Bihar 2015: Indian democracy still works

The ‘Modi wave’ has been flattened in Bihar, one of India’s biggest states.

This past Sunday, the Electoral Commission announced the results. The BJP, the national ruling party since the 2014 federal election, was trounced.

A ‘Grand Alliance’, including among its main components two state parties (one of which formerly ruled the state in alliance with the BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), won an overwhelming majority. According to results currently posted on the Commission’s front page, the BJP remained the largest single party in votes (24.4%), but the combined votes of the three main grand alliance partners came to 41.9%. Other smaller parties that participated in the “seat-sharing” (whereby one of the partners represents the alliance in a given constituency) bring the total to around 46%. Of the main alliance partners, the Rashtriya Janata Dal won 80 of the 243 seats, the Janata Dal (United) won 71, and the INC 27.

The total alliance seat take represents over 73% of the seats, offering a stark reminder of just how disproportional the FPTP system can be, especially when multiple parties cooperate and there is a relatively uniform swing.

I had suggested back in May, 2014, that I did not think the BJP win meant a fundamental change in how the country would be governed, despite the fact that the BJP had won big in Bihar itself in the national election. The outcome of the Bihar election is yet another reminder of the centrality of alliance politics in India.

11 thoughts on “Bihar 2015: Indian democracy still works

  1. > the “seat-sharing” (whereby one of the partners represents the alliance in a given constituency)
    Interesting. And there was me thinking that FPTP guarantees that MPs and Cabinets will be chosen directly by the voters themselves, not by intra-party deals made in smoke-filled backrooms.
    Live and learn, eh.


    • Well, voters *do* get a say over pre-electoral coalitions. If they don’t like them they can vote for a different party or alliance. Post-electoral coalitions are, well… post-electoral.


      • “Vote for your fourth choice (pretending that it is your first choice, and knowing that it will be passed off as your first choice) to keep out your fifth choice” is stretching things rather thin.
        And post-electoral coalition-making can be rewarded or punished at the next election. I don’t see the first type of inter-party deal as noticeably more popular-consent based than the first.
        (A caveat that I’ve never voted in a non-preferential election in my life, so I’ve never personally faced an incentive to vote tactically. Looking at voters in FPTP jurisdictions from the outside, I feel like a Subway customer watching students being served food in a boarding school dining hall).


      • @gaudiatrix, while I have never been in a fancy boarding school, let alone its dining room, my experience with university and then public school dining facilities as a student then a teacher make Subway a step up. But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong


      • gaudiatrix, I think there is a clear difference between a coalition’s support being tested immediately and it not being tested until four or five years in office.


  2. Trying to compare the degree of voter choice between pre-electoral coalitions, such as in India, and the post-electoral coalitions more typical of many European systems is difficult. They are such different things (yes, we compare things that are different…). It is not as if, in the absence of the alliances, most Indian voters would have markedly more choices. Even in the fragmented elections of early 1990s, before the NDA and UPA existed, the mean effective number of candidates at the district level was sharply lower than the effective number at national level. That is, the parties have always been regional. When they are in alliances, it at least offers the potential for voters to know if they are voting for or against the incumbent government–making it more like a classic majoritarian system in that narrow sense. Yet it is probably the case that most voters are voting for the party than for the alliance, or more specifically, most are voting for the leader and following cues based on caste or other group identity.

    All this makes it quite fundamentally different from a coalition of four or five parties that is bargained after an election, but in which every voter had a choice, in principle, among any of those competing parties, and then some. And in most of those scenarios it is, in any case, generally known which parties are more likely to go with which other parties in coalition. While the bargaining may take place after elections, voting cues in proportional-coalition systems are typically grounded in anticipation of post-election governing options.


  3. (Hope I’m not breaking convention by posting on an older post)

    Stumbling across this post raises a question for me. Are there great differences between India’s pre-election coalitons of disparate parties and America’s big tent parties? In India a voter may feel that they need to vote for the party that they can vote for, whoever is standing locally, to get the government that they want. In America, voters will vote for Republican or Democrat in their district knowing their vote will help a member of one massive coalition or the other get in.


    • Mark, on F&V, reopening old discussions is not just permitted, it’s encouraged!

      I suspect the big difference between the India and US situations is that in India, voters are electing a house that chooses a government, while in the US they obviously aren’t. What is similar between the two situations is that voters can’t really vote for anyone who isn’t on the ballot, which is what makes alliances work in India and is a key ingredient to what makes the US such a pure two-party system (of course, most if not all US voters do have the option of writing in a candidate, though that option is actually more limited than is commonly presumed).


      • Obviously fair point about the government. But I was more thinking that the alliances are big tents. Where else in the world would you find the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, Religious Conservatives, Fiscal Conservatives, and John McCain in the same pre-election alliance beside the U.S. and possibly, if differing in ideological make-up, the major Indian alliances?

        If anything the only real difference is that primaries allow internal competition without vote splitting, something Indian voters would not have.


    • Indeed, reopening old threads is essential to keeping the virtual orchard flourishing!

      The analogy of Indian alliances and US “big tent” parties is one I have made, even in classes. One needs to be careful not to push it too far, but then that is true of most analogies.

      I’d say most of the time, the parties in the Indian alliances are not very ideological. They tend to be more concerned with distribution, which perhaps makes them more like the old “textbook” locally oriented members in US parties than like the ideological wings of today’s Republican Party. Of course, they do bear distinct labels, and those signal something (language or caste affiliation, or more to the point, which family dynasty controls the party).


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