In this article, we consider nine dimensions of the 2023 Karnataka polls and examine how this election compares with past trends. This exercise will reveal the unusual character of this year’s outcome, but also points at important continuing trends.

1 Party performance

Karnataka elections rarely produce large majorities, particularly since the Bharatiya Janata Party has become an important player in the state. With 135 seats and 43% of the votes, the Congress has won unequivocally with the largest vote share and seat share obtained by any party in Karnataka since 1989.

Vote shares over time reveal that despite the growth of its presence in Karnataka, the BJP never obtained more votes than Congress. The closest they got to one another was in 2008, around 34%. But Congress was still ahead. The data also shows how BJP suffered a massive setback in 2013, when former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa broke away from the party and contested on a separate platform, and how Congress has improved its vote share in every election since 2008.

The Janata Dal (Secular), on the other hand, declined substantially. After hovering between 18% and 20% of the votes in every election since its divorce with the Janata Dal (United), it is now down to 13.3%.

The BJP maintained its 2018 vote share but lost a lot of seats. There are two ways in this case to calculate seat loss, given the fact that 20 by-elections have been held in Karnataka since 2018, mostly due to the defections that brought down HD Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (Secular) government in 2019.

If one compares this election with 2018, the Congress won 55 seats and BJP lost 38 seats. If one takes defections into account, and compare this election with the assembly as it was at the time the campaign started, Congress won 66 seats and BJP lost 54 seats.

Because of the spatial distribution of the votes, the conversion of votes into seats has always been a seesaw in Karnataka. This year, a large vote share gap between Congress and BJP means a large gap in terms of seat share. with 7% of difference in vote share, Congress has twice the seats BJP got.

To understand how the BJP lost so many seats with the same vote share, one needs to look at seat-level performance. As journalist Roshan Kishore pointed out, the BJP gained votes in seats in which it under-performed in 2018 and lost votes in seats where it did well.

This also works at the sub-regional level, which is described below. The BJP gained votes in Bangalore and in Southern Karnataka, and lost votes everywhere else. Since it was already strong in Bangalore and weak in Southern Karnataka, these votes variations did not lead to seat gains. On the other hands, losses of votes in its Northern and Coastal strongholds, as well as in Central Karnataka, cost the BJP many seats.

What this data reveals is that Congress’ performance in Karnataka has been somewhat stable, while the BJP’s vote share chart is more seesaw. There are variations in Congress votes, but no major swings. The BJP, on the other hand, has swings of performance that determine whether they get more or fewer seats than Congress. In 2018, it did poorly in Southern Karnakata (20%) and exceedingly well in Coastal Karnataka (51%).

2 The importance of sub-regions

A map of the results shows how Congress swept across the state. The BJP retained only a few clusters of seats in Coastal Karnataka and in Northern Karnataka. Otherwise, it has lost ground across the map.

The map also shows how much terrain the Janata Dal (Secular) has lost. Before this election, it considered the heart of Southern Karnataka its stronghold. Congress made impressive gains in that area.

Here again, one can compare maps between 2018 and 2023 or with the post-defection map. The map below shows that most defectors came from Southern Karnataka, both from Congress and BJP. Of the 14 defectors from that region who joined the BJP, all but one have been defeated.

In fact, the Congress scored some of its highest vote shares precisely in the region that was most affected by defections. It also did particularly well in Central Karnataka and within that region, in the cluster of Scheduled Tribe seats that border Andhra Pradesh (more on this later).

The BJP scored high vote shares in the two clusters it retained in Coastal and Northern Karnataka. It performed poorly in Southern and Central Karnataka. In fact, 31 of its candidates lost their deposit, for the most part in these two sub-regions. It even scores less than 5% of the votes in 11 seats.

The data becomes clearer when we break it down at the sub-regional level. With 67 million people, Karnataka is a large state, comparable in size to France. Its territory is divided into six political sub-regions that differ in terms of social composition, economic attributes, and political history

Breaking down vote share by sub-regions shows important variations. As usual, Congress’ votes are fairly distributed across sub-regions. But this year, it scored high in the two Northern sub-regions of Bombay and Hyderabad Karnataka, usually a BJP stronghold. This is the first indicator of anti-incumbency against the BJP.

