India’s parliamentary democracy is going through a phase of intense confrontation between the dominant ruling party and a weakened but belligerent Opposition. Is this situation a consequence of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system , where a party with the the highest votes gets the seat even if it doesn't win a majority? Suhas Palshikar and E. Sridharan address this question in a discussion moderated by Srinivasan Ramani . Edited excerpts:
Prof. Palshikar, you had written recently about the emergence of a second dominant party system with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) becoming the central pole of Indian politics ever since it came to power at the Centre in 2014. Even if the BJP has now lost ground, with its vote share reducing in various State elections, it did retain its highest average cumulative vote share for election cycles. That said, what similarities and dissimilarities do you see with the hegemonic period of the Congress of the 1950s and ’60s?
Suhas Palshikar: The similarity is in the vote share numbers garnered by the dominant party and in its capacity to fragment the Opposition. In terms of numbers, a dominant party gets a disproportionately larger share in seats in legislatures compared to its vote share. The other similarity is in its ability to remain dominant by fragmenting the Opposition and so we see the recent discussions on Opposition unity.
The dissimilarities are evident in the roots of the dominance and the journeys towards it. The Congress emerged as a dominant party as a result of its contribution to the freedom struggle; the roles that Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others played then. It converted that legitimacy into electoral dominance. The BJP emerged in 2014 as electorally dominant and has since been trying to establish its hegemony. That is why I have argued that its hegemony is still in the making while it has become dominant electorally.
Dr. Sridharan, the hegemony enjoyed by the Congress in the 1950s and ’60s gave way to trends in Indian politics such as federalisation and regionalisation. So, even if we had the FPTP system, there was a certain degree of diversification that allowed for newer forces to emerge organically. Since 2019, the fact that the BJP has garnered a disproportionate seat share relative to its vote share has revived the critique of the FPTP. Your view?
E. Sridharan: The BJP’s dominance in both 2014 and 2019 was based on a plurality of votes (31% and 37%) converting into a majority of seats and is similar to the Congress’s dominance from 1952 to 1984 which was also based on vote share pluralities converting to seat majorities (sometimes two-thirds to three-fourths majority). The FPTP system tends to magnify the seat share of the party with the largest vote share, while parties receiving a lower vote share tend to get a much lower seat share. There are exceptions such as the Karnataka Assembly elections of 2008 and the Madhya Pradesh elections of 2018 where the party which got a slightly higher vote share got a lower seat share.
The BJP is today not as hegemonic as the Congress of the past. Forty-two of the 303 seats that it won in 2019 were in three States — Maharashtra, Punjab and Bihar — and were at least partially due to vote transfer from allies; seat shares have not reached two-thirds majority; and the party’s spread across States is less than the Congress’s in its heyday.
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As for the FPTP system, I would like to introduce Duverger’s law to your readers. [Maurice] Duverger, a French political scientist, argued that the FPTP system tends to bring about a two-party system at the constituency level. In countries like India, this translated into the establishment of a two-party system at the State level which happened between 1967 and 1989. Post-1990, this produced three kinds of bipolarity: Congress versus BJP in a number of States, Congress versus the Left in three States, and Congress versus regional parties in other States. This was an outcome of Duverger’s law operating at the State level.
At the national level, 2014 marked the end of a 25-year period of a coalition/minority government. And post-2014, there was the emergence of a second dominant party system. I don’t think that FPTP necessarily produces polarisation. If you look at the proportional representation (PR) system in Europe and elsewhere, where seats are allocated roughly in accordance with the vote share, that also produces distinct polarisations. Look at the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution which instituted the PR system. Since then, there has been ethnic polarisation despite the small parties getting seat shares higher than what they would have received in a FPTP system. Similarly in Israel, which also enjoys a thoroughgoing PR system, there is severe polarisation in ethnic, religious and political terms.
The FPTP system can’t be blamed for polarisation. Polarisation is linked to the politicisation of certain social cleavages. These cleavages are sometimes dormant in society and can become active or can be activated through mobilisations. When certain social cleavages are activated, that is when they get magnified by the electoral system.
Prof. Palshikar, today there is little dialogue between the ruling party and the Opposition. What explains this stasis?
Suhas Palshikar: I agree with Dr. Sridharan that it is not FPTP that is creating polarisation. One of the general reasons for the adversarial relations between the ruling party and the Opposition is the failure in institutionalising the parliamentary system, which presupposes a certain negotiation, a spirit of give and take and continuous deliberation between the ruling party and the Opposition.
We have failed in generating an institutional pattern for this tendency. I would locate the beginning of this as the time around the Emergency period when the spirit of dialogue dissipated. Since then, the dialogue process has been up and down. If you come to the current moment, I think it is the distrust between the ruling party and the Opposition that has produced this stasis. The problem is not about the institutional mechanisms that we adopt; it is in the processes that we implement those mechanisms. Those process-related issues can be located in social and other cleavages and how they play out in competitive politics. It is the extreme competitive nature of our polity and the frustrations that come with the presence of a dominant party in the system besides the arrogance that stems from electoral dominance that leads to an inability to engage with the Opposition.
E. Sridharan: The confrontational situation in Parliament and other legislatures has heightened in the last couple of years. This is due to the sharpening of the ideological level in politics, which reflects the cleavages in the society, and to the suspicion that the fundamentals of the system are being sought to be changed.
