Home / Opinion / India’s first past the post election myths

The new talking point for those unhappy with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) massive election victory is the claim that they won only 31% of the total votes cast and that, therefore, 69% of those who voted did not vote in favour of the winning party. While numerically correct, what is mischievous is the insinuation that follows: that the BJP failed to win a mandate, or that the win is somehow illegitimate given how many people voted against them. Those who make this argument are either unaware of India’s electoral system or choose to trot out such statistics selectively.

In our first past the post electoral system, it is ultimately seats, not votes, that count. On that score, the BJP’s performance is striking. It is the first time a single party has won a majority since Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide win in 1984. Suppose, though, for the sake of argument, we look at vote shares as a metric of success. As you can see in the accompanying table, no party in any Indian election has ever won the majority of votes cast. Even in 1984, in the mother of all landslide victories, the Congress captured only 49.1% of the vote. More broadly, up until 1989, national elections were dominated by a single party, Congress, which was all but hegemonic. Vote shares routinely were above 40%, and the victory margins over the runner up were huge.

That changed in the era of coalition politics, when the winning party’s vote share plunged and victory margins narrowed dramatically. In 2009, for example, Congress’ vote was 28.5% and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at 37.2% as against 18.8% for the runner up, BJP; but this was sufficient for the Congress-led UPA to capture 262 seats.

With the correct reference point—the most recent election —the result this time around is nothing short of dramatic. The Congress’ vote share plunged to 19.3%, its lowest ever, with the BJP’s 31% its largest ever, with a larger victory margin than the Congress enjoyed in the last two elections. This looks even more impressive when one factors in that the BJP didn’t contest in 116 seats, so that makes the actual vote share in seats it contested in even larger, as, of course, is that of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) (around 38%), all of whom accepted Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate.

Looking at other countries that use the same system is instructive (see the table on data from other countries). In the last four elections in the UK and Canada, in which the polity is far less fragmented, the vote share of the winning party rarely exceeds 40%. That in India in 2014, in such a fiercely competitive election and with so many parties offering themselves to the public, the BJP should have won more than one in three votes cast is no mean feat.

The Canadian comparison is also revealing for another reason.

When in 2011, the centre-right conservatives under Stephen Harper won a majority, after twice governing in minority position; they did so with 39.6% of the votes. Immediately, Harper’s critics made the same argument that we are hearing in India today: that, because he failed to win a majority of votes, his mandate was, somehow, illegitimate or tarnished.

Harper, one should recall, first defeated the centre-left liberals in 2006 in a high-octane campaign premised on the economy and governance, and attacking a fatigued and scandal-ridden incumbent which had ruled the country for most of its history. (Does any of this sound familiar?)

Scratch the surface of the carping about Harper’s election victory, and the real reason emerges: the fear that he would reach beyond his governance-based campaign and pursue socially conservative policies, a perfectly valid reason to oppose him, but not to delegitimize him. It is evident that something analogous lies behind the attempt to delegitimize—rather than oppose—Modi.

The more fundamental point is that an election outcome must be viewed in the context of the electoral system in which it occurred. It is almost always the case, in our type of system, that the party which wins the most seats—even if a majority—does not win the majority of votes. And that is perfectly fine, since the metric of success and political legitimacy is seats, not votes.

If, hypothetically, India were to move to some version of proportional representation system, it will be naive to assume that voting behaviour, and election strategies, will remain unchanged.

With our current system, parties’ rational strategy is to target resources to seats in which they are competitive, try to swing seats that are tightly contested, and, more broadly, maximize the vote to seat multiplier: that is, squeeze as many seats as possible out of the votes cast.

The Congress historically has been highly successful in doing all of these things. This time, it was the BJP which out-strategized its opponent and won the election, fair and square. Those who don’t like the result should be honest enough to say so, rather than pick on the quirks of the first past the post system only when they don’t like the outcome.

As it turns out, Canada’s Harper, a savvy politician who plays the long game, proved his critics wrong by sidelining the social conservatives in his party and pursuing a centrist, economically oriented agenda. Now, unlike a sterile debate about our electoral system, that’s something worth pondering.

Vivek Dehejia and Reuben Abraham are, respectively, professor of economics at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and with the IDFC Institute.

Rhea D’Costa and Komal Hiranandani helped with the data used in this article.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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