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.)

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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.

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.

Is AAP India’s most criminal party?

With candidates declared for six of the nine rounds of voting in this never-ending general election, a partial analysis can now be done of how many stand accused of criminal activity and in what proportion parties are awarding tickets to such folks (data from National Election Watch, also see preliminary analysis here).

The chart below ranks parties by the proportion of candidates that have serious criminal charges against them:

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As before, parties from Bihar and Maharashtra have the highest percentage of Lok Sabha candidates that face serious criminal charges. In 2009, the Indian National Congress (INC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were comparable; the BJP is doing a little worse so far in the 2014 election with 17% of its candidates facing serious charges compared with 13% of the INC’s.  The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is performing better this time round: it has fewer accused candidates than the BJP, INC or the Samajwadi Party (SP). The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), as might be expected, looks pretty good here.

What about levels of criminality? To calculate the intensity of the alleged criminality of each party’s candidates, we count the number of candidates with more than one serious charge, add up the number of charges and calculate the total as a percentage of the total candidates per party. And here is what we find:

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Shock and horror! AAP turns out, by far, to have the highest levels of alleged criminality of all of India’s parties. The Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party come a poor second and third respectively.

As it happens, AAP’s ranking is driven by two statistical outliers: Anti-nuclear activists SP Udayakumar and M Pushparayan respectively account for 382 and 380 of the 829 serious charges that AAP candidates face. The next such candidate is Trinamool’s Kameshwar Baitha with “only” 48 charges, suggesting that the numbers for Udayakumar and Pushparayan are unusual. After all, is Udayakumar really 48 times more “criminal” than Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Mutalik who faces eight serious charges?

To limit the effect of such outliers, let’s give a score of 10 to all candidates who were had more than nine serious criminal charges. The result is:

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The AAP now drops in the rankings and ends up with about the same intensity of criminal charges as the Congress Party, although it still does worse than the BSP and Biju Janata Dal. The “criminality” of the BJP slate of candidates is more than double that of the INC and AAP, up from being 28% greater than the INC in 2009. The Congress score in 2014 is about the same as it was in 2009, but the BJP’s is sharply higher this time.

As before, the BSP does well in this ranking, although its score is not strictly comparable with the SP’s because the latter is focused much more on Uttar Pradesh and has only two-fifth as many candidates. Communist Party of India (Marxist) supporters can breathe a sigh of relief: it moves from the top of the list in 2009 to somewhere in the middle.

Finally the overall incidence of serious criminal charges is higher (so far) in 2014: 302 of the 533 candidates facing serious criminal charges (the 57th percentile) have more than one charge against them compared with 355 of 1,114 (the 32nd percentile) in 2009.

Remember however that this is still an incomplete list: we await candidate data for the final rounds of voting.

Why Modi may have a fight on his hands in Varanasi

It seems clear that Uttar Pradesh (UP) with its 80 Lok Sabha seats is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) biggest bet in this election and that Narendra Modi is standing from Varanasi in order to boost the BJP’s prospects across eastern UP.

The BJP’s man in UP Amit Shah certainly seems gung-ho:

With a couple of exceptions, many people are assuming that Modi will easily win in Varanasi even if Arvind Kejriwal joins the contest. For instance CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghose tweeted this yesterday from Varanasi:

But don’t take anything for granted, as the following analysis by two political scientists suggests. Modi will probably still pull off a win in the face of adverse local politics, but he may have a fight on his hands.

Guest post by Philip K. Oldenburg, Research Scholar, South Asia Institute, Columbia University

The implications of the choice of the BJP to field Narendra Modi in the Varanasi constituency need to be explored a bit more.  It is not simply that the BJP has to do very well in UP, and that Modi contesting in the state gives them a much better chance (which I would agree with), and that this is a signal that Hindutva will remain central to the BJP (possibly true). 

