AAP sweep: Has the Opposition become irrelevant in our democracy?

Aditya Menon
Aditya MenonFeb 12, 2015 | 11:13

AAP sweep: Has the Opposition become irrelevant in our democracy?

With his Aam Aadmi Party winning 67 out of the 70 seats in the Delhi elections, Arvind Kejriwal could have added insult to the BJP's injury by refusing it the post of the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the Delhi legislative Assembly.

According to the norms, a party needs to secure more than ten per cent of the seats to nominate its LoP. If it falls below the ten per cent mark, it is up to the Speaker, who is naturally from the ruling party, to decide whether or not to have an LoP. AAP has been magnanimous enough to say that it will let one of the three BJP MLAs be the LoP.


Of course, less than only nine months ago, the BJP failed to show this magnanimity at the national level by denying the 44-member Congress the LoP position in the Lok Sabha. Whether Delhi or the nation deserves a Leader of the Opposition shouldn't even be a matter of debate. Not having a LoP is an insult to the mandate of the people. But a House without an LoP is only a manifestation of a worrying trend that is emerging in our democracy: The so-called "decisive mandates" are making the Opposition toothless or even irrelevant. There are two different elements to this problem. First, the shortcomings of the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system are leading to "winner-takes-it-all" kind of results, like the one we saw in Delhi. Second is the lack of internal democracy within political parties which, when combined with a landslide electoral victories, leads to the formation of authoritarian governments.

Winner-takes-it-all electoral system

Our elections are based on the FPTP system, in which a candidate needs to secure the highest number of votes in a particular seat, to be declared the winner. This may not amount to more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in the seat. The votes cast for the losing candidates, even if it is a few percentage points less than the winner, go completely waste. A good example was the BSP's performance in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which it failed to win even a single seat despite garnering 19.6 per cent of the votes in the state. So one in every five people in Uttar Pradesh voted for the BSP but the party has no representation in the House of the people. A similar proportion of votes were cast for the Congress at the national level (19.3 per cent, to be precise) and yet the party failed to win even ten per cent of the total number of seats, which deprived it of the LoP position in the Lok Sabha. As many as 10.6 crore people vote for the party and yet it doesn't get to have an LoP. The BJP's position in the recent Assembly elections in Delhi is similar. Every third Dilliwala voted for the saffron party, but their choice is hardly reflected in the three MLAs who would be a minuscule minority in the House of 70.


The table below looks at the Delhi election, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and three different state elections, in which a smaller lead in terms of vote share led to an enormous gap in the number of seats won.

ElectionWinning PartyVote Share (in Per Cent)Percentage of Seats WonDifference between seat share and vote share (in per cent)Runner-upVote Share (in per cent)Percentage of Seats WonDifference between seat share and vote share (in per cent)
Delhi Assembly 2015 AAP 54.395.7+41.4 BJP 32.24.3-27.9
Lok Sabha 2014 BJP 3151.9+20.9 Congress19.38.1-11.2
Rajasthan Assembly 2013 BJP 4681.5+35.5 Congress 33.710.5-23.2
Madhya Pradesh Assembly 2013 BJP 44.971.7+26.8 Congress 36.425.2-11.2
Tamil Nadu Assembly 2011 AIADMK 38.464.1+25.7 DMK22.410-12.4

Now, the alternative to the FPTP system is a system of proportional representation (PR), in which seats are given based on the proportion between the votes polled by the party and the total number of votes. The same elections above would have very different results had the elections taken place under a system of proportional representation.

 ElectionWinning PartySeats wonSeats won under PRDifferenceRunner-upSeats wonSeats won under PRDifference
Delhi Assembly 2015 AAP 6738+29 BJP323-20
Lok Sabha 2014 BJP282168+114 Congress44105-61
Rajasthan Assembly 2013 BJP16392+71 Congress2167-46
Madhya Pradesh Assembly 2013 BJP165103+62 Congress5883-25
Tamil Nadu Assembly 2011 AIADMK15090+60 DMK2352-29

This huge differential between the vote share and seats won shows that in this "winner-takes-it-all" system, the choice of a very large chunk of voters is not reflected in the final result. The government that comes to power isn't as representative of the will of the people as the number seats would have us to believe. This opens the space for another kind of majoritarian politics.

Dictatorial parties in a democracy

One party domination of a state polity or even a national polity isn't problematic if parties themselves represent a coalition of social and interest groups. The Indian National Congress in the pre-Indira Gandhi era did come close to such an ideal, in that it gave space to leaders from diverse ideological, regional, religious and caste backgrounds. Political parties today have become highly centralised. If the Congress is ruled by a high command culture, two power centres call the shots in the BJP: The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo in Delhi and the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.


The checks and balances are even weaker at the state level. Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa are cases in point. No one in their respective parties dares to question their writ. And with the huge majorities they enjoy in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively, the state is basically being run according to their personal whims. It is hardly surprising that with Jayalalithaa being forced to quit after her conviction, the state is said to have come to a standstill. But these two are very obvious examples. Naveen Patnaik's Odisha is no different. Patnaik who has been the chief minister of Odisha since 2000, enjoys unquestioned authority in the Biju Janata Dal, a party named after his father Biju Patnaik. Even a cursory look at the BJD's posters in Odisha reveal the power relations within the BJD. In the foreground of the poster, you would see a picture of a candidate or a party leader with his hands folded in devotion, with a many-times larger image of Patnaik smiling benevolently in the background.

Leaders like Patnaik, Amma and Didi brook no opposition within their party. Even in parties like the Samajwadi Party, DMK and Rashtriya Janata Dal, internal opposition is often reduced to intra-family dynamics - for example Pappu Yadav versus Lalu Yadav in RJD, Shivpal Yadav versus Akhilesh Yadav in SP, Alagiri versus Stalin versus Kanimozhi in the DMK.

Is the AAP going to be any different? It's too early to say. Kejriwal and other leaders like Yogendra Yadav claim that AAP has very robust mechanisms for internal democracy and it will never become a one man show. But then some AAP members who left the party do claim that people who speak against Kejriwal do get shouted down in party meetings.

This is not to make a case against the FPTP system or in favour of proportional representation. But our political parties need to undergo thorough democratisation. Otherwise our democracy would be little more than a confederacy of authoritarian polities, perhaps with an authoritarian centre as well.  

Last updated: February 12, 2015 | 11:13
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