Lok Sabha 2019: Why India intrinsically votes for coalitions

Majority governments have been the exception, not the norm in India. There are multiple reasons to explain why the Indian voter likes it this way.

 |  6-minute read |   16-03-2019
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“Maha-Milavat (grand adulteration),” that’s how India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi contemptuously disregards his political opponents as they work towards coalescing into a formidable united force comprising of several national and state parties.

The irony is palpable. Modi’s own National Democratic Alliance (NDA), where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the dominant majority partner, comprises over 40 alliance partners, albeit that has dwindled as India approaches its General Elections of 2019 in a few weeks, commencing April 11.

uddhav-690_031519045234.jpgThe National Democratic Alliance government was a coalition of over 40 parties. (Source: India Today)

The comprehensive defeat of the BJP in the state elections of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan by the Congress has clearly upended calculations of those who were assuming that Modi would luxuriously cruise home, courtesy his flamboyant histrionics, often bizarre claims and muscular grandstanding.

It is not happening.

Thus, the BJP has curated a seemingly twisted narrative which seems to me inherently hypocritical (as Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are doing exactly the same themselves, huddling up political partners) by rubbishing coalitions as being 'unstable' and self-serving. Arun Jaitley, former Finance Minister, about whom I wonder whether he has perhaps found an alternate career as a blogger, called the emerging Mahagathbandhan “chaos”. The apocalyptic rhetoric is deliberate — it is meant to scare. But he is wrong.

Here is why.

A look at the popular verdicts in several General Elections tells an interesting story of India’s federal structure, comprising of its various states (currently 29) and its voting patterns.

Let me put it straight — India has invariably involuntarily voted for a mixed coalition. Majority governments have happened on account of two factors — the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) of whoever gets the maximum votes, not the majority. Second, a fragmented opposition that enables the winner to win more seats.

In 2014, the two big national parties, the Congress and the BJP, aggregated just 51% of the popular vote and 326 seats out of 543.

In 2009, the figures were not drastically different. They got 322 seats, and 48% of the votes. The year 2004 saw the total number of seats at 283 and a vote share of about 50%.

maha-690_031519045627.jpgIndia has invariably voted for a mixed coalition. (Source: PTI)

Now, rewind to the extraordinary landslide election of 1984 that saw the Congress score a spectacular unprecedented 404 seats in Parliament (75% of total seats) — and yet, the grand old party’s vote count was only 49.2%. The majority of Indians still voted non-Congress.

For all General Elections, you will get similar scenarios. For instance, in 1999, the BJP got a sizeable 182 seats (23%) while, despite having a larger vote share of 28%, the Congress stood attenuated at only 114 seats. The underlying message is clear from the statistical takeaway — India votes differently in a national election, both region-wise and state-wise. A ‘wave’ does not signify a gargantuan sea-burst, but just a giant ripple that is good enough and more pan-India which gives the leading party increased turf to encash a positive trend. Basically, it increases the size of the pie.

The BJP, which rode this massive wave, still received just 31% votes but got a disproportionately higher 282 seats in 2014 Lok Sabha. Many voted for them because the BJP was allied to a regional party that was their first preference. But if the mini-alliances and grand alliance collaborate effectively on their electoral calculus in 2019 as it appears to be, that number can easily get halved even if the BJP’s vote share does not concomitantly see a similar dip.

What else explains the anomaly that the BJP, with 18% of votes, got 116 seats in 2009, while the Congress with reportedly higher vote share of 19.5% hit a historical low of 44 seats five years later?

A concentration of votes in specific pockets gives a political party a sizeable advantage in seat conversion because the FPTP enables it.

But that cannot be deduced to mean a nation-wide approbation of that party’s acceptance.

Jaitley, I assume, knows all this but is being too clever by half, in my view.

arun-690_031519045452.jpgArun Jaitley, who is calling the Mahagathbandhan a 'chaos', knows the truth about voting patterns in India. (Source: India Today)

One has to look at the by-election results of the three Parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh to understand my point.

In Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana, the BJP had won with massive leads in 2014. And yet, when the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) came together, the BJP lost. In Kairana, when the Congress joined the Mahagathbandhan, the margins widened further. This, despite the fact that in Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath had won successively five times and was the chief minister experiencing his first year honeymoon period. The BJP still polled a high number of votes, but was substantially short. It was an uncomplicated algorithm at play.

What Jaitley apparently fails to comprehend is India’s bountiful diversity. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari is like traversing through half of Europe. Indians vote for a combination of factors — ideology, personal experience, national factors, local issues, immediate compulsions, leadership, public perception, manifesto assurances, caste-religion affiliations, etc.

Psephologists make reductionist arguments to simplify their arguments, but predicting an Indian election result is unfathomably tricky. Because since Independence, Indians have not given a majority vote even once to a single political party, the closest being 1984, which was a unique black swan election.

From 1991 to 2014, the leading party in government in fact got less than 30% vote-share.

Thus, India votes always for independent formations which then converge into coalitions or on account of seat adjustments in a pre-election agreement which begets a windfall gain. Unlike business entities which, over a period of time, see mega-consolidation and corporate mergers, in Indian politics, we see a reverse proliferation of newer parties — and further fragmentation.

It is the reality of India.

A majority government therefore just happens on account of alliances, the concentration of favourable votes in areas where a party has strong tailwinds — and a splintered Opposition.

This is not chaos, Mr Jaitley. This is India.

There is a method in the madness of our pluralistic society. Modi and Jaitley’s condescension for India’s secular diversity, to my mind, reveals their parochial mindset. India votes coalitions — a majority government is only a collateral byproduct.

Interestingly, as the comparison of UPA 1 and UPA 2 with Modi’s NDA 2's five years show, coalitions give you higher GDP growth rates, lower income inequalities, better social harmony, a liberal environment, enhanced national security, free media and democratic institutions that are not pulverised.

But that is altogether another story.

Also read: Why I think Tom Vadakkan leaving the Congress is good riddance

Writer

Sanjay Jha Sanjay Jha @jhasanjay

National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party. Co-author, The Superstar Syndrome.

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