The world’s largest democratic exercise, the Indian general election, has finally come to a close. The numbers are extraordinary. Nearly 554 million voters exercised their franchise, selecting 543 members of parliament from a slate of more than 8,000 candidates representing 464 political parties competing across 28 states and seven union territories. Estimates of the money spent on elections hover around $5 billion, second only to the 2012 presidential election in the United States.

That Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged victorious surprised few analysts, yet the magnitude of the rout and the defeat endured by the incumbent Indian National Congress caught even longtime India watchers off guard. The BJP managed to win 282 of 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament (the Lok Sabha), the first time a single party has won a majority in three decades. The Congress tally, meanwhile, sunk to just 44 seats—down from 206 in 2009.

Milan Vaishnav
Vaishnav’s primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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Digging deeper, the dynamics of the 2014 national election raise important questions about several bedrock assumptions that underpin the received wisdom on contemporary Indian electoral politics. The most recent election was marked by less fragmentation, weaker electoral competition, yet more popular participation. If these trends persist, India may well have closed the book on twenty-five years of electoral politics and moved into a new era.

India’s Electoral Orders

Since independence, India has experienced three distinct electoral phases or “systems,” to borrow the phrase coined by political scientist Yogendra Yadav. The first phase, beginning with India’s first general election in 1952, was synonymous with Congress hegemony and a deeply fragmented opposition. In 1967, Congress suffered a series of devastating electoral losses at the state level, which marked the unraveling of its hegemonic era.

Enter the second system, which lasted from 1967 to 1989. For much of this period, Congress maintained power in Delhi (with the exception of 1977–1979), but its authority in the states was increasingly challenged by a motley group of regional, largely caste-based parties.

With 1989 came the dawn of coalition-era politics in Delhi and the beginning of the third electoral system. This system, which has evolved over two and a half decades and prevailed until the present, is built around a series of core principles. These principles include a sharp rise in political competition at the national level and declining margins of victory in parliamentary races. The vote share belonging to regional parties has also expanded, while growth in voter turnout in national elections has halted and electoral politics has become “federalized.”

With respect to all five principles, the 2014 election results force a serious rethink.

More Candidates and Parties, Less Fragmentation

The number of candidates and political parties participating in elections both went up in 2014. Still, votes appear to be concentrated on a relatively small number of core parties.

In keeping with recent trends, the number of candidates standing for election grew once again to 8,251 in the 2014 vote. Although this was an increase from the number of candidates in the fray in 2009 (which was 8,070), it represented a modest 2.2 percent addition. This stands in contrast to the nearly 50 percent jump witnessed between 2004 and 2009 (see figure 1).

Unlike the slowing rate of growth in the number of candidates, the number of political parties taking part in elections continued to rapidly proliferate. The number of parties fielding candidates reached a record high 464 in 2014, compared with 363 in 2009 and 215 in 2004. The 2014 tally represents a 28 percent jump from 2009. The bulk of the increase in recent years has come from “unrecognized” parties, or smaller parties that have not met predetermined thresholds outlined by the Election Commission to qualify for official recognition as either state or national political parties.

However, the growth in number of parties is somewhat deceiving. Most fail to make much of a mark on Election Day, bombing when it comes to winning seats or even votes. In 2009, 37 of the 363 contesting parties won representation in the Lok Sabha while 35 out of 464 got at least one seat in 2014 (these calculations do not count independent candidates standing without party affiliation).

A more informative statistic to consider is the effective number of parties. This metric weights parties by the number of seats they actually win, thus discounting those with few seats and disregarding entirely those who draw a blank.

The effective number of parties in India grew steadily between 1984 and 2004, increasing nearly fourfold—from 1.7 in 1984 to 6.5 in 2004. In other words, the fragmentation of power in national politics deepened considerably over these two decades as India moved rapidly toward an era of coalition politics in Delhi. Yet, this measure has declined for the last two elections, dropping to 3.5 in 2014—the lowest level in three decades (see figure 2).

More candidates and parties are participating in elections, and the number of parties represented in parliament remains high. But the fact that the effective number of parties is falling indicates that fragmentation in parliament has waned and the number of partisan power centers, when it comes to actual seats in parliament, is on the downturn. More parties may be popping up, but widespread voter support for them is not.

Less Competitive Races

An apparent corollary of the surge in the number of contesting parties and candidates and the lower number of effective parties in parliament is the plummeting margins of victory in parliamentary races.

Since 1977, the year in which the Congress government of Indira Gandhi was voted out following a two-year period of emergency rule, the margin of victory in the average Lok Sabha constituency has been decreasing. In the 1977 elections, winners defeated their closest opponent by nearly one-quarter of the total votes cast (26.1 percentage points); in 2009, the margin of victory clocked in at 9.7 percentage points—the thinnest gap on record.

