The Himachal Pradesh assembly election provided some relief to the Congress, which won the state with a comfortable majority of seats (40 out of 68). Unlike Gujarat, the Aam Aadmi Party failed to make any inroads in Himachal Pradesh, scoring a paltry 1% of vote share. Here is an a data analysis to see how close this victory was for the Congress.
Barring a few exceptions, the Himachal Pradesh election results have always been a see-saw. Not a single government has succeeded in winning a consecutive term since 1977. The only chief minister to ever win a re-election was the state’s first chief minister, Yashwant Singh Parmar, in 1971. The victory of the Congress, therefore, is in keeping with usual political trends in Himachal.
What makes these results interesting is that both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party got a similar vote share: 44% for the Congress and 43% for the BJP. Compared to 2017, the gains made by the Congress are modest (from 41.7% to 44% of the votes) while the BJP lost more votes (from 48.8% to 43%). In fact, there are only 37,974 votes separating the two parties, the smallest difference between two major parties ever recorded in Himachal Pradesh.
Despite these modest vote swings, there are large variations in terms of seats. The Congress got 15 more seats than its adversary, nearly doubling its 2017 tally. The disproportion of seats compared to the similarity in vote share points towards an election that was extremely close. Very small votes variations across seats might have produced a different outcome.
The question then is: how close was this election? The answer: very, but not in a usual way. Close elections often see many seats won with small margins, with a skewed results towards the winner. In this case, both the Congress and the BJP won several close contests (defined as a victory margin of less than 5%). There were 20 such contests this year, out of 68 seats.
The Congress won 12 of these races, against eight for BJP. Again, tiny number variations across seats would have thrown a very different result. The Congress won four seats with a margin of less than 1%. Suresh Kumar, Congress candidate in Bhoranj, won with a difference of 60 votes.
The next map shows the difference in the vote share between Congress and BJP candidates (this was calculated by subtracting the vote share of the BJP from Congress for each assembly seat). It shows that the distribution of high and low margins between the two parties was wide. Both parties had strong and weak candidates. This, again, confirms that this election was not a landslide for the Congress.
When the races are tight, third-party candidates or strong independent candidates can play spoiler, cutting enough votes to affect the outcome. The map below shows that such spoilers might have affected the outcome in 27 seats.
While we can’t say for sure that the third candidate took more votes to the runner-up than the winner, we can suppose that it is more likely to be the case. Eighteen of these possible spoilers were independent candidates.
The Aam Aadmi Party might have affected the outcome of individual races only in two seats. Three BJP candidates, one Congress and two from the local Rashtriya Devbhumi Party, might have contributed to shape the outcome. The map shows that these spoiler candidates are more present in the lower Hill areas.
The distribution of the victory margins between the two parties shows in a different way how the performance of candidates was well distributed in both parties. This points to the idea that local factors matter more than a larger campaign or leadership effects.
Electoral politics in Himachal Pradesh is essentially retail politics. Constituencies are large but do not have as many voters than the more populated states. The personalities of the candidates and their ties with local communities matter. The BJP’s declaration that candidates do not matter and that voters should vote to support the party’s national leader clearly did not resonate with voters.
This chart also shows that only few candidates won with huge margins, Jairam Thakur (BJP), in Sehraj, won with a 54% margin. Mohan Lal Brakta (Congress), in Rorhu, won with a 35% margin.
In total, 16 candidates out of 68 won with large margins (above 15%), eight on Congress tickets, six on BJP tickets and two independents. The following map shows that higher victory margins tend to be located in lesser valley districts, more than in high altitude districts.
BJP candidates won with larger margins in the Beas region, while Congress candidates performed best in the Shimla region.
Local rather than regional strongholds
Given their closeness, the vote share maps of the Congress and BJP do not show much variation. They do reveal that no party dominates any particular sub-region.
A sub-regional breakdown of the Congress and BJP’s vote share shows the Congress ahead in three of the four sub-regions. The gap is much wider in the Greater Himalayas region (which counts only two seats) and in the Shimla region.
Plotting winners on the map reveals the strong contrast between the 2017 election and 2022. The Congress essentially expanded in the Kangra valley and in Mandi district. It also won two huge constituencies in Lahaul-Spiti, retained its presence in the Shimla region and in Kinnaur district. The BJP lost ground and seats everywhere but held on to its seats in Mandi and Bilaspur districts.
In 2017, the BJP’s victory had been comprehensive, barring the Shimla and Kinnaur clusters.
That being said, most seats did not change hands. In total, the Congress and BJP retained 37 of the seats they have won five years ago. This attests to the local strength of the parties as well as to the strength of their candidates.
In total, the Congress won 24 new seats and lost five seats that it had won five years ago. The BJP only won five new seats and therefore lost 24 seats that it had won in 2017.