There is more variation of performance for the BJP across regions. It did particularly poorly in Central Karnataka and in the South, a region in which it never had much presence to begin with. It scored higher than Congress in Bangalore and in Coastal Karnataka. The vote differences between the two parties oscillated between 2.2% in Bombay Karnataka and 17.9% in Southern Karnataka. The Janata Dal (Secular), without surprise, scored more in the South.

Looking at vote differences between 2018 and 2023 gives us a better picture of parties’ performance. The Congress has gained votes across regions. It has gained more votes in Southern Karnataka, where it took a lot of votes to Janata Dal (Secular), and even more so in Central Karnataka, where it increased its vote share by an impressive 9%.

The BJP increases vote share in only two sub-regions and loses ground everywhere else. The Janata Dal (Secular) lost votes in every region, but much more so in Bangalore and in Southern Karnataka, where it also had more votes to lose.

The differences in strike rates are significant. Congress won 75% of the seats in Central Karnataka, 66% of the seats in Bombay Karnataka and 63% of the seats in Southern Karnataka. These are figures the Congress party hasn’t seen in a long time.

The contrast of performances for the BJP are also clear. It lost half the seats it held in Bombay and Southern Karnataka, going from an 85% strike rate to a 68% strike rate in Coastal Karnataka, and lost most of its seats in Central Karnataka. It only gained seats in Bangalore, yet more that one should not look at the state capital to provide the state’s political weather.

The next two tables provide the details of seat gains and losses, again making the distinction between 2018 and the post-defections assembly.

Ironically, the same defections that brought the BJP to power through democratically dubious means in 2019 contributed now to enhance the amplitude of its defeat. BJP lost 19 seats in Bombay and Central Karnataka.

What we see so far is that BJP suffered significant losses in its strongholds, in the Lingayat belt and in Coastal Karnataka, a region dominated by the Other Backward Classes where communal polarisation became more entrenched over the years. This is indicative of a backlash across two pillars of BJP strength: Lingayat politics and Hindutva.

To get a sense of the Congress’ performance in Central Karnataka, one must look at the reservation status of constituencies. Reserved seats in Karnataka have a distinct spatial distribution pattern. While Scheduled Caste seats are scattered across regions, Scheduled Tribe seats are concentrated in the Central and Hyderabad sub-regions, in districts adjacent to Andhra Pradesh.

Fifteen of the 36 seats of Central Karnataka are reserved, and so are 11 of the 31 seats of Hyderabad Karnataka.

The Congress fared significantly better in reserved seats, particularly in Scheduled Tribes seats. This in itself does not necessarily tell us that Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes voters supported Congress cohesively, but it gives a strong indicator that many did, which match other analysis that Congress did better among populations more affected by economic hardship.

These are also incidentally areas through which Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra passed.

Political scientists Feyaad Allie and Resuf Ahmed found a correlation between the itinerary of the yatra and Congress performance. While other factors have contributed to the Congress success, the cumulation of these factors – reservation, rural areas, economic hardship and yatra – make for a compelling argument.

3 Local volatility is high

We now look below the sub-regional level to look at another important feature of Karnataka politics: local volatility. From one election to another, many seats keep changing hands.

The only regions where parties maintain some strongholds are in the South. The BJP consistently wins in Bangalore and its urban periphery, while the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) maintain a few strongholds in the surrounding Vokkaliga-dominated rural districts. As we already saw, a lot of these strongholds have seen a lot of reshuffling.

In 2023, 113 seats have changed hands, out of 224. The Congress took 77 of those seats, against 23 for the BJP. The Janata Dal (Secular) gained only 11 new seats. Despite the spectacular character of this election, this is a smaller number than in 2018, when 120 seats changed hands, mostly in favour of the BJP. In 2013, it was 126 seats that changed hands, at the time in favour of the Congress.

The number of seat changes, however, increases if one accounts for bypolls, mostly in Southern Karnataka, for reasons explained above. This means that regardless of the outcome, the majority of seats in Karnataka elections have been changing hands. Even parties that win large victories still lose quite a lot of seats. One difference this time is that seat changes are more widespread geographically than in 2018, owing to the bad performance of Janata Dal (Secular).

The flip side of seat change is seat retention. Here also, it depends whether we take bypolls into account or not. As we have indicated earlier, the BJP losses appear larger when one accounts for the additional seats they obtained after the 2018 election.

