Does the dramatic result of the Indian election re-write the fundamental rules of Indian politics? I don’t think so.
One disadvantage of waiting all day to write something about the Indian election is that others beat me to many of the points I was thinking of making. Or is that an advantage? Manuel offered some important perspective on the votes-seats translation in a comment to the earlier thread. Adam Ziegfeld, writing at the Monkey Cage, has made the correct–in my view–point that this election was not as “historic” as many think.
Inevitably, some of what I write here is going to duplicate some points, but maybe offer slightly more detail or different emphasis along the way. Who knows, maybe I’ll even say something original.
All results are preliminary, so I am going by what is on the Electoral Commission website as of around 6:30 AM, Delhi time, 17 May (about 6:00 p.m. Friday my time).
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is sitting on 282 seats. In further detail, that is 278 won, 4 leading. This is important, because 272 is a majority, and the Commission says it has “won” enough to clear the majority threshold. Congress, the lead party in the incumbent coalition government and the party that has ruled India far more than any other, has 44 seats. This is a stunningly bad result. In fact, it is only seven seats more than the third largest party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is a party based solely in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu.
The media narrative is all about a landslide and a “Modi wave”–the latter referring to BJP PM candidate, Narendra Modi, the current Chief Minister of Gujarat. In terms of seats, one can hardly argue with the outcome being characterized as a landslide. We have a majority party that has 7.6 times the seats of its closest rival. (Mull that over a bit!) And no doubt Modi was a central factor in the campaign and result. However, the media coverage that I have seen does not even mention the voting breakdown (though Ziegfeld, in the post linked above, makes it central to his argument).
The BJP has won 31.1% of the vote (based on preliminary results). Yes, that is 51.9% of the seats on not even a third of the votes. Congress trails far less in the votes than in the seats, with 19.3%. Still a terrible result, but it drives home just how disproportional the electoral system is. In recent elections, disproportionality has not been as high as in many single-seat district plurality systems, but in this election, the result is highly disproportional. That is mainly due to the fact that there was no one clear alternative to the BJP. Congress was discredited by ten years in power marked by recent slowdowns in growth and numerous corruption allegations. Its pre-electoral coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, partially split up, meaning Congress and regional parties did not put up a united front.
On the other hand, an important thing to consider is just how much the BJP’s allies in its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have contributed to this victory. Obviously, the BJP does not need allies in the Lok Sabha, having a majority on its own. However, it is certain that stand-down agreements it negotiated with its various partners before the election were essential to winning this majority. (I will give one critical example below, but surely there are others as well.) I would imagine there will be a coalition government for this reason. Moreover, assuming Modi and its other leaders are smart (and I think they are), the BJP will not govern as if it has a sole mandate. (It will have to restrain some unsavory radical elements within, and that will be a major challenge.)
I will not pretend to offer a systematic account of the state-level and alliance dynamics, but some things stood out for me in perusing the results.
The BJP made a huge breakthrough in Uttar Pradesh (UP). This does not surprise me, as that state (India’s largest) has multi-party politics. In recent Lok Sabha and state assembly contests the BJP has often been the second or third party in numerous districts that another party won with well under 50%. So it was well positioned to swing a lot of seats its way even if it came well short of a majority of the statewide vote. And that is what happened. In the state, the BJP won 71 of the 80 seats on 42.3% of the vote. The Samajwadi Party, which had won a majority of the state assembly in 2012 on only about 29% of the vote, came second in this election, with 22.2%. But that netted it only 5 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats.
In Maharashtra, the BJP has won 23 of 48 seats on 27.3% of the vote. However, this understates its victory. We can’t overlook the alliance it has with a state-based party, the Shiv Sena. This ally won another 18 seats on 20.6%. So the NDA has 41 seats (over 85%) on 47.9% of the votes. Congress and its in-state ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, combine for only 6 seats; their combined votes were 34.1%–obviously a far better result than the Congress itself nationwide. Many of the seats the BJP has won in the state are due to its not facing competition from a Shiv Sena candidate (and, of course, the reverse is also true, in other districts).
These two state results are important, because they contain a key message for thinking about the broader implications and possible future trends: Alliances remain the key to Indian politics. If the BJP had not had an alliance in Maharashtra, it would not have won a majority in the Lok Sabha. And if the Congress were able to forge an alliance in UP, it could potentially wrest many seats back from the BJP. Making an alliance is something it tried to do on various occasions in recent years, but separate party interests always got in the way. Things might look rather different to the various parties now that they face a strong BJP. The point is that this strength is conditional to a considerable degree on parties’ strategic pre-election behavior.
As for the Modi wave, if it were so strong, then why did his party get only 31%? I just don’t see it. Sure, he was important; the BJP has a higher vote share than it has had before, and much of that is surely do to the strong personal reputation of Modi. But don’t look at this as if it was equivalent to a national presidential election. It was not. Modi benefitted from the disproportionality of the plurality electoral system for parliamentary elections and strategic alliance behavior. The existing practices of Indian politics do not seem to me to have changed fundamentally.