Hundreds of millions of Indians will take part in the largest organized democratic exercise ever recorded in the spring of 2014, barring the collapse of the ruling United Progressive Alliance government led by the Indian National Congress or a move by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call an early general election. If all goes according to plan, by June India will have selected 543 members of the sixteenth Lok Sabha, the popularly elected lower house of parliament or the House of the People. The makeup of the house will determine who emerges as the country’s next prime minister.
India, like the United States, is divided up into parliamentary constituencies (similar to congressional districts), and the person who wins the most votes in each constituency is elected. In this winner-take-all system (referred to as “first past the post”), the “election” is actually a series of 543 discrete constituency elections. The party, or coalition of parties, that manages to cobble together a majority of parliamentary seats forms the government.
Five striking structural trends that have emerged in India’s fifteen postindependence elections set the stage for 2014’s political contest. For starters, political competition in India has grown rapidly, particularly in the last two decades, ushering in a complex, fragmented party system. As elections have become more competitive, the average margin of victory in a typical parliamentary constituency has plummeted, reaching a record low in 2009.
The intensity of competition, coupled with the idiosyncrasies of India’s electoral rules, has also made forecasting elections more difficult, as a small swing in aggregate vote share can have massive repercussions on the number of seats a given party wins (or loses).
Despite these trends, voter turnout has grown only modestly with popular participation varying across states. In fact, states are important players in many ways. India’s union has become significantly more decentralized, with its federal states playing a much more substantial role in the daily lives of their citizens. This, in turn, has solidified the primacy of state-level considerations even when it comes to voting in national elections.
The media has portrayed the upcoming contest as a head-to-head battle between the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition force led into elections by Gujarat state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. But a closer look at these five trends that have unfolded over the last six decades illustrates why the election will likely hinge on a confluence of local factors.
Surging Political Competition
The most striking trend in Indian electoral politics is the explosion in political competition in recent years. In the 1952 general election, the first held after India won independence, 55 parties took part; in 2009, 370 parties entered the fray (see figure 1). The surge in political competition began in the 1980s—the number of parties contesting elections jumped from 38 in 1984 to 117 in 1989, a watershed year in Indian politics. It was only the second time since independence that the Congress Party was ousted from power. The dramatic surge in 1989 is explained by the proliferation of regional parties, which formed in direct response to popular disenchantment with Congress rule and the lack of representation for lower and backward castes, minorities, and regional or subregional interests.
The 1989 election heralded the end of single-party rule in India and the rise of multiparty coalition government, which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This further incentivized the growth of regional parties, whose leaders recognized that they could wield considerable influence in the formation of governments with a relatively small number of seats in parliament.
Yet, simply evaluating the number of parties participating in elections risks overstating the increase in competition because many parties are only minor contenders—with little chance of winning a sizeable number of votes or even a single seat for that matter. Between 1952 and 1984, the Lok Sabha saw on average 19 distinct parties occupying seats on its benches. After 1989, that number has averaged around 33. Following the 2009 election, 37 parties gained representation in parliament (today, that number stands at 39).
Weighing the number of parties by the number of seats they actually won in parliament—a common metric known as the “effective number of parties”—is a more accurate gauge of competition. Even using this refined measure, the increase remains substantial. The effective number of parties in India stood at 1.7 in 1952, grew to 4.3 in 1989, and rose to 6.5 in 2009 (see figure 2). To place this number in comparative context, Canada’s 2011 parliamentary election produced 3.4 effective parties while Brazil’s 2006 election produced over 10.
The effective number of parties varies greatly across India; indeed, states have developed their own “party systems.” For instance, in states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, elections are a bipolar contest between Congress and the BJP—the only two parties with a truly national reach. In several other states, such as Mizoram and Nagaland in the northeast, the contest is between Congress and a regional party. In Karnataka or Punjab, the contest is somewhere between a straight bipolar contest and a three-way race, typically with a regional party emerging as a significant player. And there are a handful of states with badly fragmented, multiparty systems. One example is Uttar Pradesh; many of the state’s constituencies feature a four-way race between the Congress Party, BJP, and two viable regional parties.
