The three-tier approach to electoral politics

As Himachal Pradesh has already voted last Sunday to decide the fate of Prof P. K. Dhumal led BJP government, it must be noted that this small hill state has never enjoyed such limelight in the national media in the past.

The reason why everybody’s eyes were on Himachal is quite simple – the grand old party of India, Congress, is probably facing the biggest credibility crisis in its more than 125 year old history and is probably headed for a worst possible defeat in the future national elections. In this dark scenario Himachal Pradesh offers a small string of hope for the Congress party, especially because it is unlikely to improve upon its performance in the other state election of Gujarat which will also go to polls in a month’s time.

On the other hand, for the main opposition party, the BJP, a victory in Gujarat is almost a foregone conclusion because of its strong state government. Yet to become a viable alternative to the Congress at the centre, it must also win Himachal Pradesh, not only to prevent Congress and the Congress-friendly media presenting a status-quo scenario of a 1 each victory in this round of elections, but also to re-assure the neutral voters that the Gujarat victory may not just be a flash in the pan and is in fact a continuing theme of BJP’s national ascendancy.

Battle royale for the aam aadmi

Although there are multiple players in the fray and almost all the 68 assembly segments might witness multi-cornered fights, essentially, the fight is between the two major national parties; the Congress and the BJP.

This is also a fight of contrasting styles, ideologies and to some extent even geographical delineations of the demography.

Congress represents the royalty of the hill state as it has not only fielded more than half a dozen former royals, but also the party in the state is led by a quintessential royal himself, his highness, Raja Sahib Virbhadra Singh. BJP in the hill state is seen as a party of commoners and after the severing of its ties with the former Raja of Kullu, Maheshwar Singh, the party has fielded a common man against each of the royals from the Congress stable.

The hill state is also divided geographically as Upper Himachal and lower Himachal. Upper Himachal is broadly made up of mostly upper hill and mid hill ranges of the original Himalayan kingdoms, whereas the lower Himachal part consists of valleys that were mostly part of the erstwhile greater Punjab state (in the pre-independence era). In the classical Himachal parlance, upper Himachal is said to be a Congress stronghold, whereas the lower part is known for BJP dominance; such delineation no longer holds much water, as we shall see later.

Ideologically, Congress party was seen to be more of an apple economy entity along with a favourable stance towards the large government employees lobby. Whereas the BJP was seen more as a liberalized, business friendly entity inimical to increased government spending. But again, these ideological lines are blurred in 2012 as the Dhumal government has balanced between its progressive stance and in keeping the state employees happy.

Six Zing Factors impacting HP-2012 (Tier 1)

  1. The cyclical anti-incumbent nature of the hill-state is a well-known fact and needs no further elaboration; suffice it to say that no government has ever been re-elected in the history of Himachal Pradesh. This has to do with the inherent Himachali psyche that believes in keeping everybody happy, thereby giving a chance at government formation to each party alternately.
    Electoral
    Weightage – 15%

Congress:
is in an obvious advantageous position because it is now its turn to win the polls. Undecided & neutral voters tend to mechanically vote for the party in the opposition. Score = 15%

BJP:
The biggest problem for the party is convincing the undecided non-core voters that their vote will not be wasted if exercised for BJP, because history is against them. Score = 0%

  1. Price rise is probably the single biggest factor that will decide the eventual result of Himachal elections because the people of the hill-state and their laid back, slow life-styles are inherently more sensitive to even marginal increase in inflationary pressures. Electoral
    Weightage – 25%

Congress:
In at least 2 major opinion polls conducted in the state it has been elucidated that more than 2/3rd (65%) of the voters believe that the central government is responsible for the price-rise. Also the 6 cylinder LPG cap per family announced by the union government has definitely not gone down well with the people. Score = 5%

