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Local coalitions, apart from strong national ones, could define the future of elections

The downside of this approach is that electioneering is reduced to a cynical mathematical exercise that is far-removed from issue-based politics. In an environment where winning seems to be the most important thing, that’s only to be expected.

columns Updated: Jun 03, 2018 08:17 IST
Hindustan Times
Voters showing their ID cards outside a polling booth during the bypoll at Lohian, Punjab, May 28, 2018 (Pardeep Pandit/HT)

The last three elections to Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, by-polls all, highlight a recent trend. Coalitions aren’t new in India, but the ability of the individual constituents of a coalition to transfer votes to a consensus candidate from one party in the grouping, has always been suspect. That ability is now no longer in question, at least, not in Uttar Pradesh, albeit with some transmission losses.

In Phulpur and Gorakhpur, and now in Kairana, a united opposition has defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept the parliamentary elections in the state (71 of 80 seats in 2014; 73, if the alliance partner’s contribution is included) and state elections three years later (325 of 403 seats). All three wins have indicated the ability of parties to transfer votes – from the Bahujan Samaj Party to the Samajwadi Party in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, and, with not as much efficiency but still very effectively, from all other parties to the relatively niche Rashtriya Lok Dal in Kairana. For Dalits to vote for Yadavs and Muslims to vote for Jats in Uttar Pradesh isn’t just new, but almost radical.

The trend is recent, which means it merits further study. For instance, it can’t be said with any amount of certitude that this is how the electorate in other states will behave. It seems inconceivable that the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M), bitter rivals in West Bengal will ever come together. Still, with its dominance of elections since late 2013, the BJP has created strange bedfellows, parties that have traditionally fought each other and, in some cases, whose ideologies are conflicting. Their very survival threatened, many have discovered a new, if temporary ideology – to simply be anti-BJP. And in Uttar Pradesh, these parties have managed to convince their voters that an anti-BJP vote is in their best interests too.

Coalitions, even pre-poll ones aren’t new in India. Usually, though, they involve partnerships between parties that are capable of winning seats on their own. And when the seats are totted up, such coalitions end up with a majority in the assembly or Lok Sabha. The difference in recent by-polls in Uttar Pradesh is that the partnerships this time are at the level of votes, and between parties that can’t win seats on their own unless their respective vote-bases come together (and vote together). Even a cursory review of the history of coalitions in India will highlight the difference.

One reason behind the trend could be that just like parties, voters across the spectrum are also becoming disenchanted with the BJP. Dalits, Muslims, and the dominant farming community across regions (largely OBC), all have reason to be unhappy with the ruling dispensation in New Delhi. The Muslims believe they have lost their voice; the Dalits believe they never had one, and that the BJP isn’t particularly interested in giving them one; and once prosperous farming communities have been ravaged by the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending agrarian crisis). In some cases, they are unhappy enough to simply cast an anti-vote for a consensus non-BJP candidate. In some ways, both at the level of the parties and voters, the BJP has brought this upon itself with its complete dominance of electoral politics over the past five years, barring an odd upset or two.

What does this mean for the BJP? And what does it mean for the opposition?

For both, it means that even in a first-past-the-post election system such as India, the magic figure is now at least 50% of the votes polled. For instance, the BJP won the recent Palghar Lok Sabha election in Maharashtra, a multi-cornered fight, with a mere 31.4% of the votes polled; it lost the Kairana Lok Sabha election, a straight fight between it and a unified opposition, despite getting 46.7% of the votes polled.

Anyone seeking to build a coalition should, therefore, worry not so much about seats as vote share. A party with a vote share of 2-3% in a constituency that has never won a seat in either an assembly or a Lok Sabha election could well be the partner of choice. A party with a vote share of 1-2% across many constituencies and which has never won a seat is an even better partner. This is likely to increase the political currency of such parties.

In Palghar, to continue with the same example, the BJP won with 2.72 lakh votes, edging out its ally in the state, the Shiv Sena, whose candidate polled 2.43 lakh votes. The Bahujan Vikas Aaghadi, previously called the Vasai Vikas Aghadi, strong in the area, won 2.22 lakh votes. The party is considered the representative of the Vadaval community which can be found in parts of Maharashtra. It is likely that both the BJP and opposition parties will learn something from these numbers and seek out such parties. Multiple local coalitions then, apart from a few strong national ones, could define the future of elections in India.

The downside of this approach is that electioneering is reduced to a cynical mathematical exercise that is far-removed from issue-based politics. In an environment where winning seems to be the most important thing, that’s only to be expected. The victory of such coalitions could also result in unwieldy governments. At some stage, though, voters will have to think about holding their representatives and parties to account and ensure that coalitions have a common minimum programme.

First Published: Jun 02, 2018 18:18 IST