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Stories of a wave
BJP’s vote to seat conversion rate is stunning. Regional parties haven’t collapsed.
The saffron wave that has crashed across the electoral map of western, central and northern India creates the impression that the BJP has swept all before it. The BJP’s performance is certainly unprecedented. With just under one in three of all voters choosing the party, the BJP has managed to win over half of all seats in the Lok Sabha. With its alliance partners in the NDA, the party controls just over 60 per cent of the seats. It is the first time since 1984 that a single party has won a straight-out majority in Parliament.
Part of the explanation for this performance is a stunning rate of conversion of votes into seats by the BJP. This rate of conversion is more impressive than what the Congress party has ever managed in its history, even in its heyday. In the present elections, the BJP has won 1.67 seats for every 1 per cent vote share, compared to just 0.42 seats for every 1 per cent vote share for the Congress. Expressed differently, the BJP needed six lakh votes to gain one MP, while the Congress required 24 lakh.
The highest vote to seat share ratio achieved by the Congress historically was in 1952, when it won 1.65 seats for every 1 per cent vote share — similar to what the BJP has achieved this time round in a considerably more competitive environment. Even in 1984, when the Congress won its largest ever number of seats — 414 or 78.6 per cent of all seats — its vote share was considerably higher (49.10 per cent), meaning that its vote to seat share ratio was just 1.60.
How has the BJP managed to achieve such an outcome? In this article, I will focus on the electoral arithmetic that lies behind the outcome, and what this means for the opposition to the BJP in the months and years to come.
One myth that should be countered is that the BJP’s success has come at the expense of regional parties. What these elections do not herald is a significant change in the overall proportion of seats held by national parties vis-à-vis regional parties in the Lok Sabha. The total vote share of all the national parties (the BJP, Congress, CPI, and CPM) is 54.3 per cent, and their total seat share 62 per cent. This compares to a combined vote share of 54.1 per cent and seat share of 63 per cent for national parties in 2009. Thus, if anything, the national party seat share, on aggregate, has fallen marginally in these elections. Overall, it is the massive rebalancing between the position of the BJP and the Congress within the national party category — the collapse of the Congress, and the extraordinary increase in BJP seats — that is the central feature of these elections, not an overall increase in the proportion of seats for national parties compared to regional parties in Parliament. Yet, while numerically the position of regional parties will remain similar to previous parliaments, that is not how it will feel. The size of the BJP majority means that attaining influence through coalition government is a thing of the past, for now.
In some states, especially Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, important individual regional parties have been dwarfed beyond recognition. Despite expectations that the BSP would be the main challenger to the BJP in UP, Mayawati has emerged with no seats at all. The ruling SP has just five seats. The BJP defied even the most optimistic polling data to win 71 of 80 seats in the state. In Bihar, the story is similar, with the ruling JD(U) managing only two seats and the opposition RJD only four. Yet, for none of these regional parties did the vote simply collapse. The BSP has emerged as the third largest party across India by vote share, and in UP alone, won 20 per cent of all votes.
The RJD won 20 per cent of the votes in Bihar, and the JD(U) 16 per cent. These figures drive home the difficulties for regional parties to convert votes to seats in multi-cornered contests in a first past the post system. While the BJP was able to consolidate its vote across Bihar and UP, fragmentation of the non-BJP vote undermined the ability of regional parties to turn votes into seats. In other places, the AAP acted as a spoiler rather than being able to win seats. In Delhi, for instance, while the BJP swept all seven seats on a 46 per cent vote share, a third of all voters had opted for the AAP — which came second in all constituencies, and pushed the Congress into a distant third place overall.
In much of southern and eastern India, however, there was a different story. Regional party performances held up and even strengthened in this belt. In West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and the soon-to-be Seemandhra and Telangana, regional parties put in an impressive performance. Between them, the AIADMK, TMC, BJD, TDP, TRS, and YSR Congress won 125 seats. This is a substantial increase for these parties compared to 2009, most of which occurred at the expense of the Congress — especially in Andhra Pradesh. But the share of the Left parties also fell heavily in West Bengal, and of the DMK in Tamil Nadu (despite a vote share of 23.6 per cent, they failed to win a single seat). Of these regional parties, only the TDP is a member of the NDA. Excluding the TDP, these parties now control one fifth of the seats in the Lok Sabha between them. They account for around 15 per cent of the seats in the current Rajya Sabha, which is likely to emerge as a more significant locus for opposition as the NDA lacks a majority there.
Just as the Congress party’s massive victories in the early decades of what political scientist Rajni Kothari dubbed the “Congress system” did not rest on a lack of contestation, in these elections, the BJP has managed to achieve a position of historic dominance in a very competitive climate. The massive discrepancies between vote and seat shares in many states, and at the national level, give rise to questions about the representativeness of the new Parliament. The historically low proportion of Muslims elected (the lowest since 1952, by one estimate), with no Muslim MPs at all from UP, where almost a fifth of the population is Muslim, raises equally serious concerns. These elections should create a moment for reflection on whether the first past the post system serves the representative function of Indian democracy well.
In the meantime, the sheer magnitude of the rebalancing among the parties has changed the channels through which checks and balances will be achieved in Parliament. Not least because it has recast the role that regional parties will be able to play in the House. Rather than exerting influence through coalition membership, most large regional parties will have to adapt to a new game of playing an effective opposition within and outside Parliament. The regional parties are not natural allies for each other, as has been evident from the weakness of most Third Front experiments. Some, such as the TRS and YSR Congress, are outright opponents. Yet depending on how Narendra Modi chooses to represent regional interests within his government, and how he attempts to deal with the states, now that he is not reliant on regional parties as coalition allies, these diverse parties may yet find a sense of common purpose around Centre-state relations. This is precisely what began to happen in the 1980s, culminating in the 1989 elections, when Centre-state relations and critiques of the centralising tendencies of the Congress provided areas of agreement for non-Congress parties. There is much riding on how genuinely the major opposition parties rise to the challenge of providing an effective opposition within a context in which the rules have been radically rewritten.
The writer is lecturer in politics at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London and author of ‘Remapping India: New States and their Political Origins’