With India wrapping up the last phase of its marathon general election today, it is time to make a few observations about the process and its flaws/peculiarities.
We still do not know the overall voting percentage but let’s presume for the sake of argument that 60 percent of the 814 million eligible voters exercised their right. That makes it close to 490 million Indians voting in the election. This means that the destiny of 1.26 billion people was decided by 770 million out of them either not choosing to take part or not being eligible to take part because they are below the voting age. I know democracy is the best, albeit flawed, system that we have but the idea that nearly 65 percent of the country’s actual population has to live with the consequences of electoral preferences of the remaining 35% is rather disturbing. Experts often forget that while it is sensible to have a voting age, those below that age are also directly impacted by the electoral decisions of those above it. Even if there is a 100 percent voter turnout, it would still leave out close to 440 million Indians below the voting age, which is the world’s third highest population in itself.
In terms of possible outcome scenarios, the most popular among a certain segment of the Indian population, especially those Indians unleashing relentless social media cacophony, seems to be that Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win 300 plus seats. Even with that number, one particularly relevant point to examine would be the party’s share of valid votes. In 2009, the BJP’s share was 18.84 percent, which is a disturbingly small number of actual people voting for it. It would be truly extraordinary if the BJP is able to double that number this time riding on the much ballyhooed Narendra Modi wave. Even if the party does pull off that feat, we still need to see this in a larger perspective.
In the 2009 election, 58% of the total 714 million people exercised their franchise which makes it a little over 416 million people. Of these, the BJP’s vote share was 18.84 percent (I am not going into the details of how many actual votes were declared invalid for various reasons). That makes the actual number of voters who voted for it a little over 78 million people. If the BJP manages to double its vote share this time, which seems highly unlikely, it would mean of the 490 million presumed votes (at 60 percent national turnout) the party would have received 181 million votes. That raises another peculiarity of the electoral system. A party that manages to convince less than 15 percent of its total population to vote for it gets to rule the country.
Of course, the problem of vote share versus the number of seats is not peculiar to the BJP. The Congress Party, which has been the dominant force in India’s politics since its very inception, has been the biggest beneficiary of that peculiarity despite consistently scoring very low numbers in terms of vote share since 1991. In 1991, its vote share was 36.26 percent compared to 28.52 percent in 2009. Even with that low vote share, which meant a little over 118 million actual votes in the last election, the Congress with the help of its allies managed to rule India for five years. When you look at these numbers in the overall national terms with the entire population of the country in mind, you get a sense about how electoral democracy does not necessarily address the problems and aspirations of the largest number of people.
Many think these peculiarities are a consequence of the first past the post system, a system that India follows and which inspires strong arguments on both sides of the divide. I have no specific remedy for these rather serious flaws/peculiarities but it might be worthwhile to debate some ideas about how to fix this.
In the event the BJP manages 300 plus seats, the party’s rank and file would conclude they have earned the mandate to enforce their political, cultural, ideological and economic agenda in the country. One cannot run away from the fact that in a democracy as competitive as India’s the party that manages to win that convincingly has legitimately earned the right to practice its ideological predilections even if it got there with the support of a relatively small percentage of its eligible voters and an even smaller percentage of the total population.
We will know on May 16 how India’s much celebrated electorate has voted this time but whichever way it has voted it would still be a manifestation of a partial democracy in actual effective terms.