Voter turnout in Himachal Pradesh is high. It has been above 70% since 1995. This year, participation stood at 75.4%, an all-time high.
There are however some differences between sub-regions. Turnout is higher in the Shivalik region, but not to a very large extent.
Historically, the Election Commission does a good job in reaching out to voters dispersed in high-altitude areas. It is also the case that most states with high Human Development Index figures tend to see more participation in elections.
At the constituency level, one can also see variations, although the range is not very wide (between minus 4.6% in Dharamshala to plus 7% in Dharampur). In total, the turnout slightly decreased in 30 seats, out of 68.
Like in every other state, NOTA, or none of the above, is insignificant. There is no correlation between the seat reservation (Scheduled Tribe or Scheduled Caste reserved or non-reserved) and NOTA scores.
Stable number of candidates
A total of 412 candidates contested the Himachal Pradesh election and 261 of them lost their deposits, including all 67 Aam Aadmi Party candidates. The overall number of candidates tends to increase over time in most states, something that is not seen in Himachal Pradesh.
Fewer parties also contested (14 against 16 in 2017). Only the Congress and BJP, as well as three independent candidates, obtained representation.
The cumulative vote share of the two major parties has been stable through time. This means that there is, on average, 12%-13% of the votes going to third-party candidates and independents. In case of close contests, these residual votes can make a difference in some seats, adding to the competitiveness of elections.
Low turnover of candidates
Contrary to many other states, most sitting MLAs get to contest again. This is another indicator of the importance of individual candidates versus the party in Himachal politics. In 2022, 90% of all legislators go to contest the elections again.
Both the Congress and BJP share that practice. The numbers shown here take into account the byelections that took place since 2017.
The strike rate of incumbents shows a clear difference between BJP and Congress candidates. Most Congress incumbents kept their seat, again only 41% of all BJP incumbents contesting again.
As a result, the number of first-time MLAs is quite low. Two-thirds of the new assembly’s legislators have been elected more than once.
In total, 28 MLAs have been elected more than twice. The three veterans of the assembly are six-time MLAs Jairam Thakur (Seraj, BJP), Chander Kumar (Jawali, Congress) and Harshwardhan Chauhan (Shillai, Congress). Overall, the Himachal Assembly contains more cumulative experience than many state assemblies in India. This is made possible when candidates matter.
Despite media headlines about rebellions and intra-party divisions, few turncoats run for office. The BJP nominated just five turncoat candidates against only one for the Congress. Six other turncoats, including one from the BJP, ran on small party tickets or as independents.
Only two turncoat candidates won, both on BJP tickets: Lokender Kumar, ex-Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Anni, and Pawan Kumar Kajal, now three-time MLA, elected once in Kangra as an Independent and later on a Congress ticket.
Erasure of women MLAs
A final feature of this election is the decimation of women’s representation. The new assembly has only one woman representative, Reena Kashyap (BJP). She is a first-time contestant in the reserved constituency of Pachhad in Sirmour district.
In 2017, only four women were elected. Three of them contested again as incumbents. Asha Kumari, a six-term Congress MLA, lost in Dalhousie. Sarveen Choudhary, a four-time BJP MLA, lost in Shahpur while Reeta Devi, a first-time BJP MLA, lost in Indora.
Overall, only 24 women contested among a total of 412 candidates, six of them on BJP tickets and only three on a Congress ticket. The Aam Aadmi Party, which was not a contender in this election, nominated only five women candidates.
Overall, Himachal Pradesh is situated well below the national average and the main parties are clearly to blame for it. If women’s representation is low across all state assemblies, at least it is not declining in most states, which is not the case in Himachal Pradesh. Forty-six constituencies did not have a single woman contestant, which attests to the depth of the issue.
What comes out of this exercise is that Congress’ victory and substantial seat majority is not the result of a landslide or even of a major swing of voters’ support. Small number variations and a sum of individual contests produced an outcome where the distribution of seats is vastly disproportionate to the distribution of votes. This is a usual feature in Himachal politics, and one should not read into it more than the politics contained within the boundaries of the state.
This means that one should be careful over-interpreting the meaning of these results. It is likely, as we have said before, that local factors tend to weigh more on voters’ decisions.
The Congress, therefore, should not interpret these results as an augur for future elections.
The absence of women from the candidate lists of major parties is a worrying trend. We have seen how competitive elections lead to further marginalisation of women politicians, which is a shame as Himachal Pradesh does not lack experienced and talented women politicians.
Maleeha Fatima and Shivam Gangwani are researchers, at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Shoaib Mirza is Assistant Manager, TCPD. Gilles Verniers is Director, TCPD. Views are personal.