A Flawed Democracy – The Case for Proportional Representation in India: Srinivasan Ramani
Guest post by SRINIVASAN RAMANI
For all the chest thumping and tomtoming about the Samajwadi Party’s emphatic victory – winning 224 seats out of 403 in the UP Assembly elections – a true reflection of the mandate is to be seen in the individual vote shares of the four main (“effective”) parties in the elections (the Bahujan Samaj Party – Bhartiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party, and the Congress – in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal). Data from the Election Commission of India website shows the following in terms of vote shares:
In other words, a mere vote share of 29.3% was enough to garner 226 seats for the SP (see figure 1 for the discrepancy) while the BSP was to be satisfied with only 80 seats despite garnering only about 3.4% lesser than the SP. See this chart:
To be fair to the SP, the 2007 assembly elections also had a similar picture as shown below:
The 2012 Assembly Elections
A closer look at the election results – which was a tight four cornered contest in many constituencies – is warranted, because of the low swing in the favour of the SP that still enabled it to win very handsomely seat wise. After a detailed look at the numbers, we shall then proceed to substantiate some normative arguments about the party system, the electoral system and how this matters in terms of the political economy of the state.
Candidates secured more than 50% of the overall votes in only 16 constituencies. The majority of the victors had less than 40% of the overall vote; in fact close to 117 winners polled less than 30% of the overall vote. This plot provides a decent picture of the range of winner’s polling percentages across constituencies:
The fact that this was a very close contest in most constituencies is evidenced by two sets of statistics – the ratio of the votes won by the loser to that of the winner (Loser-Winner Ratio or LW ratio) and the ratio of the votes won by the second loser to that of the winner (TW Ratio). If the LW Ratio is close to 1, it means that the margin between the winner and loser is very close. And if the TW Ratio is close to 1, it means that the contest is a very tight three way race.
A plot of the range of LW Ratios versus the % number of constituencies having such ratios gives us a good picture of the closeness of the contest –
Note that, in close to 60% of the constituencies, the (first) losing candidate polled more than 80% of the votes tallied by the winner.
Note here that the in close to 10% of the constituencies (about 100 seats), the third placed contestant polled more than 70% of the votes won by the winner.
In whatever way we slice and dice the data, it is pretty much clear that the contest was pretty much a four cornered fight between the BSP, the SP, the BJP and the Congress-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance in most constituencies. Despite having close to 225 parties (and many other independents) in the fray in the constituencies in the state, about 234 seats out of the 403 saw a direct fight between the four parties for the first four positions.
However, as this site points out, what marks the SP as better than the BSP is that it has defeated the BSP more comprehensively in many constituencies as compared to the vice versa. To quote the analysis from “The Open Data” website –
If one considers a simplified electoral contest in all the ACs [Assembly Constituencies], reduces them to face-offs between 2 parties (only winner and runner up) and analyzes the data for the Samajwadi Party, one finds that SP and the BSP fought head-to-head in half of the assembly constituencies, with SP winning majority of the time (SP’s strike rate against the BSP was 79% with a 8% margin of victory); BSP won only 43 out of 204 ACs against the SP with a 4% margin. When facing off against the BJP, SP’s strike rate was lower at 65%, but the median margin of victory was higher at 10%. On the other hand, against the Congress, SP had a lower strike rate (58%) and a lower margin of victory (4%).
Yet the unmistakeable conclusion is that despite the above, the rather close nature of the contest suggests that the eventual seat share of the SP is far higher than what was due to it if vote share was to be the basis of seat allocation. Without doubt, the First Past the Post system disproportionately awarded the SP, as was the case in 2007 when the BSP enjoyed that privilege. One needs to look at trends in UP elections over time to see if these two elections were aberrations.
Vote Share vs. Seat Share in UP
Has there been an increase in the tendency to reward seats disproportionately to parties with highest vote shares in the state? Here is a comparison of the vote share – % of votes won vs % of seats won in elections since 1989 –
Note that the 50% mark for seats has been breached only thrice in the seven elections held so far in the state since 1989. But that mark has been achieved in the last two elections with comparatively low vote shares – a trend that was visible in the 1970s in Uttar Pradesh.
