The Karnataka elections produced a verdict that both Congress and BJP can claim to have won. The BJP has emerged as the largest party in terms of seats but has been beaten by the Congress in terms of votes. The Congress can compensate for its poorer seat performance by stitching a post-electoral alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular).

A rapid analysis of the data shows how contrasted the results of these elections are. The BJP certainly did produce the most impressive performance, both in terms of progression in votes and geographical presence. It swept the areas that are not dominated by either the Lingayat or the Vokkaliga communities, notably central Karnataka, and gave stiff competition in the Lingayat-dominated belt in the northern parts of the state.

The Janata Dal (Secular) consolidated its southern Vokkaliga bastion and grabbed some seats in the North, while the Congress appears scattered on the map, even though it has mostly won its own seats with considerably higher victory margins. If anything, local factors have played out considerably in these elections, which no one clearly swept nor lost.

A record turnout

Participation in the 2018 Karnataka elections reached an all-time high of 72.4%, just 1% higher than in 2013.

There is, however, a marked difference in the turnout between the South and the North of Karnataka. The areas where the Janata Dal (Secular) scored have registered a much higher turnout than the rest of the state, notching above 84%. The northern districts, Lingayat-dominated, registered a more tepid participation.

The turnout figures by sub-region further verify these variations. The Hyderabad Karnataka sub-region appears to be well below the state average.

The situation in the north of the state was not as poor as in the state capital. The 26 seats of Bengaluru (excluding Bengaluru Rural) registered an average participation of 55.5%. Bengaluru South registered a 28.6% turnout. Participation is seen to be lower in the outskirts of the city.

There is also a correlation between the type of constituency and participation. Reserved seats have seen more participation than general seats, which is generally the case across India.

A tighter competition

The number of contesting political parties is ever increasing: 85 parties (excluding independents) contested these elections, but only six succeeded in winning seats.

The cumulative vote share and therefore seat share of major parties is usually very high in Karnataka, which signals that the political space available to small players and outsiders is greatly reduced.

2013 was something of an exception, due to BS Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Party adventure, which dented the BJP’s vote share. The total number of individuals contesting the elections fell from nearly 3,000 to 2,600. The centrality of money in Karnataka elections filters out many aspiring politicians, probably to a greater extent than in other states.

BJP’s comeback

2013 had been an upsetting year for the BJP, which saw its own former chief minister lead a dissident faction. Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat leader and now the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, had floated the party in 2012 after the BJP asked him to resign as chief minister following corruption allegations against him related to illegal mining.

The BJP lost 14 percentage points in this episode. In 2018, the BJP gained more than 16% of the vote share, which has propelled it back to its previous upward trend.

It is worth noting that the BJP never beat the Congress in terms of vote share. Not even in 2018, where the vote-seat differential was high. In 2018, the Congress gained nearly 3% of the vote share, which is remarkable for an incumbent government.

A sub-regional analysis reveals that the BJP tends to have its vote share more concentrated in certain parts of the state, contrary to the Congress, which has a more uniform presence across the state.

This basically means that the BJP often gets a better strike rate – or votes to seat conversion – since it tends to have its vote concentrated in important areas. In Coastal Karnataka, the BJP is 11 points ahead of the Congress. In the Bombay-Karnataka region, it is five points ahead of the Congress.

The Congress outperformed the BJP in Hyderabad-Karnataka, in southern Karnataka (where the BJP is usually weaker) and in central Karnataka. The greater geographical concentration of vote share for the BJP explains how it could convert more seats from a lower vote share than the Congress.

The Janata Dal (Secular) sub-regional data confirms what we already knew, which is that the Janata Dal (Secular) is more of a sub-regional caste party than a regional party. It consolidated its hold over southern Karnataka, a Vokkaliga belt, with nearly 41% of the vote share. It otherwise played spoiler to both Congress and the BJP in the Bangalore region and in central Karnataka.

The Karnataka see-saw

The following seat share charts well illustrate the Karnataka see-saw, or the fact that no incumbent government ever gets re-elected.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, the competition was essentially bipolar, fought between Congress and the socialists. Divisions among the socialists and the rise of the BJP in the early 2000s have given rise to a three-corner competition. The Janata Dal (Secular)’s seat share has essentially been stable since its foundation in 1999, when it split with the Janata Dal (United) over their alliance with the NDA.

