By Pradip Phanjoubam
One of the things which has come across in a rather troubling way in the aftermath of the resounding BJP victory in the recently concluded Indian Parliamentary elections 2014 is the difficulty of determining a majority verdict in the Westminster model of Parliamentary democracy, particularly in a multi-party scenario as is the case in India. Long after the elections are over and the verdict announced, the debate continues as to whether it was a fair majority the winners won. As we know now, the BJP won a majority on its own with a comfortable margin of 282 in a house of 543. Together with allies, the BJP led NDA totaled 336 MPs.
More election data, as they unfold, however has revealed more than apparent. Most importantly, as it turned out, the number of seats the winners won did not seemingly correspond with their vote shares. To be more precise, only 31 percent of the votes polled went to the BJP and this extremely low percentage was what won the party its clear majority, and according to reports, this is the lowest votes polled percentage ever for a party to win the majority in an Indian election.
Thankfully, though this percentage is alarmingly low, the BJP at least was the party which not only returned the most number of MPs but also its 31 percent vote share is the highest of all parties in the fray, somewhat moderating the debates which followed the election results. But here too it is not totally bereft of causes for further consternations. The Congress which lost miserably, returning only 44 seats, had a vote share of 19.3 percent. This leaves them behind the BJP by just 12 percents votes polled. In other words, for only 12 percent more votes, the BJP was ahead of the Congress by 238 seats. This, as Siddharth Varadarajan notes, amount to 12 percent vote difference transforming into 500 percent seat difference. Something obviously is seriously wrong with this system’s way of determining a majority, a democracy mechanism popularly referred to as the first-past-the-post system.
Before digging deeper into the seeming inconsistencies brought to the fore by the election results, a little discussion on the nature of this universally acknowledge flaw in the system would be interesting. The Anglo-Saxon model of democracy which allows for the direct election of legislators by the electorate within segmented constituencies, hindsight knowledge has underscored, is essentially meant for a polarized two party contest. If this was so, chances of big discrepancies between vote shares and seats shares reaching alarming proportion would have been minimized. In multi-cornered contests, as is a normal feature in Indian elections, the flaw in the first-past-the-post system can be grotesquely accentuated, as the country is getting to see this time.
Indeed, in this system, theoretically a party can win majority vote share but lose all seats. Consider a radical scenario in which a party fields candidates in all 543 constituencies but comes a close second in all of them. This party would end up with no MPs at all in the Parliament. Another party may field just two candidates and win both. This second party would therefore be ahead in terms of MPs though with only a negligible vote share overall. Yet a third party may field candidates in all constituencies, win 272 narrowly and lose the rest miserably. With 272 MPs in Parliament this party would have the majority to form the next government, but obviously would be below the vote share won by the first party which could not return even one seat.
Under normal circumstances however, the mathematical doctrine of probability, and human nature, would ensure the party which comes out victorious at the end of the elections not only garners the most seats in Parliament (or Assembly) but also is somewhat proportionately ahead of rivals in vote share too. This flaw manifested in most previous Indian elections, but not as stark as this time. The alarming gulf this time, as experts have surmised, is an indication of the peculiarly fragmented nature of political loyalties of the average Indian at this juncture of its history, in response to the manners election issues were pushed during campaigning.
This being what it is, though the election determined what is deemed a “majority verdict”, the debate continues whether it was truly a majority the winners won. There have been suggestions that the Indian electoral system should be modified to bring in elements of the other popular democracy model, that of the proportional representation system, to make the Indian system a hybrid of the two.
A glimpse at what might have been in a hypothetical situation of India, instead of the Anglo-Saxon model, adopted the proportional representation system followed in much of Continental Europe, should be enlightening. In such a scenario, the 2014 election verdict would have meant the BJP would be entitled to send deputies to 31 percent of the total seats of the Parliament and Congress 19. It would have been a hung Parliament and a coalition government would have been the only option left.