But there are major differences between the 1970s and the elections since the 1990s. The ‘70s featured a time when the Congress was the largest political party in the country and it took the Emergency and the might of a combined opposition to overcome it in 1977, even though the vote share had jumped only about 5.7% from 1974 for the Janata Party combine. But again this election was virtually a referendum for/against the Congress and the single issue helped the opposition win a brute majority. Just as the experiment failed in the centre, the Janata combine could not manage to hold on as the Congress came back to power helped by a vote swing back in its favour.
The 1990s marked a pivotal change in UP politics with the emergence of the BSP and the SP inaugurating what is known as the “Mandalisation” era. These two parties effectively articulated strong Dalit/OBC-Muslim based appeals (respectively) to relegate the other “national” parties – defined here as having electoral relevance and reach beyond Uttar Pradesh – the Congress and the BJP to lower positions in 2000s. This process was not very smooth. Contiguous to the Mandalisation process was the effect of “Mandir politics” – articulated by the BJP and counteracted mainly by the SP and the effect of the third M of Indian Politics in the 1990s[iv] – the Market based liberalization reforms – which came to alter the political economy of the state drastically. The last of the processes saw the parties trying to articulate newer positions on “economic development” and governance. As Vivek Prahladan’s (2012) commentary mentions, the late 2000s have been a period where the “regional” parties are still rooted in their identarianism but have tried to posture about the need for “economic development” while the national parties have tried to adopt identarianism through their own biases in order to stay relevant in the state.
These trends have resulted in a political contestation in the state that is not limited to a narrow correlation between the strength of political forces and respective identity bases – castes/ communities/ religions – but a more complex web of support bases. Therefore the vagaries of the first past the post system has benefited the party with the marginally highest vote share, despite the relative effectiveness of support for all four parties in the state.
In fact contrary to the trends in UP, nationally speaking in parliamentary elections, the difference between vote share and seat shares has been reducing over time, as the country’s polity has slowly but steadily transited from a one-party dominant system to a raucous multi-party system that has made coalitions an imperative in the center.
Note: Except for 1977, 1989 (Bharatiya Lok Dal, Janata Dal), 1996-1999 (BJP), the Congress was the single largest party in all elections.
The accentuation of the vote-share/seat share divide is pretty unique to Uttar Pradesh, in the sense that this has occurred despite the lack of bipolarity which has generally been a characteristic of state elections in most states (and certainly larger ones in the country).
With the presence of the Congress (or its ally, the RLD) and the BJP (apart from the SP and BSP) as effective parties in most constituencies, it has meant that the SP could easily overcome the BSP in many constituencies despite a minimal swing in its favour. That both the SP and the BSP have distinct social bases in the state makes this character of the UP elections even more important to analyse.
Although detailed analyses of vote shares are not yet available (they should be available after CSDS’ Lokniti publishes its comprehensive post poll surveys which generally provide a compelling picture of the elections), it can be assumed that the Jatav community and other dalits once again voted overwhelmingly for the BSP while the SP retained its vote share among the Other Backward Classes and gained support from the Muslims.
Roughly, the BSP continues to articulate the interests of the Dalits primarily, but has enjoyed the accrual of support from some sections amongst the OBCs, Muslims and even the upper castes – a coalition that was certainly more numerous in the 2007 elections than what is expected to be in the 2012 assembly elections. The SP had retained its core support among the Yadavs and other OBCs as well as the Muslims (who still support the party due to its past positions and actions on the Mandir issue), but the swing this time is also a result of shift of “tactical” support from hitherto antagonistic sections among the upper castes. The Congress and the BJP have had bases of popularity among the upper castes, with the BJP enjoying some in regional bases (Bundelkhand?) in the state, with the former probably seeing a slight accrual of support from the youth cutting across various identities as well.
