Indian Express

Elections — patterns and rules

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The maximum number of constituencies (122 across 13 states) will vote on April 17, followed by 117 constituencies across 12 states on April 24. (IE Photo: Praveen Khanna) The maximum number of constituencies (122 across 13 states) will vote on April 17, followed by 117 constituencies across 12 states on April 24. (IE Photo: Praveen Khanna)

There is a political storm coming, make no mistake about it. The signs are many, but the most important one is the state of the economy, and the accompanying disappointment, disgruntlement and disgust with the ruling dispensation. In addition, after the dates for Election 2014 were announced, streetfights commenced. There is apprehension that this might be one of the more violent elections, a forecast (not mine) that I hope, and predict, will decidedly not come true.

Most opinion polls, indeed all, suggest the following outcome. First, that the Congress is headed for at least a halving of its 2009 tally of 206 seats, a halving that should place the Congress at an all-time low. Second, that the Narendra Modi-led BJP is poised to make major gains in votes, and seats in the neighbourhood of 200, some 20-odd seats above the highest level ever obtained by the BJP (in 1999).

Assuming this forecast to be broadly correct, the important question that needs answering is what explains this phenomenon, which, until just six months ago, most pundits would have found incomprehensible. Many of them still do, but we will not know till May 16 and, until then, all we can do is make intelligent sense from the available data, and not infer sense from vague opinions.

I will interpret the sense of Election 2014 in this article, and the next article (slated for publication on March 11) will boldly make state-level forecasts for the two major parties, the Congress and the BJP, and their respective alliances.

A very long time ago, I learnt the first rule of elections: they are about negatives, the party (or candidate) that has a higher number of negatives loses. Again, exceptions are always present, but they are infrequent. This explanation helps to differentiate against the common back-of-the-envelope indicator — anti-incumbency. Look back at most elections, and you will find that summing up the negatives really does explain elections. But what about the surprise 2004 result, when the widely expected victory of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP-led coalition did not materialise? What were the negatives in that election? Possibly Godhra and the Gujarat riots; but more importantly, the nature of seat-sharing arrangements in a first-past-the-post parliamentary system. Between 1999 and 2004, both the major parties lost a 2 percentage point vote share — but the UPA gained 31 seats and the NDA lost 44 seats.

At the beginning of the election period some six months ago, the common assumption was that 2014 would be fought on traditional issues like secularism, caste and “inclusive” growth. Let us take a moment to ponder as to what it means to assert continued…

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