The state goes to polls tomorrow amid high expectations of a Congress victory. We look at what the latest surveys reveal—and explain why the numbers may not capture the convoluted dynamics of Karnataka politics.
Editor’s note: We’ve done a number of Big Stories on Karnataka politics in recent months—including a two-part series on BJP’s new narrative about Tipu Sultan here and here, the big picture of the stakes in this election and the BJP’s struggle with the state’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.
First, a quick refresher
The basic deets: Karnataka is the only southern state ruled by the BJP. It is a must-win for both the saffron party and its rival Congress in the lead up to the Big Fight—i.e the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. They need to win 113 seats—out of 224—to win a simple majority. Otherwise, the third player in the fray—JD(S)—will become the kingmaker.
Recent history: People often forget that the BJP did not actually win the last state election—which delivered a divided verdict. It emerged as the largest single party—scoring 104 seats—but fell short of a majority. Congress and JD(S) formed a shaky coalition government—which fell apart soon after the BJP swept 25 of the 28 parliamentary seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A flood of defections from Congress and JD(S) to the BJP finally brought the government down.
The BJP track record: has been shaky. Its tallest and least amenable leader BS Yeddyurappa was eased out of the CM gaddi in 2021. He was replaced by Basavaraj Bommai—who is known for both doing very little—and ‘eating’ far too much. The Congress ran a successful campaign—dubbing him ‘the PayCM’. The government is often called the ‘40% sarkara’—a reference to commission demanded on government contracts.
Ok, tell me about the opinion polls…
Most of the surveys indicate a Congress comeback. The only question is whether the party attains a majority—without which it will need an assist from JD(S). And we all know how that turned out last time around. Here’s a quick round-up of the key surveys:
One: The Eedina survey—conducted between March 3 and April 21—predicts Congress will win a whopping 132-140 seats with a vote share of 43%. BJP’s seat total will drop from 104 to a modest 57-65 seats with a vote share of 33%. If true, this would be Congress’ best performance in 30 years! The biggest loser in this scenario is JD(S) with just 19-25 seats with a vote share of 16%.
Two: As for the big polling companies, there have been two recent C-Voter surveys. Both are slightly less optimistic than Eedina. Congress is slated to grab 107-119 seats—while BJP gets 74-86. JD(S) is limited to 25-35 seats and 17% vote share.
Three: The main outlier is the Zee News-Matrize survey—which predicts BJP will once again emerge as the single largest party with 103-115 seats. Congress will only manage 79-91 seats—while JD(S) will 26-36. The reasons offered for this anomaly: the Narendra Modi factor—which is predicted to play a much bigger role. FYI: Zee News claims it had the largest sample size among all Karnataka polls. Other pollsters like Jan Ki Baat also predict that BJP will walk away with the biggest haul—if not a majority.
Hmm, so which one do I believe?
No opinion poll is guaranteed to be 100% accurate, and here’s why:
One: As this excellent Samarth Bansal analysis notes, while election surveys are unreliable—their predictions are mostly in the ballpark. But arriving at vote shares is tricky business. Apart from the size of the sample, picking the right sample—based on gender, caste etc—is especially challenging in India. That said, some companies like C-Voter are more reliable than others—like Jan Ki Baat—whose track record is “not much better than a dart-throwing chimp.”
Two: Moving from vote shares to seat totals is even more hazardous. Congress, for example, has always had the highest vote share in the state. It was higher than the BJP even in the 2018 elections—when BJP scored 104 seats to its 78 seats. In fact, that year, Congress gained almost 3% in vote share.
The reason: Congress’ votes are like icing spread on a cake—distributed almost evenly across the state. Hence, in a great number of districts, they are not sufficient to guarantee a majority. OTOH, BJP often gets a better “strike rate”—or votes to seat conversion—since its votes are clustered in important areas like coastal Karnataka.
Key point to note: As Bansal points out, pollsters do not have a surefire method of translating vote shares into seats. They rely instead on mathematical models—which are not revealed to the public. Even a good poll can get the final result wrong:
There are cases where a pollster’s seat projections were totally off but vote shares were in line with actual results. That’s a good poll. And there are cases where seat projections turn out right even when vote projections are off—that’s because multiple errors might be cancelling out each other. That’s not a good poll. The pollster just got lucky.
Three: On top of these challenges, pollsters have to make the right call in so-called ‘swing’ districts—where the margin of victory is extremely narrow. In 2018, there were 74 constituencies where the difference was less than 10,000 votes; 24 where it was less 5,000; and five where it was less than 1,000. That’s a lot of seats!
Interestingly, Congress won the greater majority of these swing seats—but that also means it is more vulnerable to losing ground. BJP, however, has more thumping victories in its column:
Of the 104 seats BJP won in 2018, as many as 77 of them saw saffron candidates win with a margin of more than 10,000 votes. The biggest victory margin for the BJP was in Belgaum Dakshin (58,692 votes).