The margins of victory in 2014 support the finding that elections this year were less competitive than in the past several votes. The average member of parliament won his or her race by 15.2 percentage points. A wider margin has not been seen since 1989 (see figure 3).

The situation changes slightly when partisan affiliation is taken into account, as the 282 successful BJP candidates performed much better than this all-India average. The average BJP winner took his or her seat by a margin of 18 percentage points. On the other hand, the 44 Congress candidates who emerged triumphant won by an average margin of 8 percentage points, less than half that of the BJP. Thus, while critics have pointed out that the BJP won 52 percent of parliamentary seats with “only” 31 percent of the vote, in constituencies where it won, it did so relatively handily.

The fierce competitiveness that has prevailed in the system in recent decades has meant that in India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, a smaller share of candidates are winning elections with the support of a majority of voters in their constituencies. The last time a majority of members of parliament won their elections with a majority of the votes cast in their constituencies (50 percent or more) was 1989. Since then, it has become routine for members of parliament to win with only minority support. In 2009, just 22 percent won a majority of votes cast, a sharp drop from 40 percent in the two prior elections and a colossal decline from 70 percent in 1984.

For the candidates elected in 2014, by contrast, the share of “majority winners” rebounded to 37 percent—back to roughly where the figure stood in 1999 and 2004 (see figure 4). The candidates represented in parliament got there with a larger share of the vote than in the past.

Changing Composition of Vote Share

Parties other than Congress or the BJP, namely India’s regional parties, have tended to play a critical role in elections in the coalition era thanks to their increasing vote share. But the 2014 election demonstrated that vote share still does not necessarily equal parliamentary power.

Despite claims about the expanding footprint of regional parties, the vote share of candidates who were from neither the BJP nor Congress—having modestly grown from 48 percent in 1999 to 52.6 percent in 2009—dropped to 48.6 percent in 2014. Over the past several election cycles, the overall balance of power between national and regional parties remains largely unchanged. Generally speaking, the ratio of votes going to Congress and the BJP versus all others has been somewhat stable since 1996, on the order of 50:50 (see figure 5). Regional parties, while proliferating, appear to be dividing up a roughly constant vote share among themselves instead of eating into the composite shares won by Congress and the BJP.

Changing as well is the composition of the “national party” vote, or the share of the vote that goes to either Congress or the BJP—the only two parties with truly pan-Indian appeal. Since 2009, Congress and the BJP have essentially switched places when it comes to vote share. In 2009, the BJP earned 18.8 percent of the vote; in 2014, Congress won 19.3. In contrast the BJP vote share shot up to 31 percent in 2014, slightly higher than where Congress had stood in 2009 (28.5 percent).

Despite the changing composition of the vote share, the translation of votes to seats is not proportionate. For every 1 percent of the vote share the BJP garnered, it picked up an additional nine seats. In contrast, a marginal 1 percent vote increase for Congress yielded a measly 2.3 seats. Meanwhile, the total number of seats won by “others,” which includes all of the regional parties plus independent, unaffiliated candidates, hardly budged from 2009 (see figure 6).

Regional parties, too, experienced their fair share of quirks in the conversion of votes to seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party won 4.1 percent of the all-India vote, making it the third-highest vote getter following the BJP and Congress. For its performance, it won exactly zero seats (out of 503 contested). The Trinamool Congress Party garnered 3.8 percent of the all-India vote. But because this vote was concentrated in one state (West Bengal) where it faced relatively weak competition from other parties, it won 34 of the state’s 42 seats in parliament.

Record Voter Turnout

In recent decades, growth of voter turnout in national elections has been halting. National voter turnout reached its apex in 1984, when 64 percent of the electorate voted Congress back into power in the months following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Since then, turnout has fluctuated between 56 and 62 percent, with a relative stagnation at 58 percent in the previous two elections (2004 and 2009).

Breaking with the past, India logged a record high voter turnout in 2014: 66.4 percent (see figure 7). This number is especially impressive given that the total size of the electorate eligible to vote has risen sharply. The electorate in 2014 stood at 834 million people, up nearly 16 percent from its 2009 level of roughly 717 million.

The composition of voter turnout also revealed a surprise: the gap between male and female turnout shrank to an all-time low. Historically, women in India have lagged far behind men when it comes to turning out to vote on Election Day. As recently as 2004, male turnout exceeded female turnout by 8.4 percentage points. In 2014, the difference dropped to just 1.8 percentage points (see figure 8). In fact, in sixteen out of 35 states and union territories, women came out to vote at higher rates than men.

