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.

Delhi assembly: Massive AAP win

This past Saturday voters in Dehli went to the polls to elect a replacement assembly for the one that was dissolved following the resignation of the 49-day minority government of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

While polls had generally foreseen a win by Kejriwal’s AAP (Common Man Party), none saw the massive win that the party obtained: 67 of the 70 seats, with the BJP (ruling party at the federal level since 2014) winning just 3. The Congress Party was shut out. The top three parties vote percentages were 54.2, 32.2, 9.7.

This is a stunning surge for the AAP. Its first-ever contest was for the Delhi election of December, 2013, in which it won 28 seats, second to the BJP’s 31 (Congress had 8). AAP formed a minority government, but then resigned when it could not get its signature anti-corruption bill through the assembly. In the federal election of May, 2014, the AAP flopped miserably, winning a third of the votes in Delhi but no seats. (It ran over 400 candidates across several sates, but managed just 4 seats, all in Punjab.) And now it has a solid majority of the vote and a near-sweep of the Delhi assembly’s seats.

As might be expected, some of the AAP’s changing fortunes comes down to the dynamics of first-past-the-post voting with multiple parties. The AAP actually won a slightly higher percentage of the vote in Delhi for the federal parliament in 2014 than it had won in the assembly election of 2013. The biggest source of new AAP votes clearly comes from the collapse of Congress from 24.6% in 2013 to less than ten percent this time. This swing is largely due to the Muslim community deserting the sinking ship that is Congress to block the Hindu-nationalist BJP. By contrast, when the BJP won a plurality of Delhi’s assembly constituencies in 2013, it did so with around a third of the vote, or roughly the same as in this latest assembly election. Evidently, it was the BJP’s sweep of Delhi’s seven federal constituencies in 2014 that was the aberration (46.4% of the vote to AAP’s 32.9 and Congress’s 15.1). The “Modi wave” did not carry over into the sub-national contest, and a third of the vote looks a whole lot worse when support for the the third party has collapsed.

Either Kejriwal is incredibly lucky, or he is the canniest politician in India, and had this all planned out from the start.

Maharashtra 2014: BJP taking post-poll support from ex-ally of Congress

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to show signs of seeking to break out of the post-1998 pattern of two large pre-electoral coalitions that have taken turns governing India. While the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) remains the governing formula at the federal level despite BJP having a majority of seats, the BJP played serious hardball in the recent campaign for the Maharastra state assembly. In elections on 15 October, the BJP won 119 of the 288 seats (41.3%). It appears that it will take “outside support”–i.e. post-electoral cooperation but no governing coalition–from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). While the Times of India on 19 October referred to this offer of support as “unexpected“, it was pretty clearly foreshadowed by the frenetic reshaping and ultimately breaking of alliances in the week leading up to the deadline to declare candidacies.

The significance of these developments is that the BJP has an alliance at the federal level with a Maharastra-specific party, the Shiv Sena. In the Lok Sabha election earlier this year, these parties continued their pre-election alliance, in which the parties agree not to compete against each other in districts and to support one another’ candidates. It appeared as if the alliance was critical to the strong BJP performance in the state in those elections. Further, Shiv Sena sits in the federal cabinet of BJP PM Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, the NCP is (or was) an alliance partner of the Indian National Congress Party (INC), in both the 2004-2014 federal government and in the state of Maharashtra until the run-up to these elections. The INC and NCP ruled the state in alliance for 15 years.

In late September, there was a flurry of media reports of a “seat-sharing row” between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, with the former demanding the right to contest districts currently held by the latter. The BJP was explicit in saying that there had been a “Modi wave” and that it was thereby entitled to a larger share of the districts. Meanwhile, the NCP played hardball with its ally, Congress (INC), demanding additional seats and an alternation in the Chief Minister’s post.

On 25 September, days before the candidate-filing deadline, the BJP announced it was dumping its ally, Shiv Sena. Barely an hour later, the NCP broke its alliance with the INC.

Given the concurrence of the demands from the national partner (BJP) against its ally and against the BJP’s national rival by a state partner (NCP), and the quick succession of the two announcements, it is hard to believe it was not being coordinated. It was seemingly foreshadowing the formation of a BJP-NCP post-poll alliance if the BJP won the most seats, but not a majority. And, of course, that is precisely what happened.

It was all quite dramatic, and it appears to be part of a BJP strategy of supplanting its erstwhile allies in favor of single-party minority government (when a majority is not (yet) in reach). It is especially telling that it would prefer to take outside support from an erstwhile Congress ally instead of continue a relationship with its own former pre-poll partners. (The Shiv Sena, contesting alone, won 61 seats, according to preliminary results, while the NCP won 42 (and Congress 44); BJP is 27 seats short of a majority.)

