Opinion: 2019 Election Was One-Sided, “Manipulation” Wouldn’t Help

A research paper by Sabyasachi Das from Ashoka University titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy” suggests that there was manipulation of results in some seats by the ruling BJP, which led to the party winning a disproportionately higher share of closely-contested constituencies in the 2019 general election.

The report has created a political furore, with the BJP and the opposition firing guns at each other. Such a paper just before the 2024 Lok Sabha election has raised many eyebrows, as the Election Commission is known globally for its process and in India for its free and fair elections.

The paper has been picked up by the opposition to create a perception that:

  1. The 2019 election was a closely contested one
  2. BJP won a high share of closely contested seats
  3. BJP won a high share of these seats due to manipulation in states where it was in power
  4. And so its victory in 2019 is questionable

Point No. 1

The findings of the survey suggest this alleged manipulation had an impact only on nine to 18 seats, considering a victory margin of 3% to 7%. Normally 5% is considered a close contest, 7% a decent margin.

In the 2019 election, a 5% victory margin corresponded to an average 56,000 votes while 7%, to around 79,000 votes. Even if we take the findings at face value, it doesn’t impact the overall results as the BJP won 303 seats out of 543.

Even if we consider 18 seats where results were manipulated, the BJP won 285 seats fair and square, which is way above the majority of 272 seats.

Point No. 2

The survey says the BJP won a disproportionately higher number of closely contested seats and that too in states where it was in power. The author argues that manipulation is local at the booth level, and implies that manipulation could be concentrated in constituencies that have a high share of observers who are state civil service officers from BJP-ruled states.

In the 2019 election, 98 seats were closely contested; the victory margin was less than 5%. Of these, the BJP won only 43, which is roughly 44% or less than half. The Congress won 19 of these closely contested seats.

Of these 43 seats, the BJP won 22 in states where it was in power. All but one were won from non-BJP ruled states like Karnataka (4), Chhattisgarh (2), Telangana (1), Odisha (6), West Bengal (7), and Punjab (1). So, the proportion of seats that the BJP won from states where it was in power to those where it was not in power is almost 50-50.

Overall, the BJP won 129 out of its 303 tally from states where it was not in power. The election was in no way a closely contested one as the BJP recorded more than a 50 per cent vote share on 224 seats, which is roughly 75% of its tally.

Point No. 3

The author is hinting that the BJP was able to manipulate results in seats where it was in power with a large number of observers who were state civil service officers. However, if this is true and so easy, then the BJP’s record in state elections where it was the incumbent should be fantastic.

But, this is not the case. In fact, the BJP’s performance in states where it was incumbent was poorer than states where it was in the opposition. The party lost more in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Himachal, where it was in power over the last nine years.

Point No. 4

Closely contested seats can be won due to numerous reasons like organisational strength, caste arithmetic, and the impact of alliances and the campaign. To further his point that these seats were won due to electoral manipulation and not precise control, i.e., the incumbent party’s ability to precisely predict and affect win margins through campaigning, the author uses NES 2019.

The author measures campaigning in the form of door-to-door visits by the BJP and other political parties to directly test for precise control. He finds that neither the BJP nor any other party campaigned significantly harder in constituencies that the BJP barely won. Therefore, precise control is less likely to be the primary mechanism for such wins. To use only door to door visits as a proxy for the entire campaign is not apt, as traditional / modern campaign mediums like events, rallies, town halls, social / digital campaigns etc. are ignored.

It is very difficult to quantify qualitative aspects like the impact of campaigning, the image of the local candidate, the impact of caste, alliances, organization strength, motivation of cadre, quality of leadership and campaigns by stars on election results, so this point is not very conclusive.

Point No. 5

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