Maharashtra finally has a government in place after more than a month-long impasse over the government formation, following the declaration of Assembly election results. Signalling the germination of—what is being read as—anti-BJPism in the country, diametrically opposite political parties, Shiv Sena, the Congress, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) formed a government in the state. Despite their decades-old alliance and ideological convergence, the Shiv Sena and the BJP snapped ties over the coveted chief minister post. Haryana has been a smooth sail for the BJP, with the Jannayak Janata Party extending support to form a government after the former fell short of the required numbers. This big picture of the routine “democratic” exercise appears fair and simple, and it seemingly appears that one need not have any qualms about the fairness and, more importantly, the representative character of our deeply-valued democracy. But, as it is often said, the devil lies in the detail. A closer look at the vote shares and corresponding seat shares secured by parties in power and in the opposition raise important questions about the very nature of our democracy, which has become largely majoritarian in nature.
In Maharashtra, the BJP secured 25.7% popular vote and has been rewarded with 105 seats in the 288-member assembly, accounting for 36.45% of the seats. Its pre-poll and now-estranged ally, the Shiv Sena, garnered 16.41% of the total votes polled and secured 56 seats (19.44% seats). Similar is the case with the NCP, which won 56 seats (18.75%) corresponding to its 16.71% vote share. One can observe that the three parties have been over-rewarded in number of seats as against their corresponding vote shares. However, this is not the case with the smaller parties in the fray, namely the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, which won two seats (0.69%) for its 1.34% vote share and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena that won one seat (0.34%) to its corresponding 2.25% vote share. The same pattern is reflected in Haryana, where the Congress and the BJP have been over-rewarded compared to the smaller parties, which have been under-rewarded, in terms of seats (Election Commission of India 2019). One can categorically state that there has been no proportionality in terms of votes polled and seats secured, and this is the direct result of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. India adopted the FPTP electoral system and continues to hold on to it, while other multicultural societies across the world follow a proportional representation (PR) electoral system to reflect the heterogeneity of their demography and political aspirations.
The FPTP is a fairly simple electoral system where the winning candidate from a constituency (electoral district) need not secure more than 50% of the total votes polled to claim popular support, but only enough votes to push their opponents behind. This means, for instance, that a candidate emerges as a winner with 23% votes as long as their opponents secure less than them individually, and it does not matter if the aggregate votes polled against amount to 77%. More often than not, with the proliferation of parties and candidates, elections across the world, and even in India, see candidates elected to legislative bodies with less than 50% of the total votes polled. Consequently, as the above example points out, the expression of 77% of voters is not reflected in the election and even in the said elected representative. This anomaly of not being representative enough is the basic character of the FPTP, along with the concomitant negative effects—accentuation of existing fault lines in the society and money becoming the precondition to contest in elections—which result from such “winner-takes-all” elections attacking the very essence of our democracy.
A History of the Unrepresentative Indian Democracy
Despite being praised world over for its democracy, India suffers from all the negative implications emerging from the adoption of the FPTP. Analysing all general elections from 1952 to 2019, no government at the centre had crossed the 50% mark to claim the absolute majority of the voters to claim popular support.
Surprisingly, this trend was also found when the Congress was in an invincible position during the first five Lok Sabha elections from 1952 to 1971. The vote share of the Congress hovered around 45% even when there was a lack of formidable opposition to counter it. This was also witnessed when the Congress was overthrown in 1977 for the first time after independence by the hurriedly-formed alliance under the Janata Party in the aftermath of the Emergency. The Janata Party government, formed with an alliance of seven parties, also managed to secure only 41% of the votes. The same was reflected when the coalition governments of the National Front, the National Democratic Alliance, and the United Progressive Alliance governments were formed. Interestingly, even when the BJP has emerged as the central pole in Indian politics, its vote shares in 2014 and 2019 stood at 31.34% and 37.36% respectively.
The FPTP and Majoritarian Politics
With the requirement to win elections becoming lower and lower vote shares as more candidates/parties are entering the fray, political parties have resorted to consolidating certain vote banks at the cost of completely alienating other groups, which they see as impediments to their electoral success.
Although it is not as if this is a new revelation, or that only one party can be accused of pandering to the interests of select communities, but with the BJP at the helm from 2014 and the rise in the Hindu majoritarianism, Muslims are being systematically kept away from the power structures. In 2014, the BJP fielded only six Muslim candidates in the 482 seats it had contested, and none made it to the Lok Sabha. Despite emerging as the largest party in 2014 general elections, the BJP did not have a single Muslim Member of Parliament (MP) (Economic Times 2019). To stave off the criticism of being anti-Muslim, the Modi government had to appoint two Muslim MPs from Rajya Sabha in its cabinet. Consequently, India saw the lowest representation of Muslim MPs (23 in number) in the history of independent India in the Lok Sabha in 2014, and none of these was from the BJP. Even from Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims account for 18% of the population, not a single Muslim MP was elected to the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 (Jafferlot 2019). In 2019, there was a marginal improvement in the situation with the tally of Muslim MPs in Lok Sabha rising to 27 and the BJP having a lone MP from West Bengal (Scroll 2019). This is to say that, in an atmosphere of Hindu majoritarianism, parties other than the BJP have also pre-emptively decreased the number of Muslim MPs they fielded so as to not be dubbed as anti-Hindu and Muslim-appeasing, except in Muslim-majority constituencies. This does not bode well for India’s multireligious and multicultural society.
In a way, there is a direct correlation between the FPTP and the systematic isolation of select communities and consolidation of particular communities. In addition to this, the money and muscle power of the larger parties means that the politically smaller and marginal groups will continue to be relegated into the background.
Proportional Representation and Representative Democracy
Against the backdrop of the shortcomings of the FPTP, the proportional representation PR electoral system is more representative in nature, lending voice to various communities and their aspirations. Simply put, political parties are rewarded with seats proportional to their vote shares in the PR system. Depending on their needs, multicultural societies like Germany, Australia, South Africa among others have adopted variants of PR. There are many variations in the PR system, but the basic tenet remains fairly simple—seats are proportionally distributed according to the vote share.
The Indian Law Commission, in its 170th report in 1999 and 277th report in 2015, had recommended the centre to reboot the electoral system by combining FPTP with PR, based on the German hybrid electoral system (Nasir and Anuragini 2019).
However, one should be cautious that PR is not a panacea for all the ills plaguing our electoral system. It has its own set of demerits, which include unstable governments, representation for extremist groups, and simply the logistical and computational hurdles. But, at a time when there is a talk about holding simultaneous polls to the state legislatures and Parliament, there is a need to build a discourse around the larger electoral reforms, one of which is the change in the electoral system. The moot question that remains is whether the current government, with all its majoritarian trappings, will allow a debate that has the potential to make political landscape more inclusive and diverse.
Economic Times (2019): “Muslim Vote: How BJP Trumped Congress,” 27 March, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/lok-sabha/muslim-vote-how-bjp-trumped-congress/articleshow/68592698.cms.
Election Commission of India: “General Election to Vidhan Sabha Trends and Result Oct-2019,” http://results.eci.gov.in/ACOCT2019/partywiseresult-S07.htm?st=S07.
Jafferlot, Christophe (2019): “BJP's Rise Has Meant a Shrinking Number of Muslim Lawmakers in India,” Wire, 26 March, https://thewire.in/rights/christophe-jaffrelot-majoritarian-state-muslims-parliament.
Nasir, Abdullah and Priya Anuragini (2019): “Debate: First Past the Post Means India is Only a Namesake Democracy,” Wire, 14 May, https://thewire.in/politics/debate-first-past-the-post-means-india-is-only-a-namesake-democracy.
Scroll (2019): “2019 Lok Sabha Election Results: Only 27 Muslim MPs Elected to Parliament, None From the BJP,” 24 May, https://scroll.in/latest/924627/2019-lok-sabha-election-results-only-24-muslim-mps-elected-to-parliament-none-from-the-bjp.