Studies (Chibber and Nooruddin 2004) have shown that states in India with a large number of effective parties tend to see selective and not universal delivery of public services, as the ruling party tends to service only select social bases.
One could argue that this form of a disproportionate allocation of seats relative to vote percentage in a highly contested polity is perhaps a feature only of UP as most other states now see two cornered fights between alliances. Tamil Nadu, another large state with a larger number of effective parties with large social bases of their own, invariably sees a two-cornered fight between fronts led by the two largest Dravidian parties. But these two Dravidian parties, in order to stay relevant electorally, have had to stitch coalitions with various political forces that represent different identity groups and political constituencies, thereby effectively ensuring that the polity is bipolar between two fronts led by the respective parties. This is unlike what is the situation in UP.
Case for Proportional Representation?
There would have been a truly representative verdict that allocated seats proportional to vote shares if the voting system was based on some form of proportional representation (PR) – mixed PR, allowing for transferable votes, etc. It has been argued that the FPTP (First Past the Post) system has run its course in India and that it is time that the country adopted PR systems that would allow for representation of minorities and smaller parties in the legislatures. However, proponents of the FPTP system argue that PR is a recipe for instability as exemplified by the current political deadlock in Nepal, a similar socially stratified country that has adopted the PR system. It is also argued that the FPTP system has not discouraged the growth of smaller parties as seen in the gradual regionalisation and federalisation of India’s polity. And that affirmative action in the form of reservation of seats for marginalised groups such as the scheduled castes and tribes as also the need to obtain support from diverse sections of the population has ensured desirable outcomes in terms of representation, without sacrificing too much on inherent stability as compared to PR systems.
But as UP shows, there are glaring cases of skewed verdicts in the FPTP system. UP has the largest state assembly and it sends the largest number of representatives to Parliament. If the electoral trends in 2007 and 2012 are repeated regularly and the larger parties remain oriented in their social outlook to a limited set of castes and communities, the clamour for a shift to the PR system will only grow.
(Srinivasan Ramani is Senior Assistant Editor, Economic and Political Weekly. Many parts of the article are also from a recent EPW editorial on the very subject. All tables and graphs in this article were created from data extracted from the Election Commission Website. For those interested in how this was done: the procedure was to download all constituency information (voting data) through the excellent Firefox addon – “Downloadthemall” and after writing a small batch script to extract the tables and make it readable in spreadsheets. There are other elegant methods possible – through python tools such as “beautifulsoup” to do so as well.)
Chhibber, Pradeep and Nooruddin, Irfan (2004), “DO PARTY SYSTEMS COUNT? The Number of Parties and Government Performance in the Indian States”, Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 37 No. 2
Prahladan, Vivek (2012), “UP Assembly Elections: Politics of ‘Belonging’ or ‘Belongings’?”, Economic and Political Weekly, February, Vol XLVII No.6
Yadav, Yogendra (1999), “Electoral Politics in the Time of Change: India’s Third Electoral System, 1989-99”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 34/35
From Kafila archives:
- March 2012: Why Mayawati’s Defeat is the BSP’s Victory
- March 2012: Some thoughts on the “hawa” in Indian elections
- March 2012: Why Rahul Gandhi’s Congress flopped in Uttar Pradesh
- February 2012: Seeing UP from Phulpur
- February 2012: मायावती जी के मुख्यमंत्रित्व काल का एक संक्षिप्त विवरण: राम कुमार
- February 2012: An Election in Sarvajan Samaj
- February 2012: The untold stories of a political process
- December 2010: History in Stone and Metal
- May 2009: UP’s Dalits remind Mayawati – Democracy is a Beautiful Thing
- May 2009: Rahul Gandhi and the Dalit votebank in Uttar Pradesh
- June 2007: The meaning of Mayawati for the Dalit movement: Chittibabu Padavala
- May 2007: Why Hindol Sengupta Needn’t Fear Mayawati