The 2017 Punjab Assembly elections have seen the Congress return to power after 10 years, giving some much-needed relief to a party that has been steadily losing its grip over the country since its defeat in the 2014 general elections.

However, a close examination of data from the state shows that the party’s decisive victory in Punjab, where it won 77 out of 117 seats, was decided by factors mostly out of the Congress’ control: the irruption of the Aam Aadmi Party on Punjab’s political stage and strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, which is was in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.

Beyond this, not much has changed between 2014 and 2017 in terms of the parties’ vote shares, but smaller variations have had enormous consequences, changing the balance of power in Punjab.

Stable turnout

Punjab traditionally registers high turnout in state elections (with the exception of the 1992 elections, which were boycotted by several factions of the Akali Dal). The voter turnout in the last three elections has been stable, near 78%. The introduction of a new player – AAP – did not boost participation and the turnout this year was around 77.4%. This year, as in 2012, women have outvoted men by a slight margin. The equal participation of men and women voters in elections is significant in a state that has among the worst sex ratios in the country.

Gains and losses

A record 53 parties contested the 2017 elections, even though only five eventually will be represented in the Assembly. Compared to 2012, two new parties have made their entry in the state assembly: AAP and the Lok Insaaf Party, a party from Ludhiana led by brothers Balwinder and Simarjeet Singh Bains, both Independent MLAs. Since early 2000, the competition in the state had been getting narrower because of voters’ unwillingness to waste their vote to candidates or parties that stand no chance of winning.

In terms of performance, while Congress led with a vote share of 38.5%, this was 1.5% less than its share in the 2012 state elections.

Despite this, the party won because the Akali Dal’s vote share, dropped sharply, from 34.7% in 2012 to 25.2% while the BJP’s declined from 7.2% to 5.4%.

There were two key reasons for the decline of the Akali Dal: the anti-incumbency wave and the rise of AAP, which nearly matched the party’s share, with 23.7% votes.

Volatility on the ground

The general elections of 2014 was the first time the AAP floated candidates in Punjab. When compared to their performance in the year, we see that the party maintained its vote share but lost 22 of the 33 Assembly segments it had won in 2014.

In all, the party won 20 seats, of 11 were from the areas it won in 2014, while nine were new segments. The Akalis, too, maintained their 2014 vote share but lost 22 of the 29 assembly segments that they had won that year, for a new total of 15 seats.

In other words, the vote share has been similar, but these elections have seen considerable volatility on the ground.

This is confirmed by a simple measure of volatility, which shows the distribution of gains and losses for a party in an election. For instance, the chart below shows us that the BJP’s decline in the state uniform. With the exception of Abohar, where the BJP candidate got 35% more than in 2012, the party’s vote share has dropped across the seats it contested.

The same goes for the Akali Dal, who strengthened their presence in just five of 94 seats they contested. The distribution of losses shows the amplitude of the decline. In Amritsar South, the party lost 35% of vote share – from 53% of the votes in 2012, it won just 17.8% in this election.

The Congress throws up a mixed bag. Over all, the party’s vote share dipped. But the Congress made impressive gains in urban seats, such as in Amritsar East (a 32.5% increase), Dera Bassi (+32%), Mukerian (+31%) and Pathankot (+25%) – broadly, the Majha sub-region. But the party’s vote share also dipped significantly in a number of rural seats in the Malwa and Doab regions.

Votes and seats

What made the difference in these elections is the configuration of the distribution of votes, or how they translated to seats.

India follows the first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the most votes in a given constituency wins the seat, while the rest of the votes are effectively rendered void – meaning its the number of seats and not the number of votes overall that decide the winning party. If the votes are divided more or less evenly between parties, the conversion of votes to seats is proportional. But if a major player loses substantial vote share a party could win despite, it reinforces the disproportionality of the system in favour of the dominant party.

In this case, the collapse of the Akali Dal-BJP alliance enabled the Congress to convert its vote share into a disproportionately large seat share. With 65.8% of the seats, the Congress had seen its best performance in Punjab since 1957 (excluding 1992, which was an outlier year due to the boycott), despite a slightly lower vote share.

The BJP and the Akali Dal, meanwhile, were left with just 15% of the seats, a historic low for the alliance.

A comparison with the 2014 seat shares also shows how small variations can have large repercussions in terms of seat distribution.

Strike rates indicate how the parties have fared in an alliance. If the parties’ strike rates are dissimilar, one partner drags the other down. In the case of Punjab this year, when compared to 2012 and 2014, both the BJP and the Akali Dal’s strike rates had collapsed.

The main reason for the AAP’s relatively poor performance was that its vote share was concentrated in the central Malwa region, as seen in the second map.

Caste churn?

Did the Akali Dal’s poor performance affect the caste composition of the Assembly?

Not much. Representational trends in Punjab have been somewhat stable over the years, with Jatt Sikhs occupying a dominant position in the Assembly, as they are well represented within the Akali Dal and the Congress. The emergence of the AAP brings a bit more more diversity to the Assembly, with nine of its MLAs from the scheduled caste, four from other backward classes and two upper castes. But overall, the caste equation in the Assembly remains the same.

Setback to women’s representation

The 2017 Punjab elections effectively bring to a end a 32-year trend of increasing women’s representation in Punjab.

In 2012, Punjab was among the better states in terms of women representation, with 12% of the seats won by female candidates. This year, just 5% of the winning candidates are women, its lowest since 1992. All major parties share equal responsibility for this sorry state of affairs.

Who hurt whom?

This data does not yet enable us to say with certainty AAP dented specifically or essentially into the support base of the Akali Dal. It is assumed this happened because AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal pandered to the Sikh vote base of the Akali Dal by engaging them through symbols, not the least of which was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – who was killed on June 6, 1984, during the Golden Temple attack ordered by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress. Bhindranwale featured in some of AAP’s posters, stoking a controversy. But the Congress also suffered a number substantial losses in seats where AAP was the main opponent.

However, the main competition was still between the Akali Dal-BJP and the Congress candidates. The the former ruling alliance won in 18 seats, its candidates trailed in 62 seats, while the AAP stood second in only 26 seats (but won 20).

This election also saw the further erosion of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s dwindling base in Punjab. Its vote share has gone down from 4.3% in 2012 to 1.5% this year, possibly in part because a part of the Dalit vote shifted towards the AAP.

These elections also confirmed that Punjab is its own political stage, relatively unaffected by national trends. In 2014, the Modi wave stopped at the border of Punjab, with the BJP winning only two Lok Sabha seats (the Akali Dal won four). In 2017 too, Punjab was the only state that bucked the BJP wave – the party stormed to power in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and is likely to form the government in Manipur and Goa too, which saw hung assemblies.

The Congress, no doubt, will welcome its victory in Punjab after the routs in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. But the data shows that this was in part because the AAP’s entry and the rejection of the Akali Dal-BJP combine created a void that the Congress could fill without improving its vote share. Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh certainly takes credit for keeping a leaking boat afloat, but the party’s ability to re-emerge at a national level because of this victory remains questionable.

The Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, produces, disseminates and analyses scientifically collected and treated data to aid research on political processes.