Many talks of elections centre around arguments about the mandate of the ‘majority’ and the scale of the ‘minority’ (in terms of numbers, or shift). These elections are thought of as the reflection of democratic will and harbinger of the government of the day, and philosophers like Alexis de Tocqueville have spoken of the dangers of a ‘tyranny of the majority’ in democratic societies.
How true or relevant is that, for us in India today? With my academic training in political science coupled with fieldwork during the recent assembly polls in Gujarat, I try to make sense of Indian elections and the electoral system. The questions that intrigue me are:
- What explains the mindset of citizens or their voting behaviour as they head to polls after polls, local, state or national?
- How are the ideals of democracy related to reconciled with its institutional practice and everyday manifestations?
- What do terms like majority; which invoke legitimate mandate as well as sound alarm bells; mean and what do they translate to in a democratic exercise involving millions of people?
Abraham Lincoln’s dictum “Democracy is the rule by/of/for the people” is practically heard by all of us. Unlike its origins, today it is not practically possible for all people to rule by themselves. Therefore, in the modern world, we have ‘indirect democracies’ where a class of politicians do the business of representing the will of the people, or at least the mandate of the majority, or so we are told. This idea of democracy is realised through the mechanism of elections, competitive party politics and universal suffrage.
Radical for its time, India granted Universal Adult Franchise to all its citizens, ensured by Sec. 171 A (b) of IPC and Sec. 79 (d) of the Representatives of Peoples Act (1951), which guarantee the power of democracy in the hands of citizens as voters, which they can exercise at the ballot paper or via EVM.
Technical details aside, an electoral system includes the method used to calculate the number of elected positions in its government, which will be awarded to individual candidates or organized groups, aka political parties. In the case of India, UAF (which essentially means one-person, one-vote, one-value) is a key aspect of the democratic system, as it gives everyone an equal say in their government irrespective of who they are, via the conduct of free and fair elections held at regular intervals.
What’s interesting to note is the way in which these votes are translated into power (i.e. seats in a legislative assembly in the case of India or the position of presidency in USA) is altogether a very different ballgame. There are many types of electoral systems, like majoritarian, proportional, multi-tier and mixed, but we will look at one of the variants of the first one practised in India at the national (parliamentary) and state (assembly) levels.
It’s called the First-Past-The-Post system, or FPTP, which requires a candidate to secure unanimity, majority or plurality of votes within single-member territorially defined constituencies. Hence, FPTP is also known as “winner takes all”, “single member plurality voting” or the “simple majority” system, since the winning candidate, doesn’t even need to win a majority (50% +1) of votes to grab a seat, and theoretically, can still win with one vote of their own if say everyone else votes NOTA.
That doesn’t happen in the real world. What we do see in the politics of the real world is the claim of governments to represent the voice of the masses or at least the will of ‘the majority’. Is that actually or entirely true? Let’s see!
In the latest General Elections (to elect the 17th Lok Sabha) the ruling BJP secured a massive 303 seats out of 543, easily crossing the halfway 272 mark to form a full majority government. However, they did so only with 37.36% of the vote share, substantially less than a majority.
It gets even trickier if you see the total population of India, which stood at around 136 crores in 2019, out of which 91.2 crore were eligible/registered voters. Of that, 61.4 crore actually landed up at polls in April-May of that year to cast their votes, less than half of the total population. Out of those, about 22.9 crores voted for BJP. Proportionally, that’s just 16.7% or less than 1/5th of the total population, with which they formed a full majority government. And that’s the case not just with BJP, even Congress during its peak of 414 seats in 1984, never crossed 50% vote-share. Janta Party did cross it in 1977, but it was a rather unnatural amalgamation of many parties which fell apart.
To better understand this, let us imagine India as a hypothetical country of 100 people, distributed evenly in 9 seats. Out of 100, 90 are eligible voters, 10 in each seat. Out of 10, say 8 in each actually goes to vote. Now, one may vote NOTA, one to an independent candidate, one to a regional party, two for the main opposition and 3 votes go to the winning candidate. This shows that, in FPTP, the winning candidate needs the ‘single biggest cluster’ (not the majority) of votes to win.
And that too, the winning party only needs those 3 votes in 5 out of 9 seats. Of course, this is a hypothetical country.
In the real world, people are distributed in highly unequal proportions, and you also have demographic considerations, which can be used to manoeuvre “vote banks”. For instance, the state of Uttar Pradesh alone has 80 LS seats. In the 2014 General Elections, the BJP won 71 out of 80 seats with a 42% vote share, whereas the BSP scored none with 20%.
