Opinion | First-past-the-post elections and their perplexities4 min read . Updated: 01 Apr 2019, 09:48 PM IST
In 2014, only 31% of voters opted for BJP. Even if they all backed Modi, it’s only 20% of all eligible voters
The new litmus test for being a patriot is whether one is with or against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members insist that “being anti-Modi is anti-national". The odd thing is that the numbers show that most of India was never “with" Narendra Modi. Even as India was awash in the “Modi wave" in 2014, with the BJP winning 282 Lok Sabha seats, only one in five eligible voters actually voted for the party. So, 80% of Indians were “anti-national" and 2019 may be no different.
In the 2014 general elections, 834 million voters were eligible to vote—choosing among 8,251 candidates, representing 464 parties plus independents. Two-thirds of the electorate (554 million voters) actually voted. Only 31% or 171 million voted for a BJP candidate. Even assuming all 171 million voters were in support of Modi in addition to the BJP candidate from their constituency, this represents only 20% of all eligible voters in 2014. An alternative way to interpret these numbers is that most Indians did not vote for the BJP; and by the equivalence created by the party, did not vote for Narendra Modi.
How can any party win a clean majority in the Lok Sabha with a vote share of only 31%? Well, that is the beauty of the first-past-the-post system of elections. Under this voting method, the highest polling candidate is elected. In a highly fractionalized and/or tightly contested constituency with a large number of contenders, a candidate can win with quite a low share of the votes polled.
On average, in 2014, there were 15 candidates per constituency. Let’s assume a constituency that is almost equally split between 15 different candidates; 14 of those candidates win 6.6% of the vote and the winning candidate gets 7.6%. In theory, this candidate can win the entire constituency and represent it in the Lok Sabha with a vote share of only 7.6%. Thankfully, winning candidates typically have a higher vote share than single digits. But most candidates don’t represent a majority of the voters in their constituency. As many as 337 members of the Lok Sabha (or 62.7% of the Lower House of Parliament) won their constituency in the 2014 general elections with a vote share of less than 50% .
This is not unique to the last national polls. India’s most popular leader in terms of Lok Sabha majorities was Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress dominated Parliament in the 1950s, but its vote share was only about 45%. Even in Nehru’s most successful general elections, in 1957, when he led the Congress to a 75% majority in the Lok Sabha, his party received only 47% of all votes polled. There were fewer parties, and fewer candidates per constituency in those times, but this fundamental problem of under-representation in the first-past-the-post system continues to this day. In 2014, the BJP had 52% of the seats in the Lok Sabha with only 31% of the overall vote. And while it was an incredible win for the BJP, it was in fact the lowest vote share obtained by any party that has ever won a Lok Sabha majority on its own in Indian general elections.
Another narrative about 2014 is that the country wholeheartedly rejected the Congress and Rahul Gandhi—demonstrated by its fall to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. While the Congress vote share dropped 10 percentage points to 19%, the support for the Congress, though diminished, wasn’t completely decimated. Congress candidates had the second highest votes in as many as 224 constituencies. The average vote share of the winners was about 47%, while that of the runner-up was 32%. While a relatively small vote share (31%) got amplified to a large number of seats in Parliament (52%) for the BJP, the opposite was experienced by the Congress. Coming second in a lot of constituencies got the party no representation in the Lok Sabha, though the second largest group in those constituencies voted for it. (Note that this discussion is simply restricted to the two national parties, without considering the regional parties with 212 seats in the Lok Sabha).
The “Modi wave" that led BJP to a single-party majority after decades of coalition governments has formed the basis of claims that India wholeheartedly supported Narendra Modi. There are two problems with this false narrative. First, that India is not a presidential system where everyone in the country votes for a single individual. Instead, there are 543 individual elections contested across the country, most of which had little direct relation with Narendra Modi. Second, even if one assumes that Indians were indirectly voting for their prime ministerial choice or preferred party leader by voting for the BJP in their constituency, there exist no numbers to support the notion of a “Modi wave", since 80% of eligible voters did not choose the BJP.
It is complicated to discuss 543 electoral contests in depth and arrive at a nuanced view of the country’s political pluralism. Much of the news is dominated by the campaign trail of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. While this makes for simpler discussions, one must not create a false equivalence that the preferences of voters are split between these two individuals. In 2014, their parties’ vote share put together barely represented half the voters.
False narratives of political monism in India have been perpetuated before. “India is Indira and Indira is India" slogans were popular in the 1970s. A similar equivalence is being propagated now. But the truth is that Modi was never the nation and the nation was never Modi. The nation is its people—all 1.3 billion Indians, no matter whom they vote for, if at all they can and do vote.
Shruti Rajagopalan is assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York.