Declining Margin of Victory
As the number of parties seeking—and winning—representation in parliament has steadily increased, so has the closeness of elections. The average margin of victory in a parliamentary constituency between 1962 and 2009 has decreased over time (see figure 3). From 1962 to 1977, elections in India actually became less competitive, with the average margin of victory in a constituency growing from nearly 15 percent in 1962 to 26 percent in 1977. Both 1971 and 1977 were unique “wave” elections. In 1971, the then Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi secured a landslide victory, and she was badly punished six years later in the wake of a two-year period of Emergency rule. Since 1977, however, the average margin of victory has come down substantially: in 2009, it registered at 9.7 percent, the thinnest margin since independence.
This degree of competitiveness at the constituency level in India is striking when compared to other electoral systems with similar winner-take-all electoral laws. For instance, the average margin of victory in a 2012 United States congressional race was nearly 32 percent—more than three times as large as in India. The average margin of victory in Britain’s 2010 parliamentary election was more than 18 percent.
As the number of parties (and, hence, candidates) increases and margins of victory shrink, a dwindling number of candidates win elections with the support of a majority of voters in their constituencies. As recently as 1999, as many as 40 percent of winning candidates enjoyed majority support. This figure has come down sharply in recent years, raising questions about the “legitimacy” of candidates who win with only minority support. In 2009, candidates won with more than 50 percent of the vote in a mere 22 percent of constituencies.
Unpredictable Translation of Votes Into Seats
Although the number of players in elections has grown exponentially and the competitiveness of elections has correspondingly shot up, looking back at the last several national election cycles, it appears as if the share of votes earned by Congress, the BJP, and the total of the remaining (principally regional) parties combined is actually in relative equilibrium (see figure 4).
In 1996, Congress earned slightly less than 29 percent of the vote, while the BJP and smaller regional parties won 20 and 51 percent, respectively. Although there have been modest fluctuations in votes in the intervening elections, the shifts in vote shares over the past two decades have not been dramatic. In 2009, Congress won 28.5 percent of the vote; this was almost identical to its showing in both 1996 and 1999. The BJP’s vote share peaked in 1998, when it took home 25.6 percent of the vote. Since then, its vote share has declined slightly to 19 percent, down a little over one percentage point from its 1996 tally. The other parties held 51 percent of the vote in 1996 and 52.5 percent of the vote in 2009.
But appearances can be deceiving. There is a bias built into India’s electoral rules, which often results in a discrepancy between the share of votes won and the share of seats earned. For instance, the Bahujan Samaj Party won nearly 26 million votes (or 6.2 percent of the all-India vote share), yet in the vast majority of the 500 constituencies in which it fielded a candidate, it earned a relatively small share of the vote. The party performed well in its stronghold of Uttar Pradesh (winning 21 seats there), but its vote share outside of the state was too small to pick up additional seats.
There is rarely a perfect one-to-one correlation between votes and seats. Take the Congress Party. For every 1 percent share of the vote Congress garnered in 1977, it was rewarded with .9 seats (see figure 5). But in 1980, that changed drastically: a 1 percentage point increase in vote share was suddenly worth nearly 1.7 seats. This ratio is difficult to predict, and it varies wildly over election cycles; both the magnitude and the direction of bias can fluctuate substantially.
Even very small changes in the vote share can have dramatic impacts on the number of seats won. For instance, in 1999 and 2009 the Congress Party won an almost identical share of votes (28.3 versus 28.5 percent, respectively). Yet, with just a 0.2 percentage point difference in vote share, the party’s seat share rose from 25.8 percent (140 seats) to nearly 37.9 percent (206 seats). What triggers this effect is how broadly spread (or concentrated) a party’s vote share is at the level of individual constituencies. On an all-India level, a party’s aggregate vote share might not change much from one election to the next, but the distribution of where it got its votes could vary based on local factors such as the extent of competition and thus the fragmentation of the vote.
