Modi and the numbers game

The first past the post system has thrown up surprising results in successive elections. 2014 promises to be no different

June 12, 2013 01:56 am | Updated June 07, 2016 05:32 am IST

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With Narendra Modi taking charge as head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign committee, one presumes he will deploy his own team of analysts to study the party’s strengths and weaknesses across different States. If his approach in Gujarat is any guide, Mr. Modi likes to go down to granular details while studying various constituencies in order to deploy resources optimally. It increasingly seems like the BJP will fight the 2014 elections under the de facto — if not de jure — leadership of Mr. Modi. This would indeed cause some complex realignments in the hitherto presumed voting patterns, particularly in the northern belt which is critical in deciding who leads a coalition at the Centre. For instance, the polarising influence of Mr. Modi among the minority and upper caste Hindu votes in Uttar Pradesh could create vote shifts not experienced so far. Since national elections have increasingly become an aggregation of State-level choices made by voters, it is difficult to predict what kind of shifts might occur in the voting patterns in 2014.

Least national

The last five general elections have empirically shown that India’s elections are least national in character compared with most countries in the world. After all, even in 2009, the combined vote share of the Congress and the BJP, at 47.5 per cent, had declined by 1.2 per cent. The Congress and the BJP together had nearly 57 per cent vote share in 1991. There has been a near 10 per cent decline in the vote share of the two national parties over the past 20 years. This is how much the polity has got regionalised over this period. Strictly speaking, in terms of geographical spread, even the BJP can be described as a party largely confined to the northern and western region. In the 2009 election, the Congress improved its overall vote share from 26.5 per cent to 28.6 per cent, and the BJP declined from 22.2 per cent to 18.8 per cent. The BJP’s vote share in just the seats it contested declined even more dramatically — by 11 per cent.

In 2009, the Congress primarily reaped the advantage of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system as it gained a large number of Lok Sabha seats (61), even if its vote share improved only by 2.13 per cent compared with the 2004 general election. Purely statistically, it is possible that the Congress experiences the reverse of what it did in 2009 — lose a disproportionately large number of seats with a 2 to 3 per cent fall in its vote share. These are simply the vagaries of the FPTP system.

Going by the currently popular narrative, the Congress is reeling under a natural two-term anti-incumbency, compounded by a sharply declining economy, growing unemployment, high inflation and myriad charges of corruption. Indeed, if the average voter is convinced of this narrative, the Congress could easily suffer a 2 to 3 per cent decline in its vote share. The party could then lose over 60 seats, and possibly more, that it had gained in 2009. But these seats may not automatically go to the BJP. For instance, in the southern States, where the BJP has virtually no presence, the Congress’s loss cannot be the BJP’s gain.

The Congress’s loss can be the BJP’s gain only in States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Delhi where the two national parties have a direct contest. Outside these States, we have multi-cornered contests almost everywhere, with the presence of strong regional parties. Here the complex FPTP system will determine how a change in the vote share gets converted into seats.

The complex conversion of vote share into seats was studied in some detail by Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in the extensive National Election Study carried out by CSDS. Essentially, Mr. Yadav has analysed how unpredictable the vote share to seats multiplier can be.

For instance the Congress enjoyed a relatively higher conversion ratio of votes into seats in 2009. The party got more than seven Lok Sabha seats for every one per cent of its vote share in the 2009 general election. Therefore it ended up bagging 206 Lok Sabha seats with its 28.6 per cent national vote share. Interestingly, in the 1999 general election, the Congress had nearly the same vote share as in 2009, but it got three seats less for every one per cent vote share. So what explains the increase of nearly three Lok Sabha seats for the Congress for every one per cent of its votes between 1999 and 2009?

Congress, a more natural choice

Indeed, this is the most complex aspect of the FPTP system. The BJP’s vote share to seats multiplier has been steadily declining since 1999 when it had peaked under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leadership. Logically, the Congress’s higher conversion of vote share into seats possibly happens because it still gets votes from various castes and communities at the margin because of its national umbrella character, even if this has eroded considerably over the years. The National Election Study of the CSDS also shows that even though India’s general elections are largely driven by State-specific choices, at least 41 per cent of voters interviewed did say that the Central government also mattered to them along with the State government.

It was also found that the Congress, partly because of its history, is a more natural choice among voters who gave some importance to who ruled at the Centre. By and large, however, Indian elections are an aggregate of regional political choices.

As a natural party of the Centre, the Congress has had some advantage over the BJP, but it cannot take this for granted. Now Mr. Modi is trying to change this, at least at a psychological level, if not on the ground yet. This would mean trying to get the BJP back to the multiplier of over seven Lok Sabha seats for every one per cent vote that it had enjoyed under Mr. Vajpayee in 1999.

So, politically, Mr. Modi’s attempt will be to run a focussed campaign to erode the Congress’s image among large sections of the voters as a natural party of governance and instead project the BJP as a more worthy candidate at the Centre. Some of this strategy is already being implemented as the BJP leaders at the Goa national executive meet repeatedly spoke about national security and national pride as important planks for the 2014 elections. Lack of strong leadership at the Centre, and India becoming more vulnerable in the eyes of the rest of the world, is another narrative being pushed by the BJP. The Congress will have to be far more creative in defending itself, facing as it does a heavy two-term anti-incumbency. The Congress’s Bharat Nirman campaign is partly aimed at reinforcing its credentials among the people as a party of natural choice at the Centre. Mr. Modi has been quick to punch holes in the Bharat Nirman campaign.

It is critical for the BJP to increase its national vote share which is at just 18.8 per cent after it peaked in 1998 at 25.6 per cent. Both the BJP’s vote share and its vote to seats conversion multiplier peaked during Mr. Vajpayee’s time; it has been in steady decline since then. This is the BJP’s best chance of reviving both these critical parameters. However, it does not have a Vajpayee to restore the old glory. Instead, it has Narendra Modi whose de facto projection as a future Prime Minister will tend to polarise rather than create a more broad-based support for the BJP as had happened under Mr. Vajpayee.

In his analysis of the 2009 general election, Yogendra Yadav had argued ( Economic and Political Weekly , Sept. 26-Oct. 9, 2009) that “the key to the Congress performance was in the party’s success in direct contests against the BJP and [the] Left … In the 115 seats where it was a direct Congress versus BJP contest, the Congress gained 3.1 per cent vote and the BJP lost 5.1 per cent vote share. These states also accounted for the biggest addition to the Congress kitty. The Congress gained 26 seats and the BJP lost 26.” Clearly, Mr. Modi and his strategy team will have to give special attention to the direct contest areas in order to maximise gains in both vote share and seats.

Of course, outside the “direct contest” States, the BJP is hoping to make big gains off a very low base in Uttar Pradesh where it got just 10 seats in 2009. The other three parties in Uttar Pradesh — the Congress, the SP and the BSP — got 20 seats or more. A top BJP leader recently told this writer that there was scope to increase seats by up to 30 in Uttar Pradesh. If Mr. Modi were to fight the Lok Sabha election from Uttar Pradesh, as is being speculated, the polarisation of votes will be acute and any freak result is possible given the uncertainties inherent in the FPTP system.

Typically, the vote share converts into seats in a very strange way in Uttar Pradesh. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, for instance, the BJP lost 4.7 per cent vote share and yet did not lose any seat compared with its 2004 tally. Conversely, the BSP gained a nearly three per cent vote share and added just one extra seat to its tally. The equation between vote share and seats works in strange ways. Mr. Modi will probably make it even more complex in 2014.

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