The ruling BJP is not a similar hegemonic force as the Congress in the sense that it had in its manifesto issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. In a way, the BJP has an agenda that is beyond the constitutional consensus that guides the policies of most political parties in India. Is this a reason for the current state of affairs too?
Suhas Palshikar: Just to supplement what Prof. Sridharan said, we witness today a new phase that is marked by a confrontation that is not merely one of political contestation in the ordinary sense of the term. Here is a party that wants to change the entire system fundamentally and other parties are still not sure how to respond to that. They instinctively oppose it but at the same time they understand that the difference is in the approach of the dominant party, that they have to adapt/adjust to that stance so that they garner enough votes in the next election. This confusion among the non-BJP parties produces not just distrust but lack of clarity on what ideological positions they must take during the ideological onslaught or the offensive of the BJP. The BJP has now changed the terms of how the political contestation will be held ideologically, and the inability of the non-BJP parties to appreciate and respond to this and to produce an alternative narrative has led to a frustration that is reflected in their various responses to the BJP.
E. Sridharan: There is a perception that the ruling party is pushing against the constitutional consensus, which is fairly strong in our system. There are about three and a half layers of protection to the basic structure of our Constitution. The government needs a two-thirds majority in both Houses subject to the presence of at least 50% of the House in attendance. The government has a clear but not a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. It doesn’t have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. In order to make constitutional amendments, it must get the support of smaller parties, which it has been able to get so far.
Then, it has to go through judicial review — the courts have so far not pronounced on some of the controversial issues that have come up in the last few years.
Finally, for some articles on Centre-State relations, it has to pass them through half the State Assemblies.
There are ideological shifts going on and new social cleavages that have been activated that have changed the political landscape.
Can it be said that federal issues are emerging as the area of contestation with the BJP on the one side and regional parties on the other?
Suhas Palshikar: In principle, the flashpoint in the next five years or so could be the federal relations between the Centre and the States on fiscal or other administrative and political matters. The various State parties are still not sufficiently aware of this possibility and therefore they are busy buying peace with the ruling party at the Centre, rather than confronting it. I don’t see any direct flashpoint emerging politically between the State parties and the BJP immediately, though.
Also, the ability of the BJP or any Central government in the last three decades to directly transfer resources to local bodies in the States bypassing the State government besides controlling the administrations of the States has weakened the State parties’ ability to take on the Central government. Objectively, they are not in a position to do so and subjectively, they are not sure how to pitch the fight. Therefore, we have a fascinating period where there is all the making of a federal flashpoint, but at the same time, the actual flashpoints may be somewhere else in reality.
Do you see a mixture of postures — negotiation, confrontation and adjustment by various regional parties vis-à-vis the Centre? The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) using one ploy, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) using another, and so on?
Suhas Palshikar: I would use the word ‘acquiescence’ to describe how the BJD, YSRCP and the TRS’s relations are with the Centre.
To bring the discussion back to the electoral system, is a FPTP system with a preference rule system to go along with it a better form of voting than the FPTP system?
E. Sridharan: The Australian electoral system is fairly similar to what you talk about, where the first choice party with the plurality vote share will receive second/third choices of the voter in a process of elimination from the bottom, till it reaches the 50% threshold to be declared the winner. I think such an alternative system should be assessed in terms of the ease of its use for the voters. It would not be easy to operate in India. Second, as regards the provision that a party must get 50% of the votes through preference voting, this would actually make it easier for the leading candidate to bridge the gap between, say, 40% to 50% as compared to someone else who gets 25% and could possibly contribute to the same kind of magnified majoritarianism that FPTP does in its own institutional way. So, it may not be that different.
Suhas Palshikar: To put an extra burden on the voter in the act of voting is unfair and that is why this is not to my liking. Second, the 50% mark, as Prof. Sridharan pointed out, is artificially achieved.
We need to go back to the drawing board on what is the real issue with FPTP, which is the disproportionate number of seats accrued by a party despite a lower vote share. However, if the political system is adequately competitive, that aspect of the FPTP system gets politically neutralised and parties tend to get a share of seats which is roughly commensurate to their vote share also.
The other issue with the FPTP is that the threshold is so high that newer parties cannot enter the fray. Therefore, I suggest that rather than the alternative you are talking about, one can talk about a system that will supplement FPTP — let’s say have 10% of the seats in the legislature which are included based on the parties’ vote shares. This will ensure an entry point for smaller/ newer parties and keep the political system more competitive.
The larger point is if we artificially try to make the political system fairer, the natural competitiveness gets distorted and that is why I would generally prefer FPTP, both on the grounds of voters’ convenience and a natural competitiveness being allowed in the system.
E. Sridharan: I think there is sufficient diversity at the societal level. There is the theory that in a socially diverse country, the party system will be diverse — it will not be limited to a two-party system. India seems to support the effective production of multiple parties at the national level even if the FPTP system limits the competition to a bipolar system in the States because these are a multiplicity of bipolarities (for example, BJP-Congress, BJP-regional party, etc.) and not the same bipolarity.
E. Sridharan is Academic Director and Chief Executive at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India, and Editor-in-Chief of India Review; Suhas Palshikar taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics