The real winner will be the FPTP system

The arithmetic of the elections and the vagaries of the first-past-the-post mode

OPS Malik | May 14, 2019


#Congress   #JD   #BJP   #vote   #government   #Lok Sabha elections 2019   #FPTP  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

The ongoing parliamentary elections are in the concluding phase/ stage. Eventually, the results will be out on May 23. A huge number of candidates are, as usual, in the fray. There are claims and counter-claims, declarations and bolder declarations, promises and astronomical promises, narratives and counter-narratives galore. Some will win - to be specific 543 - and all others will lose. Consequently, some parties or coalitions will win and start the process of the government formation. The winners will go gung-ho and credit themselves with their policies, promises, leadership etc. and many other factors which did not even exist for their victory. The losers will go into endless analysis and blame game. Almost all, including the analysts and psephologists, will have the 20/20 hindsight vision and credit people of India with whatever the verdict is. 

But the factor most responsible for many wins/ defeats and unexpected results would not get due attention. That factor is the least known and much less appreciated FPTP system, which we have adopted for elections since independence. What, then, is this system and how does it work? Simply put, in ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system, the candidate who gets maximum votes in a constituency wins that constituency of legislative assembly or parliament, even if, he/she falls short of 50 percent of the total votes polled in that constituency. He/she is, thus, elected irrespective of any minimum percentage of votes secured by him/her so long as he/she gets the maximum votes among all the candidates in the fray in that constituency. Theoretically, the winner may even lose his security deposit if he/she does not get one-sixth of the total votes polled! In fact, it has happened, though not very frequently. 
 
The concept of FPTP is based on the analogy of the racing track. By its very logic, though, the candidate that secures the highest votes wins the constituency seat but, the rest of the votes going to other candidates are not considered at all. These votes cannot be carried forward to other constituencies because each constituency is completely isolated from others in terms of vote counting. Thus, the ‘other votes’, which are generally more than 50 percent of the total votes polled, are consigned to the burial ground of that constituency which has no tunnel effect to connect these votes to any other identity. 
 
A state assembly or parliament is an aggregate of such constituencies whose numbers are fixed from time to time. The sum total of the constituencies won by parties decides as to which party has majority in the house and consequently has a claim to form the government at state or national level, as the case may be. Thus, the constituency is the basic unit of an electoral system. In common parlance, it is also called a seat. 
To understand how the FPTP system works and skews the results, let us take a look at a very simple example with only two parties. They fight in a straight contest in three constituencies and poll the votes as under: 
 

Constituency

Votes polled

Party B

Party C

i) Mayapur

30,000

14,000

16,000 Wins

ii) Haripur

40,000

33,000 Wins

7,000

iii) Kangpur

30,000

13,000

17,000 Wins

 
Let us now analyse the seats won and votes polled by each of these parties. In order to form the government, a party would need two out of three seats, i.e., more than 50 percent. The party C is clearly winning two out of three seats and getting 40K votes, i.e., 40 percent of the total votes polled. As compared to this, the party B is getting 60 percent of the votes and yet getting only one out of three seats, losing to party C. This scenario is despite Party B getting 60 percent of the total votes polled as compared to the winner who is actually able to get only 40 percent of the votes. In reality, however, the calculations are more complex. 
 
The above example is not an imaginary one. The irony is that the system sometimes leads to a party getting a larger mandate than another in terms of the votes received but far less in terms of seats. In 1999, the Congress party got 28.3 percent votes but could get only 114 seats. The BJP however, secured only 23.8 percent of votes but got 182 seats and formed the government which lasted for five years under the legendary leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This is the story of a great and historic victory. 
 
Democracy is described as a rule by majority but it is most often a party or coalition with much less than 50 percent voter support that gets to rule the country or the state. Why and how does it happen? It happens because of our electoral system which is modelled on what is called the UK’s Westminster electoral system, though the system has been questioned there from time to time and even a referendum was held in 2010-11 about the continuance of this system. This electoral system in India was outlined in the Representation of People Act, 1951. Admittedly, the powers that be did not know how the so-called FPTP system would work in practice but it has consistently and certainly given rise to un-representative governments. It is said that many political pundits were astonished by the results of 1952 parliamentary elections when the Congress Party got huge majority with less than 50 percent of the votes polled! 
 
Ever since the process of elections started in independent India in 1951-52, the country has always been governed by ‘minority governments’. No one – be it Nehru, India Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Rajiv Gandhi, Narsimha Rao or Vajpayee – has so far secured the mandate of the majority of Indians. The man who came closest to securing it was Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. Approximately, 49 percent of the electorate voted (31 percent of the eligible votes) for Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. Yet, the party got a landslide by winning 414 seats out of 543, then strength of the Lok Sabha. Indira Gandhi, during the peak of her popularity, secured the support of only about 24 percent of the total electorate (43.68 percent of votes polled) but swept elections with 352 seats in the then Lok Sabha of 518 MPs. In 1999, BJP of Vajpayee got the support of 23.8 percent of the 59.99 percent votes polled, i.e., the support of only 14.4 percent of the total electorate. And yet, he secured a spectacular victory and reigned comfortably and supremely for nearly five years.
 
We have seen above how fewer votes may result into more seats and vice-versa. Let us now see how small swings in votes result in disproportionate and bumper harvesting of seats.
 
In the 2010 Bihar assembly elections, the JD(U)-BJP alliance, led by Nitish Kumar, won more than four-fifth (85 percent) of the seats. But, there was one peculiar aspect of this landslide. The alliance got a little less than two-fifth of the votes cast. So, less than 40 percent votes resulted in 85 percent (206/243seats with 39.1 percent votes) seats! There had been earlier wins of similar magnitude in terms of seats, for example, in the West Bengal assembly elections of 2006 and Lok Sabha elections of 1984. But these invariably were the result of a substantially larger vote share. In West Bengal, the Left got 49.5 percent of votes but 80 percent of the seats. In the 1984 parliamentary elections, the Congress got 49.1 percent votes and secured 79 percent (414) of the seats. How is this possible with a vote share of less than 40 percent, as was the case in Bihar? To put the significant surge in favour of the JD(U)-BJP coalition in perspective, its vote share in this election (2010) was barely 2.9 percent higher than in the 2005 assembly polls. Such a small swing in votes delivering such a huge swing in terms of seats is a remarkable instance of the FPTP factor going bullish! 
 
In the J&K assembly elections in 2008, the National Conference (NC) and the Congress both witnessed a decline but they called shots and formed the government. The ultimate irony was that the party that lost most in terms of votes became the biggest gainer of the elections. The analysis shows that the NC lost 7.1 percent vote share in the valley and 3.9 percent in Jammu and yet managed to hold on to the same number of seats (28) as in 2002. How did this happen? The answer lies in the fact that most of its losses in vote share came in one region (localised) – the southern part of the valley. This was a region where the PDP had done well in 2002 also. Hence, the surge in the PDP support and the decline in the NC’s vote here did not make much of a difference to seats. A similar process meant that the loss of votes in Jammu too did not hurt the NC. It, however, consolidated its position in the northern part of the valley and more or less maintained parity in Poonch area of Jammu region, the parts of the state from where it had picked up seats last time. Yet, more important aspect was that in the valley the NC was helped by the fact that ‘much of the decline in its vote share was mopped up not by PDP but by others’, who hiked their share from 6.6 percent the previous time to 15.4 percent in these polls but had little to show for it; their number of seats went down from 22 to 10. Thus, the BJP gained (10), PDP gained (5) but together they lost. Had PDP mopped up the votes that went to others it would have done much better, even emerging as the largest party. 
 
Another interesting instance of small swings was the assembly elections of UP in 2012. The SP, BSP, BJP and Congress+RLD were the main contenders. This was an ideal situation for the FPTP dance. The SP got 224 seats (up by 127) and BSP 80 (down by 126 seats). Ironically, the gap in vote share between the two main contenders was just 3.3% points, with the SP getting 29.2 percent of the votes polled to BSP’s 25.9 percent. But it gave SP 144 extra seats. This was a much smaller difference than in 2007 when the BSP had a lead of over 5 percent points compared to the SP (then ruling). Yet, the SP had reaped a much richer harvest in 2012 than what Mayawati did in 2007 thanks to the vagaries of the FPTP system.
 
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got approximately 31 percent of the total votes polled and yet it won 282 seats on its own, an absolute majority in parliament – for the first time in 30 years for any party. But this absolute majority was not spread across the country; it was confined to Hindi heartland and western States. Thus, in addition to a minority vote share, it was also not representative of the whole country. That adds another dimension to the consequences of the FPTP system. It can lead to a geographical concentration of popular base. The BJP’s seat share in the southern and eastern coastal states was dismal. Out of 164 seats there, it won only seven and yet got majority at national level. This geographical concentration in certain areas and absence in other areas of the country is symptomatic of skewed representation.
 
Closer to the present, in the assembly elections 2018, the outcome of Madhya Pradesh was quite curious. Though the Congress managed to double its seats (114) which were more than BJP’s (105), its vote share (40.9 percent) was still a shade lower than BJP’s (41 percent)! There was a meagre difference of 47,827 votes between the two, with BJP on the upper side. Obviously, the FPTP virus played its role well through smaller parties. SP and Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GGP) increased their share significantly. SP even ended up winning a seat. Its vote share shot up from 0.03 percent in 2013 to 1.3 percent this time, securing over 4.96 lakh votes (roughly 10 times the difference between BJP and Congress). GGP increased its vote share from 1 percent to 1.8 percent. Some 6.75 lakh people chose GGP rather than big parties; roughly 14 times the difference between BJP and Congress! Evidently, these small players skewed the results and proved almost all opinion/exit polls wrong.  
 
