and that factors such as the nature of party competition (Wilkinson 2004), the presence of institutionalised riot systems (Brass 1997), the density of civic ties among communal groups (Varshney 2002) and other contending explanations could also shape levels of communal violence.

A considered critique might also seek to distinguish between low-level communal friction at the level of locality, town or village, and outbreaks of communal violence that go beyond these. Subramanya hints at this in her observations about Uttar Pradesh but appears too focused on trying to fix the responsibility for the 2013 riots on Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to look at this in a considered way.

Instead, we get baseless generalisations about cut-off points, and a digression involving temperatures and climate change. Sorry, Newslaundry, this just doesn’t cut it.

Bihar may be an uphill battle for the BJP

An average of three recent opinion polls (here, here and here) shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- and Janata Dal (United)(JD(U))-led alliances are locked in a statistical dead heat in the 2015 Bihar state election.

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This is a very creditable performance for the BJP. The party was long overshadowed by its partner of two decades, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), even though it played a crucial supporting role in bringing upper caste votes to the alliance. Today, it appears to have fought Bihar’s two dominant parties to a standstill, and could yet form a government with its political allies. Indeed, the formation of a “grand coalition” (महागठबंधन) by the JD(U), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Indian National Congress (INC) could ironically elevate the BJP to political primacy in Bihar, as Yogendra Yadav argued in a recent TV interview.

But it won’t be easy for the BJP to overcome the grand coalition’s raw arithmetic power. At the height of the Modi wave in the 2014 general election, the BJP and its allies outpolled the combined votes of these three parties in only 85 of 243 assembly segments. Most of these lay within 11 Lok Sabha constituencies where heavyweight BJP alliance candidates were contesting. The corollary: the then-hypothetical grand coalition “won” 158 assembly segments.

The big change since then is that the RJD and INC are now in alliance with the JD(U). So why does the race appear to be so tight? One theory is that disaffection with the RJD and Lalu Yadav will encourage many JD(U) supporters who might otherwise have voted for Nitish to switch to the the BJP. Furthermore younger and more educated Yadavs are also said to be weighing support for the BJP, which means that the RJD could also lose votes to the BJP.

Who knows, right? Well, not quite. We have a test of this theory in ten state by-elections fought in August 2014, only three months after the general election. The main difference was that the RJD+INC and JD(U) fought separately in the general election, but presented a unified front in the by-elections. A comparison of vote shares in the two elections gives us an opportunity to gauge the effect of the grand coalition.

So what happened? There was a swing of 2.1% towards the JD(U)-led front and a swing of 6.2% away from the BJP alliance (using simple averages). The BJP and its allies won four assembly seats and the JD(U) alliance took six. This would seem to show that the unification of the RJD, JD(U) and INC had a (weak) positive effect, while the BJP lost substantial vote share compared with the general election, only three months later. If this is a foretaste of how the grand coalition might fare against the BJP, the latter has much to be concerned about.

There are, as usual, caveats. This measure is imperfect because (1) issues and candidates differ between national and state elections and (2) ruling parties tend to win by-elections about two-thirds of the time because voters like their constituencies to receive favourable treatment. This means that any alliance effect — political contradictions that forced some RJD and JD(U) voters into the arms of the BJP — could have been hidden in the by-elections by such an incumbent effect. Furthermore, ten is admittedly a small sample in a state that has 243 assembly constituencies, although as the map below shows they were reasonably diversified in geographical terms (156-Bhagalpur in the southeast seems to not have been properly highlighted).

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Most importantly, of course, there was no chance that the by-elections would result in a change in government, whereas the BJP and its partners present a credible alternative in the state election. So a BJP wave or the move of key swing constituencies towards it (be they Mahadalits or Yadavs) could still produce victory for the BJP. However, the recent historical record and the sheer quantum of votes available to the JD(U) and RJD suggest this won’t be so easy.