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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Predicting election results has become a fascinatingly hazardous business for many.  The latest elections yielded outcomes that none of the opinion polls, exit polls or even the internal party polls had predicted.  Especially the results for the Lok Sabha.  At the end of all this drama and hungama, there are two very interesting and significant points that we should keep in mind.

There is no national verdict in India.  What we have is an agglomeration of state and regional verdicts.  Across India, the voters generally do not favour one particular party over the other; their choice differs sharply with the state and the region.   However, if there is any one single trend, it is that the voters are routinely and highly disappointed with their governments.  They are thirsting for change.  In spite of the claims by the party bosses to the contrary, our voters do not vote for political parties but generally vote against governments.  If you have to make a bet on Indian elections, the safest one would be that a sitting government will lose.

The manifestation of this tremendous desire of the voters to change their governments is generally termed the ‘anti-incumbency’ factor.  In these 2004 general elections, three out of every five sitting MPs, or nearly 60% of the incumbent Lok Sabha members, were told to take time-off by their constituents.  That brings us to the first point:  these elections are purely a mandate for change.  The voters are changing their governments in a desperate search to find one that matches their expectations.  Almost every election result in the past 15 years and more, for both the state and the central governments, is a reflection of this singular fact.

The second point is that the composition of our legislatures does not truly reflect the voters’ actual choices.

Late in the night of May 13, some very interesting data came in:  early reports on voting patterns across the country indicated that both the Congress-led and National Democratic alliances secured around 35% of the total votes cast across the country.   Actually, there seemed to be less than 1% difference in the vote shares of each side.  What does this mean?  Only that the Cong vs. NDA match should have really ended in a draw.  But, finally, why did the NDA end up losing a test match it should have drawn?  Because, in India, we follow the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP or Plurality) system where seat share in Lok Sabha need not correlate to the vote share obtained.  That is why, even though the Congress- and BJP-led alliances have secured nearly equal number of votes across the country, the Congress + Allies ended up with 216 seats (or 40% seat share) while the BJP + Allies managed only 186 (or 34% of the 539 seats announced).

The Congress alliance, which claimed the peoples’ mandate and has readied itself to lead the next Indian government (while I am writing this article), has a positive vote swing of only 0.1%! (These are initial statistics, let me emphasize).  And this was equally true in 1999, except that NDA was the beneficiary then.

The gap between popular support and legislative strength (vote share vs. seat share) becomes obvious even when we consider the results of our state election.  The TDP-BJP alliance secured around 40% of the votes but obtained only 17% of the seats (49 out of 294) in our Assembly.  On the other hand, the Congress-led alliance got around 48% of the vote share but ended up winning 77% (or 227 out of 294) of the MLA seats!  Even a moderate difference in the vote shares of the TDP-BJP and Congress-Allies got translated into a stunningly huge difference in the seat share between the two sides.   This is the real reason behind the completely one-sided result in our state elections. And again, this was true in 1999, and TDP benefited then.

The FPTP system under some circumstances could lead to the formation of even more skewed and un-representative legislatures. For example, let us suppose that a party manages to secure 51% of the votes cast, in every parliamentary constituency of the country.  In that case, it is guaranteed to end up winning 100% of the seats in the Lok Sabha.   The remaining 49% of the votes cast in the country simply end up getting deleted (this is the age of the electronic ballot, mind you).  The voters who cast these ‘wasted votes’ will not find even a single candidate of their choice getting elected.   And that, probably, would be the height of un-representativeness in any electoral system.

The real problem of FPTP system is relating to the quality of candidates and the money power and muscle power they muster. The need to win the marginal vote to get elected in a constituency forces parties to nominate “winnable” candidates. Once they do what it takes to win, they have to misgovern to make money. Governments may change, but things remain the same. The real solution lies in fundamental reforms of our electoral system.

Let me end with another statistical tid-bit:  this time, MPs from forty-five distinct parties and groups will be sitting 14th Lok Sabha!

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