But, but, but: This is a double-edged advantage for the BJP. That’s because these big wins in fewer districts accounted for its 36.4% vote share in 2008:
“BJP has 40 seats with a victory margin of more than 20,000 votes, which boosts its vote share but not seat share,” Venkatesh said, adding that high victory margins are “unproductive and inefficient.”
The big caste factor: Elections in Karnataka are decided by two communities—Lingayats and Vokkaligas. But neither are a numerical majority. The Lingayats only account for 14-16% of the population—and the Vokkaliga numbers are even smaller: 10-11%. Yet, MLAs belonging to these two castes won roughly half the seats in the 2018 assembly election.
The reason for their dominance is similar. These communities are concentrated in key regions of the state. For example, Vokkaligas dominate 11 districts in South Karnataka aka ”Old Mysore”—which has 61 assembly seats. The BJP cannot win a simple majority without making inroads into Vokkaliga territory. The Lingayats can determine the outcome of an election in 90-100 of the 224 assembly seats—which has been the foundation of the BJP’s strength in the state.
Ok, so what do the pundits say?
Not much that is illuminating. Ground reports tend to be more informative. But most media outlets have preferred to play it safe—like Mint—which wandered from one party’s stronghold to another, mindlessly quoting sweeping predictions of victory from their leaders.
A Congress ‘hawa’? Yogendra Yadav in The Print writes of the political wind favouring Congress:
So far, we had met all kinds of potential voters: Many Congress, BJP and Janata Dal (Secular) loyalists, some who were switching to the Congress, a few to the JD(S), and a handful who wouldn’t tell. But we had not come across a single person who had voted for the Congress in the previous election and was planning to vote for the BJP.
In my years as a survey researcher, I found that the best proxy for voting intention was a simple question: Should the incumbent government get another tenure? Last time, when the Congress lost the election, the ratio of those who were for and against giving the Congress government another chance was 1:1. This time, the proportion of No outweighs Yes in every survey — around 1.7:1 in the CSDS survey and 2:1 in the Eedina survey.
Point to note: As a polling expert, Yogendra Yadav has been spectacularly wrong—as with the 2017 Gujarat elections.
Hindutva fail! The one point most pundits agree on is that the BJP attempt to play the Hindutva card has failed in the state. Despite Bommai’s best efforts to roil the communal waters—with battles over hijabs, azaan, halal meat and Tipu Sultan—the Karnataka voter has remained mostly unmoved. Even among the Lingayats, appeals to a Brahminical version of Hinduism have failed. In fact, the party is hastily distancing itself from many of these anti-Muslim campaigns:
We have not endorsed any such activities. The stands were taken as a government and as a party, we have done them legally and within the framework of the law. For example anti-cow slaughter bill. The communal campaigns that you are talking about; like the banning of Muslim traders at the temples were called by fringe organisations that are not from the Sangh Parivar.
Astonishingly, party sources now claim that the Delhi leadership had to rein in Bommai—to curb his Hindutva excesses.
But, but, but: While no one expects the Hindutva card to win the election in Karnataka, there is little sign that the BJP will be punished for playing it. As Yadav frames it:
It would be rash to conclude that communal polarisation has withered away from Karnataka… But one thing is sure: The voters of Karnataka are not foregrounding this issue in this election… even the Muslims, at the receiving end of State-sponsored bigotry, don’t raise this issue. There is an unspoken anxiety, a pressure to prove their nationalism, an eagerness to underline communal amity. For Hindus, the communal issue has slipped in their order of priority; for Muslims, it is a decision to push it down.
The bottomline: Over the past couple of days, PM Modi staged a series of grand rallies—ostensibly to speak to the Karnataka voter. But his language was shuddh Delhi:
The Congress Shahi Parivar came to Karnataka yesterday and said they want to protect the sovereignty of Karnataka… Do you know what this means? … When a country becomes free, it is called a sovereign country. What the Congress is saying is that it considers Karnataka separate from India. Do you accept this? Shouldn’t the Congress be punished for saying such a thing? It means Congress is openly advocating Karnataka’s secession from India. I never thought that the disease of the tukde tukde gang would reach such heights in the Congress.
And that may be one other reason why the BJP is poised to lose its gateway to the South.
The Print has a good breakup of Karnataka’s key regional differences—and this analysis by Yogendra Yadav. Mint looks at the role of the Lingayats—while The Hindu has more on the Vokkaligas. NDTV has a good breakdown of what the surveys reveal about likely voting behaviour. It's worth revisiting Scroll’s detailed analysis of the previous state election results. Indian Express explains why this election matters to both parties–and why Congress has an organisational advantage. Sugata Srinivasaraju’s interview with Times of India offers the best, most nuanced analysis of Karnataka politics. Samarth Bansal is excellent in decoding opinion polls—their strengths and weaknesses. Deccan Herald reports on why winning margins matter.