It is not at all clear that Modi would win the seat, and certainly will have to expend a good deal of effort if he wants to have a chance.  In 2009, the party-wise vote shares were: BJP (30.5%), Bahujan Samaj Party (27.9%), Samajwadi Party (18.6%) and Indian National Congress (10.0%). Jolie Wood, who teaches political science at Allegheny College, writes (on 19 Mar):

As someone who has spent some time doing fieldwork in Varanasi and has met many major local political figures there, I agree . . . that it is not at all clear that Modi will win in Varanasi.

The city is often viewed as a “BJP stronghold”, but it is not exactly that. First, Muslims make up about 27% of the city population and at least 30% of the district’s population (according to the admittedly outdated 2001 census). Joshi won his seat with just over 17,000 votes over a Muslim candidate who was not previously very prominent and is widely seen as a mafioso. The business community, probably the best organized occupational group in the city, is not entirely pro-BJP – the SP also has a very strong organisation among them. Many in the business community (including those loyal to the BJP) are quite wary of anyone who might inflame communal sentiment and in fact discouraged more right-wing elements of the BJP from pushing the Gyanvapi Masjid/Kashi Vishwanath Mandir issue because it was bad for business.

If we look at other reasons why the city is seen as a BJP stronghold, we can also see some reason for doubt. Take, for example, the current Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs). The MLA of Varanasi South is Shyamdeo Rai Chaudhary, who has held that seat for something like 6 or 7 terms now. He is personally popular and is seen as someone who is decent, trustworthy, non-corrupt, and (importantly) not super partisan or “communal”. Jyotsana Srivastava is not a major political player by herself – she alternates terms (more or less) with her very popular, much higher profile, husband Harishchandra Srivastava. These MLAs win consistently on the basis of their personal stature, as much as or more than on the basis of their party identification. Finally, the MLA from Varanasi North, Ravindra Jaiswal, is a business leader who is a first-time MLA, and who holds a seat in a district that has usually gone for Muslim candidates linked to the Ansari community, which is particularly strong in that constituency. I would not assume that he or any BJP candidate can easily hold onto that seat.

So, my point is that the BJP’s current dominance of Varanasi’s elected offices is not necessarily due to the strength of the BJP per se. Add to this that the very large Muslim community tend to support SP, Congress, or BSP. Congress has done very poorly in the city for the last several elections. The SP and BSP have much stronger organizations in Varanasi than does Congress, so I’m not sure why some discount their role in the coming election, though it is true that they’ve never fielded a strong candidate for the MP seat.

The big question for me is how they will approach this election. If they form an alliance with AAP, it could weaken the BJP considerably. [But] I really wonder if AAP could coordinate any kind of agreement with BSP and SP. And while Mukhtar Ansari may have won a lot of votes in 2009, I actually don’t know if the BSP is that much stronger in Varanasi than it was in 2007, when it had no presence at all, even when Mayawati won an outright majority in the state. I do know that Congress had become a total non-player by then.

I do think that if Muslim voters backed AAP in a more or less unified way, then Kejriwal might have a chance, but if BSP fields Mukhtar Ansari again, that probably won’t happen. (Also, many Shia Muslims in Varanasi support BJP.)

Jolie’s analysis seems sound to me, and it raises an important question: If this is a seat for which Modi must fight, and if fighting for it means spending significant time in Varanasi that he might otherwise have spent travelling throughout the country, then perhaps this choice of seat might weaken the BJP’s campaign.

And if it so happen that Modi loses – and here the importance of Jolie’s point that in effect “communalism can be bad for business” is particularly important. If Modi tones down his Hindutva rhetoric, then what happens in those parts of UP where that would draw votes and, more important, a hyperactive “base” of political workers? And if the BJP and its pre-election allies and supporters fall short of a majority, then having an alternate BJP prime minister becomes a serious possibility.

Guilty parties

With political parties beginning to name their candidates, media attention once again turns to the topic of criminals in parliament. Here we look at which parties are guiltiest of facilitating their entry into politics (data from National Election Watch).

On the face of it, the Indian National Congress (INC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have a large concentration of Lok Sabha MPs who face criminal charges:

But that’s hardly surprising since these are the two largest parties in parliament. What you need is a measure of proportion, and things begin to look much better for the Congress. The BJP has nearly twice the percentage that Congress does of MPs in the Lok Sabha who face criminal charges.