The majority principle of democracy is applied in the parliament while counting the seats awarded to parties to form the government, but not in the process of voting, and so the rest of the votes in a seat count for nothing. Unlike proportional systems, FPTP leads to ‘tactical voting’, wherein people do not vote for the candidate or party of their (actual) preference but for the one perceived to have a greater chance to win, voting for the ‘lesser evil’. Thus, such a system may produce a skewed result and give us a misleading picture of the popularity of a certain leader or the legitimacy of the regime.
What was historic about the BJP’s 7th consecutive victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2022 with 156 seats, was the fact that they went past the 50% vote-share mark. Not even the Left in its 3+ decades-long rule in West Bengal did even come close to such a vote share.
In times of such ‘opposition-mukt democracy’, there’s a risk that the authoritarian instincts of those pulling the strings from atop are emboldened. But those in power have also seen things turn out differently for them in no time. For instance, Rajiv Gandhi after securing the historic majority of 414 seats lead the INC to its second defeat in 1989, never to have a full majority again. In Gujarat itself, the previous record-holder Madhavsinh Solanki was forced to resign as CM within months of getting 149 seats in 1985…not because of any poll result, but due to agitations from the people.
Perhaps Mark Twain was partly right in asserting that “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it”. The other part should compel us, voters, to think about the way in which our votes are counted…not EVMs but about the electoral system itself.
Yash Jhaveri is a Post-Graduate student of Political Science at the M.S. University of Baroda, Gujarat, and has worked with political agencies and research centres in the city
- Official Website of the Election Commission of India (https://eci.gov.in/)
- Elections in India: An Overview by Sanjay Kumar (Routledge, 2022)
- Electoral Reforms: A Step Towards Good Governance by Manoj Agarwal (Prabhat Prakashan, 2015)
- Debating Electoral Systems: The first-past-the-post system remains preferable over proportional representation on Economic and Political Weekly, 7th June 2014, Vol. 49, No. 23, pp. 8-9, (https://www.jstor.org/stable/24479597)
- Minoritarian Rule: How India’s Electoral System Created the Illusion of a BJP Landslide by Geofrey Macdonald & Babak Moussa VI on Economic and Political Weekly, 21st February 2015, Vol. 50, No. 8, pp. 18-21, (https://www.jstor.org/stable/24481416)
- India’s Electoral System: Notes from the Law Commission’s 2015 Report by Geofrey Macdonald & Babak Moussa VI on Economic and Political Weekly, 12th December 2015, Vol. 50, No. 50, pp. 16-19, (https://www.jstor.org/stable/44002953)
- How Representative Has the Lok Sabha Been? By Arun Kaushik & Rupayan Pal on Economic and Political Weekly, 12th May 2012, Vol. 47, No. 19, pp. 74-78, (https://www.jstor.org/stable/23214979)
- Does the First-Past-The-Post System Still Make Sense for India? by Kruthika R on The Wire (https://thewire.in/government/india-elections-first-past-the-post)
- Electoral System Family on International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (https://www.idea.int/data-tools/question-view/130357)
- The Shift to Proportional Representation: Is it time for India? by Satish Mishra on ORF Issue Brief (https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-shift-to-proportional-representation-is-it-time-for-india/)
- Dual Problem of FPTP Electoral Systems: Evidence from the Indian States by Vivek Jadhav on Indian Public Policy Review (https://ippr.in/index.php/ippr/article/download/68/35/127)
- Losers all? Time to rethink first-past-the-post system by Suraj Yengde on The Indian Express (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/losers-all-time-to-rethink-first-past-the-post-system-indian-elections-7849904/)
- Debate: First Past the Post Means India is Only a Namesake Democracy by Abdullah Nasir & Priya Anuragini on The Wire (https://thewire.in/politics/debate-first-past-the-post-means-india-is-only-a-namesake-democracy)
- India – First Past the Post on a Grand Scale on The Electoral Knowledge Network (https://aceproject.org/main/english/es/esy_in.htm)
- BJP’s victory in Gujarat has an afterlife that we must pay attention to by Suhas Palshikar on The Indian Express (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/suhas-palshikar-gujarat-election-bjp-victory-afterlife-8314083/)
- BJP’s Gujarat win is more than just Modi magic by Amit Dholakia on The Indian Express (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/arun-dholakia-bjp-gujarat-win-modi-magic-8314094/)