Reflecting on Modi’s mandate with an emphasis on India’s electoral systems
Ever since Narendra Modi steered the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a resounding victory in the 2014 Indian elections for the 16th Lok Sabha, the character and magnitude of his victory has become the subject of much debate and contention.
The spectacular elements of the verdict include a first time simple majority for the BJP alone (282), close to a 2/3rd majority (335) for the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the highest electoral turnout (66.4%) in Indian electoral history. Moreover, this is the first time since 1984 when a national party has secured a majority on its own which ended a 30 year era of coalition governments.
Modi’s bitter critics mostly represented by India’s dominant intellectual elite comprising the Nehruvian ‘secularists’ and left-liberals who participated in creating and perpetuated a ghastly but largely fictitious narrative over Modi’s alleged suspect handling of the 2002 riots. After the verdict, instead of graciously accepting the people’s mandate, some of these disgruntled liberals have insinuated against its validity and argued that the verdict was rendered possible by a flawed first pass the post system (FPTP) prevalent in India.
For instance, Harsh Mander in a perfervid narrative attributed Modi’s victory to a “puzzling arithmetic of India’s first-past-the-post election system, only one in three voters backed the winning side, whereas two voted against it“. Promoting the proportional representation system as a just alternative to the vagaries of the FPTP system is their expected corollary.
An enthusiastic commentator from the far left, Shuddhabrata Sengupta even dubbed the verdict representing the electoral choice of merely 14% of Indians. Others have blamed the entire electoral verdict on BJP’s politics of “polarization” and the fragmentation of the “secular vote”.
Although, one could rhetorically admonish the proponents of the FPTP critics on grounds of opportunism and timing especially when UPA-1 came to power after surprising dethroning an incumbent NDA government in 2004, we believe, nevertheless, that understanding the nature of Modi’s mandate is significant for several reasons.
First, Modi is credited with being a decisive leader and some of his decisions on contentious public policy will ultimately need the moral legitimacy arising from a clear mandate. Second, we need to know if the mandate is representative of Modi’s politics of “development with non appeasement”.
Third, we should explore if the application of the FPTP system creates unjust mandates and whether proportional representation (PR) represents a finer alternative. Finally, it should be understood if the mandate is a statistical aberration where the conversion of votes to seats has been hitherto unlike any other in Indian electoral history.
Our objectives would be to evaluate the contemporary status and rationale of the FPTP in India, to locate Modi’s mandate within Indian electoral history, the possibility and consequences of the PR system in Indian, to ascertain the plausible reasons for Muslim underrepresentation in the Indian parliament and whether it represents subtle majoritiarian discrimination.
FIRST PASS THE POST IN INDIA: A CONTEMPORARY ESTIMATE
India after independence adopted a parliamentary system of democracy with a Single Member District – First Pass the Post System (FPTP). The FPTP represents a majoritarian electoral system where the candidate who secures the maximum votes wins the election without necessarily securing an absolute (> 50%) majority. There exist certain variations to the FPTS with the alternative (preference) system chief among them.
During the first general elections in 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who was destined to lead India for 17 years until his death and the undisputed leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) expectedly won a handsome majority with a whopping 364 (76%) of seats. Yet, curiously the Congress managed to secure just 45% of votes cast (the turnout was a dismal 44%). This was in spite of the Congress Party’s inimitable electoral resources, thanks largely to its pre independent legacy and years in government. Subsequently, the Congress Party formed several governments without reaching an absolute majority in terms of vote share.
Since 1989 a new era of post majority Congress dawned upon the nation dramatically both in terms of seats and votes (ignoring the aberration of 1977 when a largely united opposition politically avenged the emergency excesses of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian regime).
In the 2014 elections, the BJP secured 31% of the votes alone while it reached 38.5% with its NDA partners in a pre-poll alliance with Modi as the designated Prime ministerial nominee. Modi’s critics simplistically interpret it as more than 60% of the electorate voting against Modi. We shall evaluate this argument in line with our predefined objectives.
In 1967, the INC won 282 of the 520 seats in parliament with a 40.3% vote-share, marginally higher than the 38.5% secured by the NDA. Therefore, the Modi led NDA’s relatively lower voteshare is not unprecedented in Indian electoral history; rather it is comparable to some in a pre 1989 era of decisive Congress victories. It could be argued that in absence of a pre poll alliance the BJP would have got a reduced mandate compared to the NDA’s nearly 2/3rd majority.