This distinction is also significant for the Janata Dal (Secular). Compared to 2018, it retained 8 seats. But if one includes bypolls in the picture, the Janata Dal (Secular) only retained two seats, in Chiknayakanhalli, in the South, and in Chikkodi-Sadalga, in the North. This gives a measure of how the decimation of the Janata Dal (Secular) had started well before this election.

4 Elections remain locally competitive

Even though the Congress’ victory is a sweep, many seats remained locally competitive. Sixty one seats were won with a margin inferior of 5%, which is the standard measure of close contests.

The closest margin of course is in Jayanagar, where BJP candidate CK Ramamurthy wrestled the seat by 16 votes on the fourth recount. The BJP in total won 26 of the 61 close contests, which means that its defeat could have easily been much worse. The Congress won 30 of these seats, which means that it could have easily ended closer to that uncomfortable place of negotiating for an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular).

These close contests were well distributed across sub-regions. The larger number is in Southern Karnataka, where Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) candidates often came close to one another.

Congress candidates won with crushing margins (on average) in Bangalore, Bombay and Southern Karnataka. Its victory margins in Coastal Karnataka are razor thin. They are even thinner for the BJP in Central, Hyderabad and Southern Karnataka.

The map reveals that victory margins were high in Scheduled Tribe seats in Central Karnataka, as well as on coastal district of Bombay Karnataka.

5 Participation is high

Voters have always turned out en masse in Karnataka election, a characteristic shared with its southern neighbours. Participation in 2023 is the highest recorded in Karnataka since 1978. There is enthusiasm for elections.

There is however a spatial distribution to turnout. As the map below shows, participation tends to be higher in Southern and Central Karnataka, and sensibly lower in the north, in the Lingayat belt. One could assume that politics being so dominated by Lingayats has the effect of depressing participation from members of other groups. But we can see at the same time that a similar degree of dominance by Vokkaligas in the South does not seem to have the same effect.

One can note also a pale patch in the South. Participation in Bangalore has always been much lower than the rest of the state. Participation in Bangalore as a region is 59.4%, well below the state average of 74%. In the urban segments of Bangalore, it is 54.8%. Years of voter mobilisation campaigns by civic organisations have produced little effect on the apathy of voters in Bangalore. Notably, participation in 2023 decreased when it is highest in the rest of the state, and increased where it was lowest in 2018.

6 Candidates matter

A sixth key aspect of Karnataka elections is that candidates matter. At a time where power in political parties has become hyper-concentrated, when party high-commands keep shuffling their candidates and when campaigns focus on the leader rather than the party itself, Karnataka stands out with regards to the importance of candidates.

The capacity of parties to retain seats depends largely on the strength of candidates. We saw that about half of MLAs manage to retain their seats over the years. This has produced a political class that has more cumulative experience than in most other states in India.

If 101 MLAs are making their first entry in the state assembly, the number of MLAs having served multiple terms is unusually high. 96 MLAs have served three terms or more. Sixteen of them have been elected for the fifth time or more.

The assembly veteran is former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, elected for the ninth time in Varuna. Siddaramaiah was elected first as an independent in 1983, then served three other terms in Chamundeswari on Janata tickets. He got re-elected there in 2006, in a bypoll, on a Congress ticket, and has since won in every election.

The percentage of first-time MLAs in the new assembly goes back to levels that were usual before the rise of the BJP.

A breakdown by party shows that most first-time MLAs were elected on Congress tickets, which is not surprising. Twenty eight of BJP’s 66 MLAs have also been elected for the first time.

This election saw the participation of 2,615 candidates, 656 of them on the tickets of major parties. Of them, 181 lost their deposits – 139 of them affiliated to the Janata Dal (Secular). The overall number of candidates has been going down, after a period of marked growth in the early 2000s.

The number of parties contesting, on the other hand, keeps increasing. A total of 92 parties contested the 2023 election compared to 86 five years ago. However, the number of parties represented remains very low. The three main parties occupy 220 of the 224 seats.

Two candidates were elected as independents, KH Puttaswamy Gowda in Gauribidanur and Latha Mallikarjun, a rare successful independent woman candidate, in Harapanahalli. The two other MLAs are G Janardhan Reddy, belonging to the Kalyana Rajya Pragathi Paksha and elected in Gangawati, and Dharshan Puttannaiah, elected on a Sarvodaya Karnataka Paksha ticket in Melukotte. All four of them are first-time MLAs.

Sitting MLAs get to re-run

A total of 156 sitting MLAs re-ran and 74 of them were re-elected. Of them, 82 were fielded by the BJP against 46 for Congress. This is a lower number of rerunning incumbents than usual. In previous elections, almost all MLAs got the opportunity to keep their seat.

This year, the Congress decided to field a large number of new candidates, while the BJP stuck to most of its sitting MLAs. The BJP thus faced the cumulative effect of anti-government incumbency and individual incumbency. The high number of re-running incumbents is another indicator that candidates matter. They have the strength to resist their party’s temptation to seek fresh faces.

But again, the local volatility of elections in Karnataka means than on average, a majority of re-running incumbent candidates lose. This year was no exception.

A culture of horse-trading

Horse-trading and a culture of political betrayal form a seventh characteristic of Karnataka politics. We have been spared the sad spectacle of resort politics this year, given the size of the Congress’ majority, but government formation in the past has been the object of must horse-trading. This is only the second majority government in Karnataka since 1989 (the other one was after the Congress victory in 2013).

Government majorities, are usually thin, which makes them vulnerable to predation, as we saw after the last elections, where 17 Congress and JD(S) legislators found it in their heart to leave their parties in power to join the BJP. Even before the fall of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) majority, in 2018, 148 candidates had switched sides, 71 fielded by the BJP. 19 of these turncoats came from Congress, 15 from the Janata Dal (Secular).

Until this year, most of the turncoats who come from major parties won (50 MLAs in 2018), which again shows how the local strength of candidates matters in Karnataka.

In 2023, only 31 turncoats came from major parties. The BJP fielded much fewer turncoats than in 2018. Even the Congress fielded fewer turncoats. In a way, those who would have been prone to jump ship already got an opportunity to do so earlier, during the 2019 defections. Nine of the 16 turncoats fielded by the Congress came from the BJP, including of course former Chief Minister Jagdish Shettar. Sevenof them won (but Jagdish Shettar did not). All nine turncoats fielded by the BJP lost.

As the chart below shows, jumping ship rarely pays off. Barring 1983 and 1983, the vast majority of all turncoats lose their gamble. This year was no exception. Only 16 of the 86 turncoats fielded by major parties won.

India’s richest politicians

Another factor that help MLAs to remain in the race is the huge cost of entry into politics in Karnataka. While we know that money is central to politics across India, even in parts of the country in which it did not use to be, Karnataka politicians are among the richest in the country, across parties.

In 2023, the average net assets declared by the candidates of the three main parties are staggeringly high. Congress candidates declared on average Rs 36 crore of assets, against Rs 31 crore for the BJP candidates and Rs 19 crore for Janata Dal (Secular) candidates. This is a rare case where Congress candidates in the opposition are richer than their BJP counterparts.

Revealingly, the average net assets of elected candidates are even higher. Congress MLAs declare on average Rs 46.5 crore of net assets, against Rs 34.5 crores for BJP MLAs. Even Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs catch up, with Rs 33.6 crores of average net assets.

Looking at the assets declared by MLAs in the past, one is struck by the recent increase. MLAs in 2023 declare nearly three times what they did five years ago. The wealth increase among Congress MLAs is particularly striking.

If this is a sign of things to come, it is extremely worrying. Money is a huge barrier to entry to politics, which disfavours aspiring candidates from the lower castes, minorities, and women candidates. Obviously, parties here are responsible for setting their recruitment criteria.

It’s all business

In most states, MLAs hide their actual occupation behind the labels of political or social work. Not in Karnataka. Here, 44% of all MLAs declare some form of business as their occupation. Only 22% declare to be farmers. 9% declare to belong to some liberal profession, mostly law or medical. Those numbers still hide the actual sources of income of politicians in Karnataka. It is very clear that the level of wealth they have amassed cannot come alone from their declared activities.

The share of businessmen MLAs is slightly higher in Congress (47%). But by and large, the occupational profile of MLAs across parties is similar.