We can understand the vagaries of the FPTP system in multi-cornered contests by again stating an illustration of a three-cornered contest, as it operates at its best in a contest of more than two parties. Let us assume the main contestants are A, B and C parties/coalitions. At the beginning of the campaign process, they stand in their vote share at 36, 32 and 20 percent respectively while 12 percent are floating among other contestants. As the campaign picks up and various voting blocks shift as tectonic plates in a seismic phenomenon, many interesting patterns would emerge. One of the possible scenarios could be that by the poling day C gains by 6 points at the expense of A, both of them finally getting the share of 26 percent and 30 percent respectively. In the process, it pulls down A to 30 points yet itself reaches only 26 which is not sufficient to surpass B. So, finally, B’s original share of 32 remains intact. The contest is, therefore, essentially, not between A & B but it is between A & C which ensures victory of B without much effort. It is a very simplistic scenario. There would be more complex scenarios. FPTP works wonders in such situations making any correct prediction very difficult and even impossible. Thus, the main factor is not perception or influence that is generally held in the public domain but how FPTP operates and how many votes are actually polled. It is a common knowledge that most vociferous sections may not even vote! It is easy to appreciate that the system’s vagaries are more varied if the number of serious contenders go up. It will certainly lead to unpredictable and startling results. That could be one of the reasons that various surveys, opinion polls and even exit polls go wrong.  
 
Let us apply this model to Uttar Pradesh. The performance of the main players at the national level would depend upon their score in UP which in turn will depend upon how the FPTP factor works in multi-cornered contests in the state. As stated above, the system works wonders if there are three or more serious contenders. In the beginning, it was supposed to be a contest between the alliance of SP-BSP-RLD, popularly called Gathbandhan (hereinafter called GB), and BJP-led NDA. But, with the Congress going alone, irrespective of whoever is responsible for this situation, it has become a real three-cornered contest. Add to this some important regional players and outfits like SBSP of Om Prakash Rajbhar, PSP of Shiv Pal Yadav and others. It is now the Congress candidates’ performance on which would depend the outcome particularly of the GB and NDA. In many constituencies, where it is not in the main contest, it will certainly play a spoiler either way. According to reports, it is now emerging that in many constituencies it will cut into GB and in some into BJP votes, the extent of which is a guess work. In fact, one important Congress leader has gone on record to say that its candidates will poach the BJP votes and damage the party. Not sure. By the very nature of electoral politics and absence of any visible wave, it will damage both. Relative damage will affect the results. Prima facie, however, it appears that it will damage GB more than BJP. PSP of Shiv Pal Yadav will certainly damage the GB and benefit the BJP. 
 
Another crucial factor is the dilemma of the minority community. It is generally believed that the minority community votes against BJP and in favour of a candidate who can defeat the BJP candidate. The tactics shift from constituency to constituency. In other states, where the Congress is strong, they would vote for its candidates. But, in UP, they remain in a great amount of confusion as the Congress candidates are generally not in a strong position. They think that only the GB can defeat the BJP in UP, but at all India level it is the Congress that can contain the BJP. In case of GB partners, their vote will not be split this time, unlike the previous elections when their votes would be divided between SP and BSP. However, if there is a Congress candidate in a constituency, their diversion towards that candidate cannot be ruled out, particularly, if the candidate is robust. This dilemma is minimal in other states as the Congress is the main contestant in a majority of the states and SP/BSP do not have much of a presence. So, in those states, they would be polarised mainly towards the Congress. In this scenario, the Congress would attract some of minority and its old BRAHM (Brahmin, Harijan, Muslim) vote bank and to that extent damage the GB. Thus, the Congress would end up helping the BJP/ NDA indirectly by cutting into GB votes and facilitating in the victory of BJP candidates, a supremely ironical situation.  
 
From the above analysis, we observe that the overall percentage of votes a party or a coalition secures at state or national level has no certain correlation to the number of seats it wins. The party may concentrate only in some seats and convert the votes so obtained in more seats. Conversely, another party may get more votes by its spread all over the state or a bigger area, yet may get fewer seats or no seats at all. (In the 1999 parliamentary elections, when BJP secured disproportionate seats and in 2014, when the BSP got around 20 percent of the votes in UP yet no seat)
 
In our electoral system, the number of seats won matter more than the number of votes obtained. In the euphoria of post-electoral victory, the people and politicians both tend to ignore the absolute number or percentage of votes secured by parties and prefer to focus on the number of seats.
The foregoing analysis is an attempt to impress upon the practising politicians and commentators to appreciate the electoral results in the correct perspective and not to be swayed by the surge or fall in the seats of the respective parties and attribute them to the acceptance or rejection of their policies entirely. The classical case of over-exaggerated simplifications was witnessed in the 2004 elections when post-election, the Shining India campaign was held responsible for the BJP’s defeat and pro-poor stance of the Congress were held responsible for the remarkable victory of the UPA.
It should not be construed that promises, popular sentiments and emotions do not play an important role in the eventual outcome of elections. They do surely and certainly. It is important to remain in the field for the main contestants and potential winners. But what actually matters is the numbers in a chaotic and complex scenario. It is purely a mathematical calculus with interplay of various permutation and combinations though some people call it an art.  
 
Malik is a retired IPS officer with vast field experience. 

 

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