However, in terms of vote share, the BJP which contested only 428 seats would definitely have done much better and probably approached the current NDA vote-share had it contested the 115 odd seats it left for its allies.
Moreover, unpopular allies may also have cost it some votes in certain areas while being a national party it was more successful in transferring its vote to its partners. Therefore, the outcome of a hypothetical BJP alone scenario would have been anywhere between 282 and 335 seats with vote-share nearly identical to that of the current NDA.
We must be cautious against over interpretation here since the Congress party was never in alliance during its dominant majority days.
A similar line of critical inquiry by the Times of India alleges that “this is a government with the lowest popular vote in terms of vote share after the Rao government“. This is a specious argument as post-poll coalitions especially those based on political opportunism and political blackmail cannot be a genuine reflection of popular mandate and are not morally equivalent to principled pre poll alliances.
We may recall that during the no confidence motion faced by the Congress led UPA-1 government after the communist party’s withdrawal of support in 2008 in opposition to the Indo US Nuclear Deal, serious allegations of horse trading were made by several opposition parties including the communists and the infamous “cash for votes” scam had shamed parliament.
Third, the BJP or Modi were not the exclusive or disproportionate beneficiaries in the 2014 LS elections. The Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK in Orissa and Tamil Nadu respectively won almost all their contested seats despite not obtaining an absolute majority in terms of vote share.
In recent assembly elections of India, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal saw landslide victories for the opposition without reaching close to the absolute majority in terms of voteshare. The only notable exceptions are the 2013 BJP victories in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where electoral majority was attained both in terms of voteshare and seatshare.
Fourth, it is difficult to envisage how Modi’s mandate is qualitatively or quantitatively any different from those secured in other FPTP systems around the world. The premise of the FPTP system is built upon engineering decisive majorities to preserve governability and maintain efficiency even if at the expense of democracy’s consensual goals like those of fair representativeness and inclusiveness.
In Great Britain since World War II, power has been shared between labour and conservative governments with the liberal democrats at best playing spoilsport. In 1983, the liberal democrats secured 25.2% votes but won a mere 3.5% seats. In 2005, the conservatives with 32.5% of the vote and won 30% seats while the labour party with a marginally higher 35% of the vote won a staggering 55% of the seats. The nature of the FPTP system provides a definitive advantage to the frontrunner and so India is no exception.
As for FPTP variations, the alternative (preferential vote) system which provides for an instant run off and in a stepwise progression eliminates the least popular candidates in order to select a candidate with an absolute majority is appealing but requires rank ordering of candidates for which voter literacy becomes a precondition and hence becomes largely unfeasible in the Indian context.
Considering, Narendra Modi was the leading choice for Prime Minister throughout India even in states where the BJP had a poor geographical footprint as evident from all major pre-poll surveys; a preferential voting system one may speculate should have benefited the BJP except in a handful of minority dominated seats.
Finally, the claim that those who did not vote for the BJP did not necessarily endorse Modi for PM is spurious and exhibits a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the FPTP system.
In a FPTP based democracy, the average voter without deep ideological underpinnings often does not like to waste his vote and often indulges in strategic voting to ensure victory of a relatively desirable party / candidate especially if his first choice has no realistic hope of winning. Therefore, in states where the BJP’s organizational structure was weak with few popular local leaders, potential BJP voters may have voted for parties like the BJD and the AIADMK especially considering their previous association and history with relatively high chances of post-poll alignment in an expanded NDA coalition.
THE POSSIBILITIES FOR PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION IN INDIA
Traditionally, the FPTP coupled with a parliamentary democracy creates a highly majoritarian form of democratic government where an electoral majority can be derived from a weak plurality. The FPTP system often provides a critical seatshare boost for the frontrunner especially in a multi-party contest with fragmentation of opposition vote especially when coupled with a low index of opposition unity. The FPTP derived governments with independent preferably one party majorities are superior in terms of governability, decision making capacity, decreased susceptibility to extremist politics or ideological compromise with overall improved efficiency.
The drawbacks of a majoritarian model are rooted in what Arend Lipjhart, the renowned political scientist calls the competing ‘consensual’ model of democracy. The democratic goals of adequate representativeness to all important ethnic, minority and even political groups in proportion to their population or voteshare is a cherished goal for votaries of the consensual model.