BJP:
The well-publicized state government promise of a free induction chulah for each household has made a big impact in the electoral arena, especially in these times of high inflation. Opinion polls and ground reports also suggest that less than 30% of the voters actually blame the state government for the price rise issue. Score = 20%

  1. Rebel factor: In 2007 a whopping 60% or 42 out of 68 assembly seats were won by a margin of less than 5000 votes, of these 22 (32%) assembly seats had a winning margin of less than 2500 votes. In such low margin elections the presence of “others” and rebels can make or mar the chances of any party.
    Electoral Weightage – 20%

Congress:
one out of every three assembly segments that are going to polls on December 4th has a strong Congress rebel in the fray (i.e.) a whopping 22 constituencies are home to both an official Congress nominee and a strong rebel. A vast majority of those rebels (as high as 80%) are either sponsored by Virbhadra Singh or are former camp followers of Raja Sahib. Winning a state assembly election with so many rebels is almost impossible in India, especially, more so in a low-margin state like Himachal Pradesh. Score = 10%

BJP:
Although the number of strong BJP rebels in the fray as independents is far lesser when compared to Congress (numbering about 8), the ruling party’s problems are possibly even more precarious because of the presence of HLP. Maheshwar Singh, the scion of Kullu royal family and three time state unit president of the BJP has launched the Himachal Lokhit Party after quitting the BJP over differences with P.K. Dhumal. HLP has put up 35 candidates and is hoping to play the role of a kingmaker in the event of a hung assembly. The silver-lining for the BJP is that the presence of HLP is likely to affect both BJP as well as Congress and might actually turnout to be a boon in disguise to the ruling party – as was witnessed in the neighbouring Punjab elections this year. Score = 10%

  1. Central government anti-incumbency is a relatively new phenomenon that has begun to impact state elections. The UPA 2 government’s humungous corruption and mal-governance is like an elephant in the room that the voter simply cannot afford to miss.
    Electoral Weightage: 10%

Congress:
Although difficult to quantify this anger against the central government; anecdotal evidence, opinion polls and ground reports suggest that the UPA shenanigans will impact at least 15-20% of all the voters in the hill state – that could prove to be fatal for the Congress party. Score = 0%

BJP:
This is an obvious advantage for the BJP in a bipolar state like Himachal Pradesh. Score = 10%

  1. Historically, government employees of Himachal Pradesh have been notoriously anti-incumbent in nature and are always the first set of the demography that turns against the government.
    Electoral Weightage – 10%

Congress:
has had a historical advantage among the government employee lobbies of the state because it is perceived to be inherently leftist in its approach. This stranglehold over government employees has been weakening over the years and the present BJP government has made deep inroads into that territory. Score = 5%

BJP:
The P K Dhumal government has played Santa Claus to the state government employees by increasing their arrears and bonuses although some grey areas remain – like the inability to create more jobs and the delay in promoting the contract job holders into permanent government employees, etc. Score = 5%

  1. Upper v/s Lower Himachal penetration of both the parties is another crucial factor that will have an impact on the overall outcome of the polls.
    Electoral Weightage – 20%

Congress:
Although the party is widely presumed to be a Shimla based party, it does have pockets of influence in other parts of the state. But for Congress to win an election it has to hold on to its strong areas which constitute the 4 districts of Shimla, Solan, Sirmour & Kullu and then perform better than BJP in the mid-hill districts of Mandi, Bilaspur & Hamirpur. Unfortunately, Congress is not doing as well in 3 out of the 4 upper-hill districts as it would have hoped for; it is holding on to Shimla district though. Even in the mid-hill districts Congress is trailing BJP this time around, as it did in 2007. The only silver-lining for the party could be its penetration into the BJP’s stronghold areas of lower-hill region, especially, Kangra. Score = 5%

BJP:
Although BJP seems to be losing some seats in its stronghold lower Himachal areas, it is more than making it up by winning elsewhere. Thus the reverse penetration strategy of Dhumal seems to be working more coherently for the BJP than the Congress would have hoped for. Instead of over-concentrating on the big three districts of Kangra, Mandi & Shimla, BJP has strategically targeted 6 smaller districts; Hamirpur, Bilaspur, Sirmaur, Solan, Kullu & Una – widely perceived to be a Anurag Thakur strategy that is bearing fruits on the ground. Score = 15%

Inference (Tier 1):
BJP seems to enjoy a slight advantage on account of three important factors; price-rise, central government anti-incumbency and ground strategy; in an otherwise evenly contested battle. Congress’ best hope lies in the personal charisma of the five time chief-minister and state unit president of the party, Virbhadra Singh. Eventually, putting all the onus on just 1 person to overcome all odds might prove to be a herculean task, if not an impossible feat even for Raja Sahib.

Reading the tealeaves of voting percentages (Tier 2)

Since there is an unusually long interval between polling and counting of votes – a whopping 45 days – the one readymade indicator that can give us some inkling as to which way Himachal is tilting is the voter participation in the election process. This time Himachal has seen record voting across the state and usually in the Indian electoral scenario high voter turnout means anti-incumbency. Thus conventional wisdom tells us that Himachal Pradesh is headed for a regime change; for instance in 2007 a 71.69% voter turnout replaced the Congress government with that of BJP. Thus empirical evidence from 1998 onwards suggests it is advantage Congress this time around.

Unfortunately, for the Congress party it is not so simple, because a further analysis of the voter turnout gives a more uncertain picture. But first let us take a look at the historic voter turnout percentages.

Year of Polls

Vote Percentage

Result of elections

1977

58.57%

Janata Party swept the polls & INC was decimated

1982

71.06%

Congress won 2 seats more than BJP & formed a govt.

1985

70.36%

Congress swept back to power in mid-term polls

1990

67.76%

BJP swept the elections

1993

71.50%

Congress won a big majority

1998

71.23%

Both BJP & INC won 31 seats, but BJP formed the govt.

2003

74.51%

Congress swept the polls

2007

71.61%

BJP swept the polls

2012

73.92%

Results yet to be announced

[Data Source: Election Commission of India]

First of all the myth that Himachal Pradesh is an anti-incumbent state in its electoral nature needs to be busted, for not only has the incumbent government won the elections twice since 1977, but also the incumbent party has formed the government twice consecutively. In 1982 & 1985 (mid-term polls) Congress won the elections consecutively and formed the state governments (headed by Thakur Ramlal and Virbhadra Singh). Even in 1998 Congress did not lose the electoral battle because it won the same number of seats as the BJP despite the presence of Sukh Ram’s party that dented the Congress vote-share – it is just that the BJP formed the government with HVC.

Now let us look at the total electorate in Himachal Pradesh in terms of absolute numbers and understand the changes in the last four elections.

Year of Polls Total Electorate Increase in No: of Voters Increase in percentage of voters

1998

3628864

351239*

10.71%*

2003

4101093

472229

13.01%

2007

4604443

503350

12.27%

2012

4533713

-70730

-1.5%

[Data Source: Election Commission of India] *1993 total electorate = 3277625

On an average, Himachal’s gross electorate has been increasing by 12% every five years, except for this time (2012), when the election commission undertook an exercise of massive cleansing of voter rolls which has resulted in a negative growth of -1.5%. Thus, in effect, 13% votes have been removed from the system, which means the actual voting percentage in comparison to the previous elections is not just 73.92% this time, but in fact it is lesser by about 13% – roughly 60% – when the electorate inflation is taken into consideration.

Keeping in mind the fact that the overall vote-share difference between the winning and the losing party is in the range of 3% to 5% (around 1/3rd of the 12% figure), it becomes impossible to accurately predict whether or not anti-incumbency is at play in the classical sense. Usually, in the Indian state elections 70%+ voting is considered as inherently anti-incumbent in nature. But when the vote percentage goes down into 60%+ territory it could mean a lot of things; 1) outrage against the central government, 2) a positive vote for the sitting government or 3) fragmented verdict due to the presence of other smaller players etc. (For instance, in the neighbouring state of Punjab despite a high voter turnout of 78.20% just a few months ago had resulted in an unprecedented second term for SAD-BJP government).