The BJP comes off almost three times worse than the Congress when you restrict the analysis to MPs who face serious criminal charges. The Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Shiv Sena are also fare poorly in this ranking (which I limit to the ten biggest parties in the current Lok Sabha):

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So far so good. However there is one flaw with this analysis: It is always possible that some parties gave a lot of criminals tickets of whom only a few were actually elected, while other parties gave a relatively small proportion of tickets to criminals of whom many made it into parliament.

The picture changes when you look at the proportion of Lok Sabha candidates in 2009 who had criminal charges against them (ranked in the chart below by the percentage of serious charges). The BJP and Congress look much more comparable now, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) makes a surprise entry at #3. Overall the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena gave the highest proportion of tickets to candidates with criminal records.

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Finally not all criminally-charged candidates are equal. Of the total 1,114 candidates charged with a serious criminal offence, 355 (or the top 32nd percentile) had more than one charge. To test which parties gave election tickets to the most hardened (alleged) criminals, we count the number of candidates with more than one serious charge, add up the number of charges and calculate the total as a percentage of the total candidates per party. This allows us to calculate the intensity of the alleged criminality of each party’s candidates.

And this is what we find:

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Lo and behold the CPI(M) tops the list. This is only partly the consequence of chronic violence in areas of northern Kerala; the CPI(M) candidates with the most criminal charges stood from Palakkad in eastern Kerala and Bikaner in Rajasthan. The BJP’s alleged criminals are about 28 per cent more hardened than those of the Congress Party. The BSP, the only other party that had more than 400 candidates nationwide in the 2009 election, ranks about the same as the Congress.

Why you should ignore opinion poll seat projections

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Indian public opinion polls are much better at predicting party vote shares than they are at extrapolating to seats won in parliament or state assemblies. That’s because vote shares translate into seats in an unpredictable way under India’s multiparty “first-past-the-post” electoral system.

For example, the Indian National Congress (INC) increased its national vote share only 2% between 2004 and 2009 but its seats tally increased by 60 to 206. Uttar Pradesh is even more stark: the Bahujan Samaj Party won 206 seats in the 2007 assembly elections with more than 30% of the vote, but the Samajwadi Party won 224 seats in 2012 with only 29%. As Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies told The Caravan: “Same state, same voters, same parties. Party gets 1% less votes and gets 20 extra seats.”

The following chart from Rukmini Shrinivasan’s June 2013 article captures this unpredictability:

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This means that people should take vote share projections in opinion polls much more seriously than seat share projections. And yet our TV studios and newspapers spend hours and column inches on seat predictions with only a cursory mention, if that, of respective vote shares.

So let’s take a look at what the four national opinion polls published so far in 2014 are saying about vote shares:

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The average of these four polls projects that vote share of the INC-led alliance will drop by 7% to 24%, that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance will rise 13% to 34% and of others will fall 6% to 42%.

This is a sweeping vote shift by historical standards:

  1. If it occurs this would be the third biggest negative swing that the INC has suffered, smaller than the -9% and -11% swings in 1977 (post-emergency) and 1989 (Bofors, 1984 wave reversal) respectively but comparable with what occurred in 1996 after the Narasimha Rao government. Perhaps not so surprising in the current political environment.
  2. The real news is the 13% increase in the vote share of the BJP and its close allies, which surpasses the +4% swing in 1989 and the +9% swing the party experienced in 1991 after the Ram Temple movement. This is particularly surprising given the absence of the BJP from large swathes of southern and eastern India.
  3. The fall in the vote share of others is also noteworthy given the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and the resilience of regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and elsewhere.

I will look into these numbers in greater detail in the near future, but here are two caveats:

  • With the exception of the BJP, party campaigns only picked up recently. Not all voters may be paying attention at this point and late vote swings have been known to occur.
  • Candidate selection and quality are important, which is why early polls can be misleading.