The just attainment of consensual goals, they argue requires application of a PR system which seeks to translate the percentage of votes attained by parties into equitable number of seats with variations depending upon the system of election and mathematical quotas. The problem with a PR system is the immense fragmentation of popular vote which renders possibility of single party majorities rather remote.
Further, this often necessitates creation of unstable coalition governments where parties at the centre have to reach out to extremist parties at the left/right who in spite of their small voteshares enjoy disproportionate clout in government.
There may be several barriers to the implementation of a PR system in India. First, there is the paradox of a nation which despite pursuing an extreme majoritarian SMD-FPTP parliamentary democracy has seen several unstable coalition governments in the past three decades suffering from the defects usually associated with the PR system. This is mostly due to its unique heterogenous demography, geographically situated ethnic concentrations, linguistic division of states and caste based and minority votebank politics.
Consequently, the application of the PR system in any form can actually extinguish the possibility of India achieving stable single party rule and push the country towards permanent policy paralysis, political uncertainty and decline.
Second, the PR system usually requires creation of multi member districts. The actual constitutional roadblock to the FPTP may therefore follow from the Representation of People’s Act which has been consecutively amended to freeze the number of electoral districts for respective states to populations drawn from the 1971 census.
Such a move was necessitated by the demand by India’s Southern states to preserve their political weight in the parliament in light of their successful family control measures compared to the rest of India which lagged behind in controlling their fertility rates.
Third, the FPTP is the actual bulwark against potential demographic aggression by politically astute and disgruntled communities who may feel empowered by the idea of population proportions translating into actual seats. Such competing ‘demographic politics’ could potentially undermine the long term objectives of population stabilization in India.
Fourth, PR systems globally have devised ways to limit voter fragmentation. One such popular device is the ‘election threshold’ method which stands for the minimum percentage of votes required by a party for it to be eligible to win seats and representation. The election threshold ranges from a small 2% in Israel to as high as 10% in Turkey. In the Indian context, a 2% threshold would mean absence of representation of small regional parties and probably even AAP from parliament.
A 5% threshold would eliminate all the major regional parties while a 10% threshold would even eliminate the left. Therefore, a PR system when applied appropriately can actually reinforce bipolarity. In Turkey and Russia with PR systems coupled with a relatively higher election threshold, non representation of more than 40% voters in parliament is the unstated norm. In such situations, the nature of representation in the PR system may approach that in FPTP systems.
THE CONUNDRUM OF MINORITY UNDEREPRESENTATION
Muslims constitute around 14% of the Indian population but Muslim MPs were elected in just above 4% seats which is the lowest figure in Indian electoral history. This had caused considerable consternation among ‘secular’ liberals who advance typical theories of minority under-representation as an unfortunately and illiberal consequence of Hindu discrimination.
The columnist and known Modi baiter Hartosh Singh Bal lamented that “never before in this country has a prime minister been elected so emphatically while being so unrepresentative of the minorities“. However, Muslim underrepresentation as a phenomenon was evident in previous Lok Sabha elections too.
It is a patent fact that the Muslim community’s demographic clout especially in states like UP, Bihar and Bengal, their theologically driven community imagination, anxieties and aspirations and belief in their religious identity being the fountainhead of discrimination being the factors which usually ensure consolidated voting against the BJP have often been celebrated in Indian liberal circles.
In 2009 when Sonia Gandhi’s UPA trounced a defensive BJP led by the aged L K Advani several such commentators warned the party of perpetual days in opposition unless they abandoned their Hindutva ideology and got to mend fences with the Muslim electorate without whose consent government formation would be impossible.
Unfortunately for them, Modi’s emphatic victory negated their dire predictions and demolished their belief in ‘minority veto‘ as an article of faith. The unleashing of the taboo of “Muslim under-representation” is an outcome of such ideological resentment and a puerile effort in besmirching the mandate of its highly affirmative character.
Such ostensible theories also tend to mask the rabid communal polarization predominantly engineered by most anti BJP parties and their intellectual allies in the run up to the 2014 election. The triple strategy involved a continuing cabal of Modi demonization and vilification, the pertinacious playing of a singularly dubious narrative of Muslim victimhood and instilling a false belief, if not a sense of power among the Muslim electorate that their considerable numbers and consolidated voting would definitely ensure Modi’s defeat.