Halting Growth in Voter Turnout
Voter turnout in national elections has grown at a relatively modest clip over the years (see figure 6). In 1962, overall turnout stood at 55.5 percent, while in the 2009 election the number was 59.4 percent. This rate has fluctuated within a relatively defined band, from a low of 55.2 percent in 1971 to 64.1 percent in 1984, the year Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
However, looking at average turnout rates, as with almost any statistic regarding national politics, masks a great deal of variation at the state level. For instance, average turnout rates in Kerala since 1977 have hovered around 73 percent, more than 20 percentage points higher than the average in Uttar Pradesh. But even state-level averages can be deceiving if one is trying to gauge voter mobilization in India’s states: the differences in voter turnout across constituencies within states are almost as large as those between states. For instance, in 2009 turnout in the state of Maharashtra ranged from 39 percent in parts of urban Mumbai to over 70 percent in rural Gondiya.
“Federalization” of Electoral Politics
As India’s federal system has become more decentralized, states have become the primary venues of political contestation. While a party’s prime ministerial candidate and issues concerning national policy can and do often matter, national elections are increasingly shaped, though not predetermined, by state-level factors.
One consequence of states moving to the forefront of voters’ minds is that turnout in state elections has gradually overtaken turnout in national elections. Average state turnout has been increasing over time (see figure 7), and indeed the turnout gap between state and national elections has risen in kind.
State electoral systems also determine the slate of options available to voters in national polls. This is true both in terms of the parties contesting elections as well as the social cleavages (such as caste) that shape voting behavior.
In addition, the interaction between state and national elections is also affected by the vagaries of the electoral calendar. The general rule of thumb is that when state assembly polls are held no more than two years prior to national polls, state ruling parties enjoy a “honeymoon” when it comes to national elections. For instance, in all nine states that held state elections within a year of the 2004 and the 2009 national elections, the same party won the largest share of seats in both state and national elections. Conversely, when state governments are in the final two years of their term headed into national elections, the odds that they will succeed on the national level plummet. The reverse relationship—national elections impacting state results—also holds true, albeit in a much more modest way.
In an election held this past May, the ruling BJP was trounced in polls in the southern state of Karnataka, with the Congress Party bagging 121 seats (out of 224) to win a clear majority. The outcome represents a serious defeat for the BJP, not only because Karnataka had been the party’s only foothold in southern India, but also because the proximity to national elections means Congress is likely to do quite well in the spring’s national polls. Similarly, the stakes are high for state assembly elections that are due at the end of 2013 in four major states: Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Together, these states account for 72 Lok Sabha seats (or 13 percent of the overall total). To a large extent, all of these elections are head-to-head contests between Congress and the BJP, with smaller, regional parties playing only a marginal role.
The Difficulty of Predicting
These five trends—increasing political competition, declining margins of victory, the complex translation of votes into seats, modest growth in national voter turnout, and the federalized nature of the electoral system—provide the context for India’s 2014 Lok Sabha election. They point to the complexity and richness of India’s electoral system and help clarify why India has often been considered a pollster’s nightmare.
It is perhaps too simplistic to declare that national elections in India are the sum total of thirty-five state-level contests; after all, national-level political leaders, issues, and dynamics—or even nationwide “waves”—can and do influence vote choice. Yet the growing relevance of local factors when it comes to determining national election outcomes is a trend that political observers ignore at their peril.
In the months ahead, Carnegie scholars will be analyzing various dimensions of the upcoming election battle—from the relationship between elections and the economy to the impact of elections on India’s foreign policy to the campaigns being waged in some of India’s battleground states. Keep up to date with the project at CarnegieEndowment.org/IndiaDecides2014/.