A Stolen Verdict
By Nirmalangshu Mukherji
23 May, 2014
The Bharatiya Janata Party secured about 19% votes in the general elections of 2009 to win 116 seats in the Parliament. With this most impressive conversion ratio, they had more or less exhausted their possibilities in their ‘safe’ states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, and the like. They were still 157 seats away from a simple majority in the Loksabha. Even assuming the impressive conversion ratio, they needed at least 26% more of the vote share, that is 45% in all, to form a government.
When the elections for 2014 were announced, it was hard to see where the BJP would get these additional votes from. Moreover, unlike the NDA of 1999-2004, they had rather modest support from other parties with most of the big parties like AIADMK, TMC, JDU, BJD, and the like staying away. Hence, even if we factor in some rise in number of seats in ‘safe’ states, plus handsome gains in Rajasthan, Maharashtra etc., their ability to reach anywhere near the 272+ mark looked rather dim.
This very plausible analysis of the general electoral picture might have led to some complacency in the anti-NDA camps to launch a vigorous and united election campaign. Congress, for example, chose to go alone except in Bihar. The Left failed to secure any allies as well. Most started the campaign rather late while Narendra Modi, RSS, and BJP sprung into action many months in advance.
Still, despite an unprecedented media campaign by the BJP involving thousands of crores of rupees and a severe anti-incumbency against the UPA—especially against the Congress—the picture of vote share sketched above very nearly held. The BJP managed to improve its vote share from a paltry 19% to a very modest 31%, still very far away from the minimally required 45%. Large chunks of the country still remained mostly unaffected by the saffron onslaught: West Bengal, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Andhra, Telengana, Orissa—close to 170 seats. Yet, BJP itself managed to cross the 272 barrier in number of seats to reach 282. What explains this near miracle?
FIRST PAST THE POST?
It is well-known that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of electoral win has shortcomings. For example, it is possible for a party to win majority of the seats with just 26% of vote share; by the same token, a party may not get a simple majority even with 74% of vote share. These are possibilities in theory. In practice, we expect the ‘natural’ course of distribution of popular votes—especially in an extremely complex and heterogeneous population profile in India—to vary somewhat between these extremes in different regions to optimally settle at somewhere near the 50% mark in the gross national picture.
This expectation had been largely met in the previous general elections in India. In a few cases, majority governments have been formed with vote share hovering between 41% and 45% (TOI, 19/5/14). In most cases, majority governments enjoyed vote shares significantly above these marks. For example, in the two previous UPA governments, the majority was reached with close to 48%-50% vote share, combining the votes of all pre- and post-poll alliances plus outside support on which the fate of the governments depended. In the remarkable electoral turn around of 1977, the Janata Party did secure a majority of 295 seats with 41.1% vote share, but the combined vote of the allies who joined the government rose to 52%. Also, the Janata Party itself was a motley combination of various groups in conflict with each other. Averaging over these results, it seems that the 45% mark, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, has substantial historical plausibility.
Therefore, it is very important to keep in mind that the alarmingly low vote share of BJP in 2014 cannot be attributed to the limitations of the FPTP system as some commentators even from the Left have done, because the system had generally served its democratic purpose successfully for over six decades across the length and breadth of this pluralist country. It had never failed as massively before. BJP’s vote share of 31% in 2014 then ought to be treated as a singular deviation from the general trend. As such, it needs specific explanation.
An electoral system, like any other social system, is not a natural system; it is a man-made one. Hence, its just and effective functioning depends on participants adhering to the founding principles of the system in letter and spirit. Ongoing rectifications leading to progressive legislation may result in more effective laws in course of time. But the point remains that no social system can be so formulated as to remain totally immune from deliberate manipulation. We may tighten the taxation system, judicial system, and the like, with as many controls as we are able to furnish at a point in time; but the devil will always find its way by using some aspect of the system itself. A combination of power and cunning, with suitable lacing of violence, can defeat any system of welfare humans can imagine.
Let us first get clear about what this 31% means for democratic representation. As Shuddhbrata Sengupta (Kafila, May 18) and others have pointed out, the current population of India is 1.27 billion or 1270 million. The total electorate is 810 million. Since 66.3% of this electorate voted in the elections, the actual number who voted is 541 million. At 31%, BJP won roughly 165 million votes. In other words, in the general population, over 1000 million or 1 billion people or 86% did not vote for BJP. Even among the registered electorate, nearly 650 million or 80% did not vote for BJP.
The BJP government just elected is the most unpopular and unrepresentative in the history of the republic of India. To emphasize, these abysmal numbers have little to do with the limitations of FPTP; so they can only be the result of deliberate manipulation.
To understand the cunning that sabotaged the electoral system, it is important to note that, from one direction, even the 31% figure is flattering. Among the 282 seats won by BJP, about 95 accrued from the two states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone. If we assume uniform vote per seat ratio throughout these 282 seats and calculate the contribution of UP and Bihar on national vote ratio on that basis, it works out to nearly 10.5% (the actual figure is likely to be higher due to the thumping wins in these two states). Subtracting this figure from the gross national vote ratio, the residual national ratio turns out to be roughly 20.5%, close to BJP’s 2009 figure and Congress’ vote-share in 2014. BJP’s victory then is entirely ascribable to the massive gain in seats in UP and Bihar.