HP Polls

Total Votes Cast

No: of votes added (compared to previous polls)

1998

2584784

*241171

2003

3055710

470926

2007

3297252

241542

2012

3346590

49338

[Data Source: Election Commission of India] *1993 polls Total votes cast = 2343613

In terms of gross votes, the actual increase has reduced by almost 80% in 2012. What it means is that about 2 to 3 lakh fewer votes were cast in 2012. The fact that 42 assembly constituencies had a margin of 5000 votes or less in 2007 elections means that these 2-3 lakh votes can possibly alter the outcomes in these 42 constituencies. The absence of such a large number of voters must also be seen in the context of multi-cornered fights due to the presence of others and smaller parties, which may again prove to be beneficial to ruling parties – as the already smaller pie of anti-incumbent votes gets further divided into various players.

District-wise electorate and voter turnout    

This relationship between increase in voter turnout and the decrease in additional electorate is not just a pan-Himachal phenomenon, but is also seen at the micro-level across all regions, districts and assembly segments.

District

2007

2012

Turnout %

Tot. Electorate

Turnout%

Tot. Electorate

Kangra

70.46%

1080896

71.80%

1061236

Mandi

74.18%

696132

75.59%

689195

Shimla

65.37%

543247

69.10%

516538

Una

72.20%

363519

73.87%

351492

Hamirpur

66.08%

354224

69.23%

346901

Solan

73.71%

323965

77.65%

330959

Chamba

73.44%

321966

75.63%

316085

Sirmaur

77.82%

308897

79.86%

309402

Bilaspur

71.83%

270375

73.25%

271103

Kullu

74.55%

270288

78.86%

267509

Kinnaur

70.69%

49125

74.28%

51383

Lahaul-Spiti

73.62%

22809

74.97%

21910

[Data Source: CEO Election Commission of Himachal Pradesh]

As is evident from the above table, there has been a secular increase in voting percentage across all districts, roughly in the range of 1.5% to 4%. This increase might, at the outset, tell us that there is probably anti-incumbency at play here, but the actual analysis of the numbers tell us a different story altogether.

For instance Mandi district has 10 assembly segments, of which BJP had won 6, Congress 3 and Independents 1 in 2007 when the voting percentage was 74.18%. In 2003, there was almost a role reversal when the Congress party had won 5 seats in Mandi district, while BJP had managed to win only 2 assembly segments – the voting percentage in the district in 2003 was 75.77%. Now let us consider the electoral calculus in gross numbers.

Mandi District

Electorate

Voter Turnout

Percentage increase

2003

623369

472386

20.76%*

2007

696132

516396

9.31%

2012

689195

520994

0.89%

[Data Source CEO Election Commission of Himachal Pradesh] *In 1998 turnout = 391160

When taken in terms of actual number of votes, 2012 elections, in fact, saw the number of electorate decreasing marginally and the voter turnout only increasing by less than 1%. Historically, Mandi has seen successful anti-incumbency when voter-turnouts have increased by a minimum of 10%. Conversely it could also be argued that a lower or nil increase in actual voter turnout could possibly mean status-quo for the incumbent party in the district. This above phenomenon holds good in almost all the districts of Himachal Pradesh.

Women voters of Himachal Pradesh

Another continuing theme in Himachal elections has been the women voters out voting the men voters. This trend has continued in 2012 too. A bigger percentage of women votes is also potentially advantageous to the BJP because price-rise, especially of the cooking gas (LPG), was a big issue in the hill state during 2012 elections.

Male votes 2012

Female votes 2012

Total votes 2012

1665528

1681062

3346590

[Data Source: CEO Election Commission of Himachal Pradesh]

Inference (Tier 2): Although higher voter turnout means anti-incumbency in a conventional political sense, the reduction in the total electorate as compared to the previous elections complicates the matters. At the outset, tier 2 of the electoral analysis based on voter turnout alone gives a slight advantage to the Congress party, but a deeper analysis almost nullifies that advantage.

Battleground Himachal Pradesh (Tier 3)

Now that we have already examined the six Zing-Factors and the voter turnout impact, it is time to take a look at the electoral landscape of Himachal Pradesh. Conventional wisdom suggests that Himachal has 3 important electoral districts – Kangra, Mandi & Shimla – and any party that wins at least 2 of these 3 districts wins the state. These 3 districts contribute a total of 33 assembly seats or almost 50% of the Himachal assembly. Usually, Shimla is considered as a Congress stronghold and Kangra as BJP’s, while Mandi is the district where both parties had almost equal strength in the past. This time too Congress party is expected to win a majority of seats in Shimla, but there are some questions about BJP’s ability to win a large number of seats in Kangra. Yet, BJP is strong in Mandi this time and is looking at an alternate strategy of winning 6 small districts to augment its lead in Mandi.

After having analysed all the 12 districts and 68 assembly segments in Zilla-Orbit, it was evident that BJP had a slight advantage of two seats –BJP 22 & INC 20. Below is the updated list after polling day reports and the changed dynamics in the last 2 days of electioneering.

BJP leaning seats

Battleground seats

Congress leaning seats

  1. Hamirpur
  1. Nadaun
  1. Arki
  1. Sujanpur
  1. Paonta Sahib
  1. Kasauli
  1. Bhoranj (SC)
  1. Chintpurni (SC)
  1. Pachhad (SC)
  1. Barsar
  1. Gagret
  1. Shillai
  1. Doon
  1. Bhattiyat
  1. Haroli
  1. Nalagarh
  1. Anni (SC)
  1. Churah (SC)
  1. Solan
  1. Lahul-Spiti
  1. Bharmour (ST)
  1. Nahan
  1. Jubbal-Kotkhai
  1. Ghumarwin
  1. Sri Renukaji (SC)
  1. Kasumpti
  1. Sri Naina Deviji
  1. Una
  1. Theog
  1. Banjar
  1. Kutlehar
  1. Karsog (SC)
  1. Kinnaur
  1. Chamba
  1. Sundernagar
  1. Shimla Rural
  1. Dalhousie
  1. Fatehpur
  1. Chopal
  1. Jhanduta (SC)
  1. Jaisinghpur (SC)
  1. Rampur (SC)
  1. Bilaspur
  1. Kangra
  1. Rohru (SC)
  1. Manali
 
  1. Darang
  1. Shimla
 
  1. Balh (SC)
  1. Nachan (SC)
 
  1. Indora (SC)
  1. Seraj
 
  1. Jawali
  1. Jogindernagar
 
  1. Nagrota
  1. Mandi
 
  1. Palampur
  1. Dharampur
 
  1. Baijnath
  1. Sarkaghat
 
  1. Jaswan-Pragpur
  1. Dehra
   
  1. Jawalamukhi
   
  1. Shahpur
   
  1. Dharamshala
   
  1. Sullah
   

[Note: Kullu & Nurpur have been excluded from this list as those two seats have “others” as frontrunners]

Inference (Tier 3): The 15 battleground seats will decide who forms the next government in Himachal Pradesh, but it is definitely advantage BJP as the party needs to win only 7 seats out of those 15 battleground seats whereas Congress needs to win at least 12 out of those 15 seats. Further analysis of those 15 battleground seats tells us that in 9 seats the contest is directly between Congress and BJP. In 4 seats Congress is fighting a strong non-BJP candidate and in 2 seats it is the other way round (i.e.) BJP is fighting a strong non-Congress candidate.

