Opinion: Caution For Congress From Bengaluru

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Even as the Congress and other parties opposed to the BJP engage in purposeful efforts to forge unity to minimise the splitting of the opposition vote, here is an intriguing question – how likely is it that in many parliamentary constituencies where the Congress is supporting a regional party, the Congress vote migrates not to the regional party but to the BJP?

Not very likely would be the intuitive response, considering the sharp historical polarisation between the votaries of the two parties, which has become toxic post 2014. Narendar Pani, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), would beg to differ with some vehemence.

Dr Pani is the lead author of a recent first-of-its-kind NIAS study on how the Indian electorate has voted in the recent past. He is categorical that it is likely that a statistically significant share of the Congress voter could well choose to vote for the BJP rather than a regional party.

As Dr Pani puts it: “We need to be mindful that there are two conflicts which play out in national elections – the ruling party versus the Opposition and the national versus the local. Much of the analyses of alliance politics tends to assume that parties have a loyal transferable vote share. Alliances are then a simple matter of adding vote shares. But if the loyalty is to national versus local thinking, alliances which mix national and regional parties could result in votes of the national party in the alliance shifting to the opposing national party, rather than to a regional party.”

At the heart of Dr Pani’s caution for the Congress is the accepted axiom in Indian politics that the Indian voter tends to vote with a national mindset in the “bada” parliamentary vote but votes with a decidedly more local framework in the “chhota vote” of the assembly elections. If then you add the tendency of the “national” vote to consolidate behind the national party that dominates the national imagination, a mindset which worked to the Congress’s advantage in the past and for the BJP in the last two general elections, you can begin to understand the challenge that the Congress faces as it participates whole-heartedly in the confabs in Patna and Bangalore.

Based on Election Commission data for the last 10 elections, the NIAS study has assessed how the country’s First Past The Post (FPTP) election system has played out for the country’s national and regional parties in general elections post-1984. It takes the 1984 general election as the starting point because it was the first election that the BJP contested.

The first in-depth temporal study to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the FPTP system accruing to national parties and regional parties, the study uses a statistical model to chart the relationship between votes polled and seats won on an S curve for all national and regional parties in general elections since 1984 to determine the point at which the votes polled begin to give more than a unitary share of the seats.

The study concludes from the pattern of elections since 1984 that the FPTP system has shown a clear bias towards the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, the only two parties with a 20% or more share of the vote in the maximum number of states and Union Territories. The spread of their votes across constituencies has enabled the two national parties to reach that point earlier, compared to the regional parties, where a disproportion begins to emerge between their share of the vote and their share of seats. These parties have been further helped by the two voter mindsets mentioned earlier.

What of the regional parties? Initially, says the NIAS study, the presence of a large number of regional parties is seen to have benefited the national parties because they split the vote. But, the study observes, as regional parties have got stronger, become the main local Opposition party and even the ruling party in the assembly elections (for example, the Trinamool Congress in Bengal or the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh), and in effect have become the other political pole in their states against the national party (clearly Tamil Nadu is a major exception here, with the dominance of the Dravidian parties), they have reduced the FPTP bias towards national parties.

What is more, they have also gained from the inherent bias of the FPTP system from the consolidation of votes. The study concludes: “The possibility of local parties growing to the point where they become the beneficiaries of the FPTP system ensures that there is no significant movement in the country against the FPTP electoral system, though, on the whole, the system still favours national parties.”

Punjab is probably the state which currently promises the most interesting interplay of the “national” and the “local” vote. The BJP has appointed Sunil Jakhar as its state chief. Jakhar was in the Congress till the other day and was even a serious contestant for Chief Minister when Amarinder Singh was forced to step down less than two years ago, being ruled out mainly because he was a Hindu. Implicit in the appointment of Jakhar is the BJP hope of harnessing the “national” vote.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) currently rules the state, dancing a neat pivot, harvesting local sentiment while positioning itself as a national party elsewhere, and will, in the ongoing Opposition unity efforts, try and lay claim to being the political pole in the state. The Congress will accept that only at its peril, clearly aware that an alliance with AAP is likely to send the “national” vote towards the BJP, even if the latter were to revive its alliance with the Akalis.

This disproportionate reward for the party finishing first in India’s FPTP system is, of course, at the centre of the ongoing Opposition efforts to combat the BJP in the 2024 general elections. In the 2019 elections, the BJP won 300 seats on a 37% share of the votes polled.

If the Opposition were to ensure that there was only one candidate in 2024 from an Opposition party against the BJP, the Opposition candidate would theoretically start with 63% vote in the bank, assuming no change in voter preference and the seamless transfer of all Opposition votes to that candidate. Admittedly, both assumptions are unrealistic, the second even more so than the first, but you get why parties opposed to the BJP are straining towards attaining the goal of total Opposition unity.

The pole party in the Opposition, the Congress, appears rejuvenated post-Karnataka and the Bharat Jodo Yatra, yet it would be deeply aware that India’s general elections have always been quasi-presidential. This study from the Bengaluru-based scholars will give the Congress some more posers to contend with.

(Ajay Kumar is a senior journalist. He is former Managing Editor, Business Standard and former Executive Editor, The Economic Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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