It is important to recall that BJP secured just 10 seats in UP in 2009, occupying the fourth position after Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Congress each of which had around 20 seats. In Bihar, in alliance with Janata Dal (United, JDU), it secured 12 seats, JDU had 20. In effect, BJP more than doubled its Bihar tally in 2014, while it increased the seat share in UP sevenfold!
Yet, except for one vicious phenomenon to be sketched below, there was no indication of any BJP-wave in these states in the last five years, no new charismatic leadership emerged, the BJP led no significant social movement. In fact, the SP had formed the government in UP just two years ago with comfortable majority. In Bihar, all credit for development and improvement in law and order accrued to the dynamic leadership of Nitish Kumar of JDU. So the issue of what led to BJP’s massive victory in 2014 coincides with the issue of what led to sudden increase of BJP’s seat share in UP and Bihar.
In June 2013, nearly an year before the elections of 2014, BJP (read, Narendra Modi) placed a rogue element named Amit Shah in UP to organize its campaign. Amit Shah is a trusted lieutenant of Narendra Modi, the erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat. Shah was also the minister of state for home in Gujarat; Modi kept the home portfolio to himself. Shah was charged by the CBI, acting on the directions of the Supreme Court of India, for engineering a series fake encounters in Gujarat killing scores of mostly muslim persons in cold-blood. Shah was in command of a police-intelligence system in Gujarat in which over three dozen of the topmost police officers of the state are currently in prison on charges of kidnapping and murder. As noted, these arrests have been made on the basis of charges filed by the CBI under the supervision of the Supreme Court. Shah himself was charged and imprisoned for quite sometime. He did manage to secure the bail subsequently, but was ‘expelled’ from Gujarat by the Supreme Court so that he is unable to vitiate the trials that are continuing. Denied entry into Gujarat where he was minister of state for home, Shah moved to UP.
A high-powered inquiry by the judicial system, preferably the Supreme Court of India, is needed to unearth the story of what happened in UP and the adjacent Bihar after Amit Shah moved into that area and started organizing thousands of volunteers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). One factor that needs to be thoroughly investigated is that apparently many dozens of communal riots of varying intensity and location erupted in both UP and Bihar soon after Shah moved in. The communal situation had in fact deteriorated sharply in Bihar even before Shah shifted his base. Apparently RSS cadres got busy as soon as the old alliance between JDU and BJP broke down when Narendra Modi—the alleged architect and mastermind of the monstrous pogroms of 2002 in Gujarat—was elevated as the supreme commander of BJP. Soon after, Shah’s presence in nearby UP appears to have further invigorated the communal forces in both states. All of this culminated in the widespread riots in the strategic Muzaffarnagar area of UP in which hundreds of muslims lost their lives and many thousands were rendered homeless.
The connection between incitement of riots and subsequent electoral gains is well-known. In a familiar move, the victims, namely the muslims, were portrayed as the real culprits: Amit Shah declared openly that it was a matter of honour that needs to be avenged through the ballot. After the pogroms in Gujarat in which thousands of muslims were butchered and lakhs rendered homeless, 286 persons were arrested under the draconian POTA: 285 were muslims, 1 was a Sikh (no Hindus). Subsequently in Gujarat, the BJP enjoyed overwhelming electoral success that established the authority of Narandra Modi in the Sangh Parivar.
What happens is fairly simple to understand. Once polarization is achieved on communal lines projecting a demon/victim divide, old community alliances begin to break down. In the present case, Amit Shah’s clarion call not only consolidated the entire upper caste vote in BJP’s favour, it also galvanized a substantial chunk of (Hindu) backward caste votes to move towards BJP. As a result, in a largely four-cornered contest, BJP was able to consolidate enough majoritarian votes to defeat the caste-based structures of SP and BSP. For example, BSP had won 21 seats in 2009 through a skilled alliance of dalit, muslim, and upper caste votes. This time, BSP retained its core dalit votes, but its upper caste votes moved away to BJP and the muslim vote was highly fragmented between SP, BSP, and Congress. Thus, BSP failed to win a single seat despite a vote-share of 20%, BJP secured 70 with 42% vote-share. (There were some other minor factors, such as some consolidation of young voters for BJP, which I am setting aside).
If the story of UP and Bihar sketched above holds, it is difficult to dispel the impression that BJP has reached absolute majority in 2014 by inciting communal divide in these two states. In that, it has violated the basic spirit of the Constitution of India and the rules of franchise to artificially engineer a seat per vote ratio to capture state power.
Even then this government is the most unrepresentative of all governments in post-Independent India.
Nirmalangshu Mukherji is Professor of Philosophy, University of Delhi http://people.du.ac.in/~nmukherji/
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