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.

Indian election result, 2014

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.

AAP minority government of Delhi resigns

Well, that did not last long. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) tendered his resignation today after his minority government was refused support by both Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party for tabling its signature Jan Lokpal Bill to create an anti-corruption body.

The federal dimension of the Indian system is critical to the story here, as the Congress, which had earlier promised support (at one time even saying it would be “unconditional”) to the AAP, is now claiming that an anti-corruption bill for Dehli can’t be submitted without clearance from the central (Congress-led) government.

The legislators from the Congress and BJP who voted today to prevent him from tabling the Jan Lokpal Bill say they support the proposal, but cannot ignore the fact that it has been vetoed by Delhi’s constitutional head, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. The chief minister had firmly rejected the opinion that before it is presented for review in the legislature, the bill must be vetted by the Lieutenant Governor as a representative of the centre.

Of course, the underlying story here is that the BJP expects it might lead the next central government, after elections in April-May this year. The upstart AAP is one of its principal competitors in some parts of the country for voters turning away from the Congress party. If the resignation holds, most likely the assembly would be put in “suspended animation” under rule from the center until new elections would be held. Those elections could be concurrent with the federal election.

For background on December’s Delhi assembly election and formation of the government, see my earlier post.

Delhi AAP conducting poll about whether to form government

…and the results are in: The Aam Aadmi Party of Delhi has polled and obtained “a sense of what the people want”, which is that it form a government with the backing of the Congress Party.

In the assembly election on 8 December, the Congress Party’s 15 years of governing Delhi came to an end, with the party falling to just 8 of the 70 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the most seats (31, plus 1 for a pre-electoral ally), and the AAP, a brand new party focused mainly on anti-corruption, won 28.

With no party having a majority, the options were a post-electoral coalition or a minority government–or, failing agreements, an early election following a period of what is known as President’s Rule. (During President’s Rule, the assembly would be kept in “suspended animation”–truly a lovely political science concept!) The latter was seen as likely, after the BJP refused the day after the election to stake a claim to forming a government, and the AAP initially did likewise.

However, the AAP’s decision caused some controversy, because Congress had stated on 13 December it would support an AAP minority government “unconditionally“. The Congress observed on the 17th that most of the eighteen issues on which the AAP sought “clarification” from Congress and BJP do not require assembly support, so essentially the Congress simply said: just form an administration and do it. (In the same statement, the Congress also backtracked on the idea that support would be “unconditional”.)

It is not hard to see why the party would be torn. It campaigned against corruption and might be reluctant to depend on the very party it just defeated to remain in office. It’s a parliamentary form of government, and thus the support party could pull the plug whenever it found it convenient. On the other hand, AAP was the big winner of the election, even if it fell short of a majority, and one can’t effect much change from the opposition benches. Complicating matters further, a new election might have been held concurrently with the federal election due in April or May, 2014. With a BJP wave anticipated at that election, the AAP might not do better than it did this month.

So the AAP announced it would conduct a poll as to whether it should accept the Congress offer of support to form a government. It appears it will accept yes for an answer after all.

In the election itself, it should be noted, the BJP’s seat gain came in spite of a loss of votes. (That calls into question a coming BJP wave, of course.) In other words, in some constituencies, the AAP’s cutting into Congress’s votes resulted in the district being won by the BJP, even though the AAP presumably cut into the latter party’s vote as well. (India uses the first-past-the-post rule both in federal and sub-national elections, so correspondence between votes and seats is not guaranteed, especially with multiparty competition.)

Meanwhile, the AAP surge may have been what finally pushed both chambers of the federal parliament to pass a long-delayed bill to establish a “Lokpal”, which will be an anti-corruption ombudsman.

Karnataka state election, 2013

This Friday, 5 May, is the general election for the state legislature of Karnataka, a major state in the south of India (capital Bangalore). The state is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in fact it is one of the rare states outside of the north where the party has ruled recently. With general elections due for the federal government within in a year–and potentially coming earlier–this is a key state contest to watch.

The BJP is facing a major challenge in projecting a national leader and PM candidate. It is widely expected to endorse Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister (state PM) of Gujarat. Modi campaigned today in Karnataka. However, Modi’s past associations with communal violence means that his nomination would cause severe tensions with coalition partners in the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP-ruled opposition alliance. ((Tensions are especially high the Janata Dal (United), which currently rules the northern state of Bihar in coalition with the BJP. The Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, has hinted at quitting the NDA is Modi is its PM candidate.)) Thus Karnataka is a test not only for the BJP and NDA as units, but for Modi personally.

The federal ruling party, the Indian National Congress (which rules through the United Progressive Alliance), has dispatched its national leader, Sonia Gandhi, to campaign in Karnataka as well.

The BJP has experienced internal splits in the state, including the launching of a new party, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), by former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa. The BJP is unlikely to retain a majority of seats. Yeddyurappa has stated that, “There is no question of going back to the BJP”. If Congress likewise does not win a majority, a Congress-KJP post-poll alliance is likely.

Fruits and votes a la India

The author of the Banyan column in The Economist has things about right.

The whole box of lychees is worth checking out, regarding the upcoming (indirect) Indian presidential election and implications for the country’s coalition government. But the first paragraph warrants quotation here.

THE box of lychees came out of the blue. In 30 years of service, the major-domo in the bungalow of a senior politician in Lutyens’s Delhi could not recall a previous gift from this source: India’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee. The conclusion his bosses drew was simple. So badly does “Pranabda”, as he is known, want to be India’s president that he is breaking the parsimonious habits of a lifetime. Rather against the odds, Mr Mukherjee is now almost a shoo-in for the presidential election on July 19th. Optimists hope that his elevation might just shake India’s ruling coalition out of its present paralysis. But nobody is wagering exotic fruit on that benign outcome.