Women accounted for nearly 48 percent of the overall electorate in 2014, which is in line with India’s skewed sex ratio in favor of males. After years of trailing, the share of female voters is now nearly proportional with the share of women in the electorate.

Debatable Federalization of National Politics

A final attribute of the prevailing electoral order is the federalization of India’s national elections. It is received wisdom that parliamentary elections are more an aggregate of discrete state electoral verdicts than a truly national decision. The 2014 results call this assumption into question on several fronts.

First, by any measure, 2014 was the most presidential election India has witnessed in thirty years. This dynamic was fueled by the BJP’s early and relentless projection of Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of the state of Gujarat at the time, as its prime ministerial candidate. Although the incumbent Congress refused to formally name party vice president Rahul Gandhi as its candidate, he did emerge as the clear face of the party’s campaign. This presidential dynamic, in turn, meant that national-level personalities and national-level issues played a much stronger role in shaping the electoral verdict than in the recent past.

A wave of support seemed to build for Modi, and his party performed well nationwide. The BJP saw increases in vote share in nearly every major state in the country, with the exception of Punjab. Chhattisgarh and Karnataka aside, the opposite is true of Congress. When it comes to prime ministerial preferences, voters favored Modi to Gandhi across India by a greater than 2:1 margin (36 versus 14 percent). This wave, of course, was by no means monolithic; in states like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Odisha, although the BJP improved its showing, regional players still dominated.

Second, the BJP victory in 2014 marks the first time since 1984 that a single party has earned a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, though the BJP has chosen to form a government along with its coalition allies of the National Democratic Alliance. Analysts of Indian electoral behavior had become accustomed to speaking of the “inevitability” of coalition government after 1989. The consolidation of political power in the hands of a single national party was thought to be virtually impossible in the current context of regional fragmentation. But 2014 has shown this is not the case.

Related to this is the divergence between state and national electoral trends. In the third electoral system, state politics is the primary filter voters use to make decisions about whom to support, even in national elections. For example, voters often grant state governments a honeymoon period of two years after they come into office; in the recent past, state elections occurring two years or less prior to national elections have more often than not been a good predictor of electoral outcomes in national elections.

At first glance, this relationship appears unchanged in 2014. The parties that earned the highest vote share in the 2013 state elections in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, and Rajasthan (Congress in Mizoram and the BJP in the four others) were the parties that won the greatest share of votes in those states in the parliamentary elections as well.

Yet the rule of thumb does not seem to hold when one considers the electoral verdicts in all states that have held elections since the start of 2012. For instance, in states like Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, which held regional elections in May 2013 and March 2012 respectively, the Congress (in Karnataka) and the Samajwadi Party (in UP) swept to power. But in the national polls, the BJP bested these incumbent parties in both places. A similar divergence was seen in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

Finally, notwithstanding the great increase in voter turnout in the 2014 general election, national turnout still lags behind state election turnout. If one compares voter turnout in the most recent state assembly elections (discarding those states with concurrent state and national elections like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha), state turnout still exceeds national turnout by 5.2 percentage points, on average.

This suggests there remains a basis for the claim that states are still seen as the primary venues for political contestation. However, taking into account a wider range of data points, it appears as if this relationship is not as robust as was once believed.

Conclusion

An analysis of the 2014 electoral verdict shows several discontinuities with prevailing trends in the coalition era of Indian politics dubbed the third electoral system. As with many things in India, the extent of the breaks varies considerably across states. But on the whole, the most recent electoral verdict calls into question several of the core tenets of the electoral order.

Do these departures mean India has closed a chapter in its electoral history and is moving toward a fourth electoral system? Such transitions are inherently difficult to determine at such close range—the Modi administration has just completed its first two weeks in office—and with electoral dynamics in India still in flux.

Many factors will determine whether this election is a one-time aberration or a harbinger of more fundamental change. These include how the Modi government makes use of its parliamentary majority and decisive mandate, the ability of the Congress Party to revive its electoral fortunes, and whether the upstart Aam Aadmi Party can transform itself into a political force outside of a limited pocket of north India.

Certain breaks with the past may be more persistent than others. For instance, the increasing convergence of male and female voter turnout is likely to continue at both the state and national elections as awareness and political assertiveness among women has grown and the Election Commission has enacted reforms to facilitate their participation. While regional parties will continue to be a force in Indian national politics, large increases in vote share look harder to come by as national parties stubbornly cling to roughly half of the all-India vote. And the presidential overtones of the 2014 election worked so effectively for the BJP that future general election campaigns are likely to adopt many of Modi’s practices.

The 2014 verdict raises the prospect that in years to come, India’s national elections may well be “re-nationalized,” perhaps leading the country into a new era by delving into the electoral past.

Danielle Smogard is a junior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.