The BJP has missed the majority bar by 3.15%. It is still not as close as 2008, where it fell short of the majority by two seats (49.1% of seat share).

The following charts show where the BJP made its strongest progress. While it made gains everywhere (but Bengaluru), it swept central and coastal Karnataka, two regions where the Lingayat or Vokkaliga factors are less strong.

The Congress collapsed particularly in coastal Karnataka, again where the competition was more open, at least in terms of caste.

In the Vokkaliga-dominated South, the Janata Dal (Secular) consolidated its bastion, bagging nearly 55% of the seats in a compact cluster.

The geography of the results comes across more clearly in the following map, which indicates the progress made by the BJP. The Congress appears scattered in the North and the South, while the BJP swept entire sub-regions between these two extremities.

The map also reveals that the Janata Dal (Secular) could wrest a few seats in the North.

In Bengaluru, the verdict is fractured between the Congress which won 13 seats, the BJP which won 11 seats, and the Janata Dal (Secular), which grabbed the remaining two seats of Dasaharalli and Mahalakshmi Layout. The city’s most affluent areas seem to have gone with the BJP.

Decisive local victories for Congress

Party-wise average victory margins indicate how competitive the elections were at the constituency-level. The following chart indicates that wherever Congress won, it did so with much larger victory margins than its opponents. The Congress won most of its seats decisively, with victory margins reaching an average of 30% in coastal Karnataka, 24% in South Karnataka and 22% in Bombay Karnataka.

The Janata Dal (Secular) won its seats outside its bastion with considerably lower victory margins.

The elusive minorities

Two social categories remain under-represented, despite recording a growing number of candidates.

274 Muslims contested the 2018 election, a slightly smaller number than 2013. The main parties, however, fielded only 41 Muslim candidates, of whom seven won, all on Congress tickets. The Congress distributed 17 tickets to Muslim candidates, against 13 for the Janata Dal (Secular), while the BJP distributed none.

Finally, these elections confirm the status of Karnataka as one of the worst states in India with regard to women representation. As many as 202 women contested the 2018 elections, although only 28 were fielded by the three major parties.

As a result, only six women were elected, a number that has somewhat plateaued since the mid-1990s. Two of them, Kaneez Fatima (Gulbarga Uttar, Congress) and Shashikala Annasaheb Jolle (Nippani, BJP) were incumbent MLAs. The other four are first-time MLAs.

The absence of women in the Karnataka Assembly indicates that women representation is not a function of how well a state performs on human development indicators, or with overall economic performance, or literacy figures. Politics in Karnataka is profoundly misogynistic, more so than in many other less-developed parts of the country. It is not simply a rural phenomenon. The last woman to have been elected in Bengaluru was Shobha Karandlaje (Yeshvanthapura, BJP) in 2008.

Implications for 2019?

This election is hard to read since it presents the perfect mix of national and regional factors. Both Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned extensively. Both parties had strong regional leadership as well.

The verdict does not point to a clear winner. The BJP put up one of its greatest performances but fell short of a majority. This is a disappointment for a party that has become used to clean sweeps.

Siddaramaiah’s Congress put up an honourable performance as well, gaining 3% of vote share as the incumbent. Although the geographical distribution played against it, the Congress can compensate for this by forging a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular).

The Janata Dal (Secular) has emerged as the better-off party in these elections. Many observers and commentators had written it off, anticipating these elections to be a bipolar fight between Congress and the BJP. Not only did the Janata Dal (Secular) do well in its bastions, but it proved to be competitive in various pockets beyond its traditional strongholds. It has retained its favoured position of kingmaker and is likely to make the most of this opportunity.

These elections demonstrate that only alliances can defeat the BJP in 2019. One can speculate that the results of this election might have been very different had the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) decided to go to the polls together. The Congress is lucky this time to even have an opportunity to haul itself to power through a post-poll coalition.

A pre-poll alliance might have helped the Congress to present itself as the necessary cornerstone of a national anti-BJP alliance. What is more likely to happen is that these alliance decisions will be taken state by state, out of the pragmatic calculations of regional players. The Congress may not be in a position to dictate the terms of an alliance in many places.

Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre of Political Data, Ashoka University. Sudheendra Hangal, Basim-U-Nissa, Sudesh Prakash Singh, Shivangi Tikekar and Mohit Kumar contributed to the data. Raw data available at