In my first post-election entry on the Indian federal result, I said that I doubted the BJP majority meant a re-writing of the fundamental rules of Indian politics. Yet the pre-poll and post-poll politics in Maharashtra suggests the BJP is attempting just such a re-write. Several key state elections are coming up in the next year, and the NDA partners have been put on notice.

Modi’s cabinet

The Indian Times reports that the cabinet of newly sworn-in Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be finalized soon. It will include 45 ministers, 24 of (full) Cabinet Rank, ten Ministers of State Independent Charge Ministers, and eleven other Ministers of State. (Yes, Indian cabinets, like Indian politics more generally, are rather complex.)

Of particular interest, ministers include:

Ram Vilas Paswan (of LJP), Ashok Gajpati Raju (TDP), Anant Geete (Shiv Sena), Harsimrat Kaur (Akali Dal), Narendra Singh Tomar, Jual Oram and Radhamohan Singh.

Why will it be a multi-party cabinet when a single party won a majority of seats? Because of alliances, as I point out in virtually every post I have written on India. This is a government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a pre-electoral pact without which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not have the majority. Thus it will divide the executive amongst the major alliance partners.

The public comments of the two largest allies over the weekend are interesting in their distinct approach. Following a meeting with Modi, TDP leader N Chandrababu Naidu said, “I did not ask for any representation” in the cabinet (Indian Times). “We are an ally of the NDA, power is not important, national development is important.” Of course, if one interpreted that as forgoing any offers he knew were coming, one would be misinterpreting. By contrast, senior Shiv Sena leader Subhash Desai said, “Shiv Sena is expecting good positions in the central government. The BJP has assured us that would happen”. A bit more forthright.

One thing I do not know, but wish I did, is how much of the post-election division of powers is already worked out during the pre-election stage of setting the alliance (which includes mainly agreements on which partner will run where, in exchange for the other’s standing down), and how much is deferred till the results are known. I suppose some of both goes on.

Postscript: A more recent article suggests the cabinet will be somewhat smaller (30-35), and gives some of the specific portfolios. It also says, importantly, an expansion of the ministry could take place later.

The India, 2014, result: district-level patterns

Some revision of the thesis the other day is in order, now that I have had a chance to look at the district-level results (as part of a project with Royce Carroll). Again, these are preliminary results, but final results are unlikely to be substantially different.

A key point of my earlier thesis was that this was less a smashing electoral mandate for Modi than it was a product of strategic alliance-building by the BJP and fragmentation of the rest of the field. The BJP, after all, won a majority of seats on a mere 31% of the vote. I think most of that thesis remains accurate, but should be modified in one crucial respect now that I have seen the district-level patterns.

First of all, the BJP’s biggest advantage was not that it faced fragmented opposition, but simply that it had a highly efficient distribution of its votes. Had fragmentation been the key to its success, we would expect it to have won many seats with under 45% of the vote, maybe under 40%. In fact, its mean winning percentage was 48.8%. If anyone benefited from fragmentation, it was the Indian National Congress, whose mean winning percentage was only 42.8%. (The difference is statistically significant–easily.) The BJP averaged 32.6% where it came second, so it is not as if it lost many close races. In fact, out of the 54 seats where it came in second, there were just ten seats in which the BJP had over 40% of the vote. (Congress averaged 33.0% where it came second; that was 223 districts, including 44 where it had over 40%. In percentage terms, that’s about the same failure rate in 40%+ districts.) It seems that the BJP put its resources into winnable seats and thus wasted few votes outside of places where it could harvest seats.

[Paragraph that contained an incorrect statement about the 1999 national result removed.]

Moreover, as I said in the earlier post, alliances were indeed critical. It is impossible to know how many fewer seats the BJP might have won without stand-down agreements with parties like Shiv Sena (Maharashtra) and Telugu Desam Party (Seemandhra), but these and other parties’ voters gave votes to BJP candidates that could have been decisive in many seats in their respective states.

The efficiency of both the BJP and its ally is really on display in Maharashtra. There, the BJP contested 24 districts, and averaged 54.6% of the votes; it won 23. Its ally, Shivsena contested 20, averaging 50.4%, and won 18. In those 18 seats won by Shivsena, Congress was the runner-up in 8 (averaging 34.4%) and its ally Nationalist Congress Party was runner-up in 7 (averaging 33.1%). The results are remarkably stable across the alliance pairings.

All in all, the victory is a combination of a very favorable swing (the BJP had won less than 19% in 2009), an organization that allowed it to target seats where it could win close to a majority of votes and not spread itself thinly around the country, and assistance from key regional allies.