The call of the clerics and fundamentalists may have further fueled the atmosphere in states like UP and Bihar. Nevertheless, polarization by itself is an inadequate explanation when explaining the magnitude of Modi’s victory since even during the extreme polarization of the 90s in the aftermath of the Ram Janamabhoomi movement, the BJP’s tally in the UP-Bihar region could not match the current mandate.
The eminent journalist Tavleen Singh during her extensive ground reporting observed that for most Hindus especially the youth this election was not about old issues like the Ram Temple. Instead, the new issues which propelled Modi to power were those relating to their developmental needs and belief in his “Gujarat Model” with its transparent mechanisms for provision of clean drinking water, electricity, toilets, jobs for youth, irrigation for agriculture, roads and women safety.
Moreover, the sanctimonious liberal discourse which in the liberal sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan’s frank admission “treated minority violations as superior to majoritarian prejudices” probably played its role in convincing the fence sitter’s towards giving Modi a chance to fulfill his innovative developmental agenda.
The distinguished constitutional expert D D Basu in his splendid exposition of the Indian constitution had observed the beginning of a disturbing trend in Indian polity in which “…the manifestos of Congress( I) and the Janata Dal for the 1991 elections promised reservations for the minorities in government service and the armed forces” (Introduction to the constitution of India, 19E, p. 417). Similarly, the Congress led UPA in its tenure made several attempts to create separate sub quotas for Muslims but was unsuccessful in overriding constitutional roadblocks.
We infer that Muslims may have been tempted to vote for ‘secular’ parties which promised them exclusive endowments ranging from educational scholarships, loans, job and educational reservations.
In other words many Muslims opted to vote for parties which promised them as a community primacy to entitlement in sharp contrast to the message of the BJP led Modi who advanced an attractive developmental agenda for the poor but irrespective of their creed and religion. Not surprisingly, all seven BJP Muslim contestants tasted defeat in this wave election.
R Jagannathan early into the election campaign after the Patna blasts noticed this cynical and morally vacuous “secular” gameplan which attempted to deploy the specter of BJP to “frighten the daylights out of the average Muslim so that he exercises his vote to defeat that party“.
Nevertheless, the hypothesis that majority Muslims actually vote for ‘secular’ anti BJP parties out of fear and not informed choice as suggested even by some BJP supporting right of centre ideologues is a misleading construct not borne out of any empirical evidence.
As it is, the marginally higher Hindu representation in parliament is immaterial as there are no far right parties in parliament representative of exclusive Hindu communal interests. There is no Hindu counterpart to the IUML or MIM.
Although majority of candidates elected on ‘secular’ party tickets like that of Congress, Left and TMC are Hindus, their utter dependence on the Muslim vote has over the years rendered them incapable of even appreciating legitimate Hindu concerns and issues of human right violations like that relating to rehabilitation of Kashmiri pandits or Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Furthermore, the illusion of Hindu overrepresentation also stems from a special plea of not recognizing caste based minorities and treating Hindus as a homogenous monolithic category.
CONCLUSION: INTERPRETING MODI’s MANDATE
Modi’s victory is the bouleversement moment in Indian electoral history where the developmental aspirations of a new generation of Indians have overcome the fragmentary forces of caste politics. Analysis of several exit poll data is suggestive of Modi gaining significant traction among Dalit and tribal voters even in areas where they have been traditionally reluctant in voting for the party. The BJP alone won a majority of reserved scheduled caste and tribal seats which highlights the inclusive and integrating nature of Modi’s campaign.
The overall dimension of Modi’s victory is nonpareil in Indian electoral history and perhaps the greatest when considering the political hegemony of the incumbent Congress government and the joint cultural hegemony of the leftist-liberal ecosystem. As for the failure of Modi to win substantial Muslim votes, it is no more unfortunate than the inability of Congress and likeminded parties to win votes of those with a Hindu nationalist persuasion.
Modi’s ascent to power marks a fitting and radical change in Indian polity – where empowerment and good governance triumph over barely concealed ‘dole for votes’ politics in the name of entitlement, the impending eclipse of ‘Nehruvian secularism’ as an electoral agenda, the existential crisis of fragmentary caste based parties and where a government’s time bound performance in terms of deliverables emerges as the decisive election winning criterion.