The same observation applies if we consider candidates instead of MLAs

What this shows is that there is little class differentiation between the Congress, BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), even though they appeal to different class segments of the electorate. Party politics and electoral politics happen more and more in separate spheres.

This is also true with regards to caste. While we are still compiling data on the caste composition of the new assembly, we know that all parties favour Lingayats and Vokkaligas, even though these groups may align with specific parties. There is little sociological differentiation between the Congress and BJP, as they tend to select their candidates according to similar local calculations. The fact that they all recruit wealthy candidates contribute to the homogeneity of Karnataka’s political class. Parties do not feel compelled to provide representatives that actually resemble the people who vote for them.

7 Women and minorities

This logic finally extends to gender. Karnataka has one of the worst record in India when it comes to women’s representation. Optimists will celebrate the fact that the number of women elected in the state assembly has nearly doubled. The pessimist will note that even tough, going from 6 to 11 women in an assembly of 224 leaves women’s representation at 4%, which is abysmal.

In fact, the overall number of women candidates has decreased this year, from 219 to 185. The labour market is not the only place from where women’s participation is declining.

The three major parties have only fielded 36 women candidates, out of 656: 11 for the Congress, 12 for BJP and 13 for the Janata Dal (Secular). This is hardly more than in 2018, when 29 women contested on major party tickets.

In all, 111 constituencies had no women contestants at all, while 62 had only one woman contestant. Fiftenen seats had three women contestants and three constituencies – Kolar Gold, Yeshvanthapura and Jayanagar – had four women candidates.

Only two of the six women elected in 2018, Laxmi R. Hebbalkar and Kaneez Fatima, have been re-elected. Eight of them are first-time MLAs. Latha Mallikarjun is the first independent woman to ever get elected in Karnataka, in Harapanahalli. She is the daughter of former deputy chief minister, the late MP Prakash, and has already pledged support to the Congress. But still, the map of women’s representation continues to look like an archipelago of distant islands.


As we have seen, these elections have been a mix of usual and unusual politics. As usual, there was intense local volatility. Many sitting MLAs lost their seat. As usual, Karnataka MLAs are getting richer and richer and as usual, they look the same across parties.

What is unusual is the amplitude of the Congress’ victory. Six months ago, few would have ventured to predict such an outcome. This is a sweeping victory as the Congress gained and regained ground across all six subregions. The Congress’ large majority protects the new government from the predation that brought the BJP to power after the 2018 election. It would be very difficult for the BJP to bring this government down by engineering defections, especially since the Congress does not need the Janata Dal (Secular) as a coalition partner.

It is tempting to try to read in these elections signs of our political future. But in Karnataka, more so than most other states, state elections are not predictors of general ones. Karnakata in fact has been voting differently in state and national elections for a long time, usually favouring the dominant national parties in national elections, whereas they consider their regional options as well in state elections

It is easy to make declarations about the causes of success and defeat of parties after the fact. Instead of speculating on campaign effects, or leadership effects, or the effectiveness of planks and caste calculations or the Hindutva backlash, here are a few factual observations.

The BJP tends to lose state elections when it is opposed by a party that incarnate an alternative form of regional, collective identity. The Congress in Karnataka does precisely that. For all practical purposes, it is a regional party. It has It has recognisable leaders who play the regionalist card. The party is led not by one but by several strong regional leaders. The party unit is not under the influence of the high command in Delhi.

For all its might, the BJP is yet to build its own regional identity in Karnataka. Of course, it has succeeded in aligning itself with a dominant set of Lingayat communities in the North, but that is a sub-regional narrow identity. Its leadership is divided, controlled by Delhi. In this election, the BJP led a national campaign, projecting national leadership, national policies, national issues, while the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) focused on regional matters: redistributive policies, corruption, regional leadership. Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised Rahul Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi put himself at the service of regional leaders and spoke of common issues.

In that sense, the Karnataka election offers the opposition a template of how the BJP can be defeated. It remains to be seen whether the formula adopted by the Congress can work elsewhere or can even be replicated in a national election. But it shows that dominance never lasts forever, and that the competitiveness of Indian elections always prevail.

Poulomi Ghosh, Maleeha Fatima, Srishti Gupta, Puneet Arya and Shivam Gangwani are researchers at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Gilles Verniers is Director, TCPD, and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.