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A Modi landslide? May 29, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Babak Moussavi

Narendra Modi’s victory is less impressive than it appears

When the results of the Indian election rolled in, the surprise was not over who was winning, but over the size of the victory margin. No single party had won a majority of the seats in the lower house since Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress victory in 1984, soon after the assassination of his mother, Indira. 30 years on, Narendra Modi has achieved this. He is now set to lead a majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government with 282 seats, but is likely to retain his pre-election coalition grouping, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), giving him 336 seats in a 543-seat parliament.

The scale of the victory is unprecedented in recent decades, and the power that incoming Prime Minister Modi is likely to command is more than most expected. Not only are the anticipated checks of coalition politics largely loosened by his single party majority, but the opposition is so fragmented that a divide and rule policy could allow for total domination of the political agenda. If he can muster a two-thirds majority, the government could even change India’s sacrosanct constitution. The 44 MPs of the Indian National Congress, the country’s oldest and once-dominant party, would barely muster a whimper. And if it continues to be led by the notoriously self-restrained Rahul Gandhi, even that might be something.

This was an electoral landslide, therefore, and, so his supporters hope, Modi will now be able to rule India as a strong leader, implementing pro-business development policies that the country apparently requires. Modi’s economic programme is likely to be radical, but that is not the biggest fear that many have. Rather, without the benefit of “coalition dharma” he may lose his incentive to compromise on social issues. Specifically, this means restraining hard-line Hindu nationalist voices within his party and within the umbrella “cultural” organisations of which the BJP is a political offshoot. With such a victory, many fear that Modi will show his alleged “true colours” and give a green light to the construction of the Ram temple, and reformation of India’s laws, removing various protections for minorities, especially Muslims. Time will tell. The key question here, however, is what mandate Modi actually has, and whether this really was a landslide.

The enduring legacy of colonialism

Consider some facts: the BJP won every seat in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand, as well as in a swathe of smaller states and union territories. It won 90% of the seats in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, and 93% in Madhya Pradesh. It has over six times more seats than the next largest party, Congress (44), which is closely followed by two other regional parties, the AIADMK (37) in Tamil Nadu, and the All India Trinamool Congress (34) in West Bengal. Many other parties gained a handful of seats in certain regions, such as the Biju Janata Dal (20) in Odisha, the Shiv Sena (18) in Maharashtra, and the Telugu Desam Party (17) in Andhra.

And yet, this seat distribution almost entirely fails to reflect the voting distribution. Thanks to the adoption of the Westminster model at Independence, India’s democracy uses a First Past the Post System (FPTP) for voting. In a two-party system, as in the US, this works well, although some blame the bipolarity for policy gridlock. In India’s hyper-multiparty system, however, it is highly problematic. With an abundance of viable parties and candidates in individual constituencies (which have an average size of nearly two million voters), vote-splitting is ubiquitous, meaning the threshold required to actually win a contest is heavily reduced. In a two-party contest, 50% plus one is required. In contests with many viable candidates, often a much smaller proportion is needed to gain a plurality and carry the seat. Parties and candidates therefore have an incentive to focus on specific vote-banks who, if voting as a block, would carry large weight. Promising public goods becomes superfluous in such situations. All one needs to do is persuade a small number of groups that one will deliver private benefits to them, often through establishing patronage networks, and let the rest of the crowd split the remaining voters. Once you have a plurality, you have the whole prize.

So did Modi win a genuine, across-the-board landslide ­– a ‘TsuNaMo’, as it is being dubbed? Or did his extremely effective campaign strategy understand and embrace the logic of FPTP? According to the Election Commission, Modi’s ‘landslide’ was just 31% of the vote share (172 million votes). This was a new high for the BJP, but still means that less than one third of Indian voters chose his party. Meanwhile, Congress, in second place, won just under 20% (107 million votes), and was demolished. But the ultimate demonstration of the skewed outcomes provided by FPTP is what happened to the third party in terms of vote share: the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – an outfit that aims to represent Dalits, some of India’s least emancipated people, and once in control of Uttar Pradesh – gathered 23 million votes (4.1% of India’s voters) but did not win a single seat.

This is not a landslide, but rather an outcome that fails to reflect democratic preferences, thanks to a quirk of electoral procedures. Some assert that Modi’s clean sweep of all 26 seats in Gujarat demonstrates that all Gujaratis understand what he has done for the state’s development. But 26/26 seats does not mean 100% of the vote – 59% was sufficient. And as previously explained, large victories may not even mean 50% of the vote: in Uttar Pradesh, where numerous established parties compete, the BJP won 42% of the vote and yet carried 72/80 seats. Not such an overwhelming mandate then.

How many voters are effectively disenfranchised by this system? To begin with, all 23 million BSP voters who have zero representation in parliament. The DMK party too, in Tamil Nadu, won nearly 10 million votes and has no MP to its name. Another useful way of looking at the skewed nature of the distribution is to consider how many voters a party effectively required for a single seat. This is the votes/seats conversion. For the BJP, it is 600,000. Congress meanwhile required 2.3 million – almost four times as many. Congress has traditionally been more efficient at converting votes into seats, but abjectly failed to ‘do the maths’ this time.

Certainly, Modi has done extremely well. Hopefully his governance will be as successful as his campaign. But there is also no denying that India’s electoral system is largely unsuited to India’s vibrant hyper-multiparty democracy, if representative democracy is indeed what is intended. The electoral system needs to adapt, and a proper constitutional debate started. The adoption of an electoral design that accommodates multiple preferences and parties may be superior to the model that India inherited.

But what is the probability of electoral reform coming from a government that has just profited so handsomely from the status quo? Zero. Just like the BSP’s MPs.

Babak Moussavi is a student of MSc Contemporary India at the University of Oxford.


1. A. Ercelan - May 29, 2014

Time for proportional representation of parties, with insistence upon a min, say one-third, female candidates in every party.