Common flop party

What happened to the Aam Adadmi (Common Man) Party, which was such a media sensation following its electoral breakthrough in Delhi last year?

It won 4 seats in the Lok Sabha polls; that’s 0.74%. It did win almost a third of the vote in Dehli, and came in second in every constituency. In a plurality system that doesn’t cut it.*

All of its seats came in Punjab, where it tied for the lead in seats with 4 of the state’s 13. It was third there in votes (24.4%), behind Congress (33.1%, and yes, Congress is still the plurality party in a few states!) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (26.3%). The SAD is the incumbent government at the state level, and is the other party that won 4 seats; it is part of the BJP-led NDA.**

The AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal made a massive miscalculation that it would be rewarded for resigning after failing to secure assembly support on its central campaign plank (an anti-corruption body), rather than attempt to build a record of governance on what it could accomplish as a minority administration in Delhi. It decided to go for “national party” status, and ran over 400 candidates (more, I believe, than any other party). The outsider stuff will carry one only so far.

Despite my “flop” remark above, the party did win a higher share of the vote in Delhi than it had in the assembly poll (29.5%, which put it second to the BJP’s 33.1%). New elections in Delhi are likely some time later this year. The AAP is not seeking my advice, but if it was, I’d say focus on the 8 districts won by Congress last December and a few of their own strongest constituencies, because likely they will be playing for minimizing a BJP win, rather than an immediate new shot at the power they had and gave up rather too easily.

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* The BJP won all 7 Lok Sabha seats with 46.4% of the vote. The Congress managed 15.1%, which is quite a collapse even from its bad result in the assembly poll in December, when it was a close third place, on 24.5%.

** The BJP won 2 seats on just 8.7% of the statewide vote, but this is again a case of stand-down arrangements between the BJP and a stronger local ally.

Bihar and Indian electoral alliances

Continuing the theme of why I do not think the big BJP win means a fundamental change in how India is governed, let’s look to the case of Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal (United) party of the state of Bihar. He has now resigned as Chief Minister of the state, and there is speculation about whether the BJP will attempt to form a government there. It would probably fail, but then that would set up early elections in the state that the BJP would be well positioned to win.

Kumar’s party is in disarray–thereby not living at all up to its (name)–following its disastrous result in the polling for the state’s Lok Sabha delegation. The JD(U) won only two of the state’s 40 LS seats. The BJP won 22.

In votes, the JD(U) sank to third place, on only 15.8%, although the BJP’s majority in the new Bihar delegation comes on only 29.4% of the votes. Another regional party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) came in second in votes, with 20.1%, yet managed only 4 seats.

What is the significance of this for my thesis of Indian politics not having changed fundamentally? When Kumar became Chief Minister in 2005 and then was returned following the 2010 election, he was suddenly the media darling. Bihar voters supposedly rewarded him for his laser-like focus on development, and various stories suggested not only that he offered a model for a more results-oriented government, but that he was on track to be a serious candidate for Prime Minister of India. This was an idea Kumar himself took seriously even during the run-up to the recent campaign. And now his party will hold 2 seats in the first chamber of the federal parliament.

What changed? Alliances! His victory and reelection as Chief Minister were at the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state. However, reliant as he is on Muslim voters in his state, he broke with the BJP (the central party in the NDA) when it became clear that the BJP would project Narendra Modi as its leader. Competing separately, obviously the JD(U) was no match for the BJP in the current Lok Sabha polls.

Kumar is now “rethinking” his resignation, and one possibility is a new alliance with the RJD and the Indian National Congress.* Had such an alliance been put together before these LS elections, the BJP surely could not have won over half the state’s LS seats, and possibly would not have a majority in the incoming Lok Sabha. For that matter, had Kumar not had the alliance with the BJP in past elections, he probably never would have been Chief Minister, would not have had the 20 seats the JD(U) won in the 2009 Indian general election**, let alone been a alleged PM-in-waiting.

Modi will need to keep this lesson in mind, as some of his alliance partners will not be as keen on some of his projects as are the more Hindi-nationalist and economic-liberalizing elements of his own support base.

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* Based on the 2010 Bihar state assembly results, this combination would have about 48% of the seats (JDU 115, RJD 22, Cong 4). The BJP won 91 (meaning the then-alliance won 206 of the 243 seats, or almost 85% by the two parties’ not competing against one another). Obviously, the potential new JD(U)-led alliance in the assembly would require either the support of parties/independents, or defectors that it may have brought in since the election.

** In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in addition to the JD(U)’s 20, its pre-poll ally the BJP won 12 seats in the state.