Pan-Himachal Vote-Share since 2007

It is significant that BJP has maintained a gap of 4% since the 2007 elections with or without the presence of strong “others” in the fray. This vote-gap becomes even more significant when seen in the background of unchanged gross electorate numbers in 2012 (in fact, marginal decline is observed).

[Data Source: Election Commission of India]

Caste-wise voting pattern

Upper castes constitute a majority (58%) in the hill state unlike most parts of India. Historically, a large chunk of upper caste votes have been the backbone for the BJP in Himachal, while the Congress party has been relying heavily on Dalits & others as its core vote-bank.

[Data Source: National Election Study 2004-2008 & BJP internal database]

Although India lacks reliable caste breakup of voting patterns for different parties, there is some knowledge regarding this because of surveys done by CSDS, NES and other bodies. This author’s past experience with CSDS data has been patchy at best, so a reasonably fool-proof mechanism of analysing caste based voting patterns is by mix-n-match method (i.e.) amalgamating various data sources to arrive at the best possible denominator.

Caste

Congress

BJP

2003

2007

2003

2007

Rajput

52%

42%

36%

48%

Brahmin

54%

27%

45%

72%

Other UC

48%

43%

43%

48%

OBC

54%

30%

45%

60%

Dalits

70%

50%

28%

33%

Others

80%

63%

18%

24%

[Data Source: CSDS+NES+BJP internal database] Remaining %, if any, went to others

The big takeaways from the caste-based voting patterns for Himachal Pradesh:

  1. Congress, even when it loses in the elections (as in 2007), gets a major chunk of Dalit & other religious minority votes
  2. BJP, even when it loses the elections (as in 2003), gets a decent chunk of upper caste (especially Brahmin) votes
  3. BJP gets almost equal percentage of upper caste and OBC votes thus once again disproving the myth that BJP is purely an upper-caste party

In Conclusion: It is quite clear that BJP is in an advantageous position vis-à-vis Congress in Himachal Pradesh both on macro-factorial level as well as in terms of micro-level contests in each of the districts/assembly segments. The only problem for the BJP now is that it is not in an outright winning position and that offers a slight chance to the Congress party to come back into fight, especially, because of a higher voter turnout.

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Epilogue: IB reports during the campaign period and after the polling have been suggesting that Himachal Pradesh is headed for a regime change. Usually, such reports from the central intelligence agencies, especially about opposition ruled states, need to be taken with caution. Having said that, it must be conceded that in the past; since the haloed days of Indira Gandhi; IB reports have been proved to be right more often than not by eventual electoral outcomes. It is interesting that the latest IB report is giving a simple majority to the Congress party in the hill state by predicting a massively improved performance in Kangra district, where INC is allocated 9 seats to the BJP’s tally of 4 (others 2). What lends credence to the IB report is that the ground situation in Kangra district is favourable to the Congress party this time because of the infighting in the ruling party. Yet, Congress winning a simple majority in Himachal Pradesh is a little farfetched as even loyal Congressmen in the state are not as confident as the Intelligence bureau. Whatever their public utterances, most Congress leaders in the hill state privately concede that they are facing an uphill task this time around. In fact, that could be the crucial differentiating factor; the fact that most BJP leaders and workers are upbeat about their performance even in private conversations, whereas Congressmen are decidedly downcast about the party’s prospects in private conversations with supporters. Past experience tells us that usually the party that is not very positive about electoral outcomes in informal discussions tends to be on the losing side in Indian elections. Whatever the outcome, we will have to wait for 45 days, till December 20th, to get to know who wins Himachal Pradesh. It means 45 days of guarding EVMs not just against human tampering but also against any natural disasters, like fire, water-logging, building collapse, earthquakes and a 100 other possibilities. This idea of storing democratic expression by the people in a strong-room for close to 2 months is a big let-down by the election commission of India.

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.