In the first-past-the-post system, it is a number of independent micro decisions made by different electorates in varied constituencies in varied regions which determine the aggregate winner. In the proportional representation system, the aggregate is primary and the constituencies secondary. Determining the majority’s will in a vast country like India obviously is not as simple as it seems. I would imagine the problem borders the metaphysical. A rough analogy would be the continued necessity for two different approaches to the calculation of critical area in mathematics, hence both integral and differential calculus remain vitally relevant.
Writing of this problem in “All Life is Problem Solving” German philosopher Karl Popper says both the democracy models have their strengths and weaknesses. If we have seen the flaws of the Anglo-Saxon model this time, the proportional representation system too is not devoid of shortcomings. As for instance, a particular region may totally reject a party, but at the end of the election, the region can end up with deputies of the party it rejected representing it. Popper’s conclusion is, it does not matter which democracy system is followed for the most important virtue of democracy is that it is a system in which the people can change their government without the need for bloodshed.
Returning briefly then to more seeming disproportion between seats won and votes polled by different parties in these elections, here are a few more cases. In UP the BSP got 20 percent votes, but won no seats at all. Likewise as P Sainath writes, in West Bengal, the Left Front got nearly 30 percent of the vote and just two seats. The Congress got less than 10 per cent but took four. The Trinamool Congress got 40 per cent of the vote, but 80 per cent of the seats, winning 34 of the 42 in the state.
Quite obviously, nobody is seriously thinking of having the Indian democracy model changed with retrospective effective. The BJP won, there can be no question about it, and this answer is final this time, and will stay till the next general elections. But, perhaps the results this time are an indication that the system needs an overhaul in the future.
One more observation needs to be made here. Though the number of seats it won is limited this time, in terms of votes polled, the Congress did not lose as badly as it is made out to be. This also means, the party cannot be still written off, as many commentators are almost hasty and enthusiastic to.
So much for the discussion on democracy models and their suitability to the Indian reality: This column would not be doing justice if it did not also take a brief tour of the post election mood in Manipur too, for indeed political punditry and crystal gazing is not altogether a new pastime here amongst the intelligentsia and the public at large.
Of peculiar interest are some speculations on the possibility of the Congress government in the state facing the danger of being destabilized by the BJP government at the Centre, and this through the institution of the Governor on whose recommendation Article 356 of the Constitution can be invoked to either dissolve or keep a state government in animated suspension. This scenario however is unlikely, especially after the controversy over its misuse and the Supreme Court case on the matter in the S. R. Bommai v. Union of India case in 1994.
Though the apex court ruled that the provisions of Article 356 was justiciable, the 1994 judgment which opened the imposition of President’s Rule to judicial reviews, has put a check on arbitrary dismissal of state governments by Article 356. Correspondingly, and happily, there has been a sharp decline of states being put under President’s Rule ever since. It is quite unlikely then that the soon to be installed BJP government under Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi would be eager to court legal controversy just as yet, if ever, on such matters. Moreover, Manipur’s current governor, it must be recalled, was appointed by the outgoing Congress government at the Centre.
The only way the Manipur government can become destabilized then is by the fickle loyalties of our MLAs. They could, as has become the notorious and shameful character of those who chose the political vocation in the state, begin their usual game of back-stabbing and horse-trading, putting up their political loyalties for auction to the highest bidders. It is a disgraceful fact that in the pre-1994 days, and before the introduction of the Anti-Defection Law, Manipur ranked as one of the foremost to have invited the President’s Rule, having been through it 10 times since it attained statehood, all on account of MLAs shamelessly crossing the Assembly floor.
With the tough Anti-Defection Law still in place, this scenario of political turncoats shaking up the government would be highly improbable. The sound recommendation then is for the Congress government here to get down to the serious business of governing the state. The loss at the Centre, if not anything else, should have made it drop its own arrogant clout of invincibility. The realization of the futility of the delusion of immortality is supposed to make even the most powerful humble.
I would just flag one goal which this government has not made enough effort to achieve before concluding. If at the completion of three terms, this government leaves the state as electric power starved as when it assumed power 15 years ago, in this age when the highway to progress itself has become synonymous with electric power, history will not ever forgive it and its helmsmen. The familiar excuse of bad law and order sabotaging progress will not be able to exonerate its sins either.