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Representation, every time

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-05-2014 Dilip D'Souza

In the argument between stability and representation, count me in the “representation” column. That is, I would much rather have even a shaky coalition government, if it represents more citizens than a stable one-party government would. And the numbers from the elections just done make that case unmistakably.

On its own, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the members of Parliament—ten more than the halfway mark, 272—to form a government, if it so desires. It will certainly be a stable government, because single-party governments usually are. It will also represent the desires and aspirations of about 31% of voters: the fraction that voted for the BJP.

Hold that thought for a minute.

The fascinating thing about this election is that it’s almost exactly as if the Congress and the BJP swapped their shares of the electorate. In 2009, 29% voted for the Congress, 19% the BJP. In 2014, 31% chose the BJP, 19% the Congress. But the difference—a huge difference—is in how, five years apart, those fractions translated into seats.

In 2009, the Congress won 206 seats, well short of the halfway mark.

No way could it form a government on its own. This reality, it had accepted before the election. This is why it allied before the election with several parties—what we call the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). But with the counting done, the UPA still had only 262 seats and 37% of the vote. To get past 272, UPA took the “outside support” of four more parties and three independents—all of whom it had actually fought against in the elections. This gave UPA 322 seats.

An unstable, indecisive government because of this unwieldy coalition, some of whom hated each other (e.g. the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj parties)? Certainly. But one that at least represented a plurality of Indian voters? Certainly too, if by the thinnest of slivers: with outside support, UPA’s share of those who voted rose to just over 50%.

Give me representation, remember? No previous government—not Nehru, not Vajpayee, not Rajiv Gandhi after his 1984 landslide—could reasonably claim it represented a majority of this country.

Return to the just-finished elections. The BJP too did not expect to win more than 272 seats on its own. This is why it allied before the election with several parties—what we call the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But when the dust settled on 16 May, we had a remarkable situation.

The voters had rejected the Congress decisively, of course. The best indication of that is not so much that the Congress was reduced to its lowest-ever bag of Lok Sabha seats, but that its share of the vote sank by 10 percentage points, to 19%. Goodbye, Congress. The BJP gained by an even larger margin, to 31%. Hello, BJP.

But here’s what’s remarkable. In 2009, the Congress got 206 seats and the BJP 116, but those numbers did not do the simple swap that the vote shares did. No: in 2014, the BJP’s 31% gave it 282 seats—a simple majority—and the Congress’s 19% gave it 44.

Thus what I started this essay with: we can actually have a stable government that represents less than one in three of us.

But another reality goes deeper, and it might give pause to anyone who follows politics. Because in this election, it’s not just that less than a third of the electorate is represented by a clear majority of seats. It’s also that plenty of voters find no representation at all.

For one example: the party that got the third-highest fraction of the vote (i.e. after the BJP and Congress) is the BSP, at 4.1%. That’s better than the Trinamool Congress (3.8%), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (3.3%), the Shiv Sena (1.9%), and several others. Those three parties got 34, 37 and 18 seats, respectively. The BSP? Zero.

Why did this happen? Across Uttar Pradesh, the BSP certainly pulled in its share of votes. But it was up against the BJP wave that rolled across the state. In constituency after constituency—Bansgaon, Sultanpur, Fatehpur, Akbarpur—the BSP came second to the BJP. At times a strong second, but second nevertheless. In our first-past-the-post system, second counts for nothing. The result? Not one seat for the BSP.

Now there are flaws in every electoral system. If first-past-the-post has denied the BSP seats, proportional representation, which might have given them some, tends to produce unstable governments. But here’s my case and forgive me for mentioning it a third time: in a democracy, the first concern is, and must be, representation. That’s implicit even in the stirring slogan the American Revolution made famous: “No taxation without representation!”

And even if you count partners, that the BJP now doesn’t actually need, the NDA has a vote share of 39%. Two of every five voters, represented by the NDA. Three of every five, not.

In these numbers, a better case than ever for changes in the way we do elections.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. A Matter of Numbers will explore the joy of mathematics, with occasional forays into other sciences.

Comments are welcome at dilip@livemint.com. To read Dilip D’Souza’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dilipdsouza

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