A Closer Look: What We CAN Learn From the Indian Elections

As I have noted before (1,2), I am skeptical of broad pronouncements of the meaning of a national election in India within 24 hours of their occurrance.  One way to improve these kinds of 'analyses' is to look at the really-easy-to-undersatnd data that comes out, while keeping in mind what the data does or does not tell us.  In that vein, there are three extremely easy and useful resources for trying to understand the meaning of the 2009 elections.  The first is a page from Hindustan Times is an excellent resource for looking at election results this year.  It is especially good because it is simple, easy to use, graphical, and has comparative election results between 2009 and 2004 by state.  Taking this information in conjunction with the wikipedia articles for the 2009 and 2004 general elections allows some preliminary work to be done in understanding what the different stories (note plural) of the election might be.

For example, one thing I had seen in looking atthe first  state-b y-state results a few days ago  was the result from Rajasthan, where Congress went from 4 seats to possibly 20 (currently at 19 according to the HT's map, so +15 or +16 depending on the results of that seat), while BJP dropped from 21 seats to 4 seats (-17).  This is one of the states witth the biggest pro-Congress changes, yet I hear nothing about it.  Admittedly, I haven't looked very hard, but I would think it would deserve a line in virtually every article that attempts to give 'the meaning' of the election..

Additionally, you can see some interesting things on HT's map.  For example, in Madhya Pradesh, which neighbors Rajasthan, there is also a drop of -9 for BJP and a gain of +8 for Congress.  The two states put together would then constitute an increase in the difference in 49 or 50 seats between Congress and BJP..  Nationally, the Congress has gone from having 145 seats to 206 seats (+61), while BJP has gone from 138 seats to 116 seats (-22) with the total change amounting to 83.  The results in Rajasthan alone could account for almost the entirety of the BJP's losses in the Lok Sabha, and if you take the two states together, it shows that the BJP actually made gains outside of these two states, though you could pick two other states and say 'well BJP did much better in these states and so I conclude they did much worse in the rest of the country'. 

Similarly if you look at Congress's results you see that even with dramatic shifts in the results, it still only accounts for  less than half of the total increase for Congress.  So you could then ask exactly what implications the changes in results  in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh had, what they were caused by, what political or social mechanisms they reflect, and so forth.  You could also  look at  what the results in other states are, to  help contribute as youlook at what's happened and extend beyond these two largest parties to consider the alliances and parties outside of them.  But for an overall assessment, besides just looking at what would confirm the dominant narrative, it would be interesteing to look at Karnataka or Himachal Pradesh, where BJP held on to the seats it had. 

It's also important to go beyond the kind of simple data I'm looking at here.  For example, everyone talks about how the UPA routed the Left Front in Kerala as part of their evidence for the dominant narrative that Congress did really well and BJP and Third Front were f"£ked.  However, if you look at the 2004 results, you see that, for example CPI(M) won 12 seats with 31.52% of the statewide votes, whereas Congress won 0 seats with 32.13% of the statewide votes.  Yeah, that's not a typo- Congress got slightly more votes statewide, if the count is reliable, and not just didn't get a single seat, but ended up 12 seats behind.In the 2009 election, I don't have percentages available, but given the results from the prior election, is it that shocking that Congress now has 13 seats and CPI(M) only has 5?  Similarly, in Rajasthan, BJP had won 21 seats in 2004, but it only had 49.01% of the votes, compared to Congress which had won only 4 seats, but had only slightly less votes statewide at 41.42% The question is how much movement you would need in each election and what would cause it to make it LOOK like a dramatic change in voter sentiment but which may be far more accounted for by the process.  Or perhaps not - but it's worth looking at before making grand pronouncements. 

A brief note on the Third Front parties on a national level.  One of the memes for the election is that the Third Front got destroyed.  The wikipedia results for the elections show the results by party and coalition on a national level.  You can see from this that the Left Front lost 29 seats from the 2004 parliament to the 2009 parliament.  The Third Front as a whole lost 30 seats, which means that all of the other parties in the Third Front actually stayed the same or in some cases did better than in the last election.  The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa actually not just held on to its dominance of the state but increased its seats from 11 to 14, while Congress also increased its seats from 2 to 5, and BJP went from 7 to 0 seats.

The above are just small examples of how better analysis could be conducted on the basis of very simple, easily acessible/ data - and made even better with more data as well as greater understanding and knowledge of election and political mechanism and, local or statewide context.  Some of the trends that have been noted by parts of the media- especially greater success for Congress and allies in enough states to constitute a national trend - might be worth mentioning even now without looking in greater detail,.  However, as you can see from the discussion above, looking at the results in greater detail than "Congress / UPA expanded its margin!  Indians voted for stability!" might be worthwhile.  After all, maybe people in West Bengal were reflecting their disillusionment with a neoliberal party that crossed a line in Nandigram and Singhur and discredited themselvesn with enough of the wrong people.  Perhaps the 32/33 seat change in Rajasthan has different roots than the outcome of a national mandate for Congress.  A key factor to look at would be the actual strategy of Congress in the election and to what extent it was sensitive to state or local context and to what extent it was national in nature.

Summary: 
Deconstructing the major media narratives with some data...

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