This past week saw the release of the results of India’s general election, which was the largest democratic election in history. The election was held to select the 16th Lok Sabha, the lower and more powerful house of India’s legislature, as well as some state governments. For the first time since 1984, one party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), managed to capture a majority of the seats. This constituted a catastrophe for the center-left Indian National Congress (INC), which has ruled either outright or as part of a coalition for a total of 49 years since India’s independence in 1947.
Below are charts showing the discrepancy between the proportion of votes received and seats won by the BJP, the INC, and their allies. Allies refer to smaller, regional parties that have entered into formal alliances with either the BJP or INC. These parties can typically be expected to vote in line with the head party.
While the BJP’s newly-found majority of seats might at first appear historic, they have hardly received a mandate from the electorate, as Adam Zigfield pointed out on the Monkey Cage. Despite winning 52% of seats in the Lok Sabha, the BJP only received 31% of votes. This outcome is made possible by India’s winner-take-all electoral system, which, as we discussed last month, operates much like the congressional election system in the United States. In Indian elections, sometimes more than a dozen parties will run in a district with only one seat, and a candidate can emerge victorious despite receiving only a small fraction of the vote.
In order to get to power, many smaller, more regional parties form coalitions with the BJP or INC. These coalitions will decide which parties will run candidates in which districts, ensuring that the coalition covers all 545 districts across the country. Recently, a political party that railed against the corruption of both ruling coalitions, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, decided to run outside of the alliance structure.
Many thought that the Common Man Party could gain seats and break through the two-coalition stronghold. In the end, however, the Common Man Party received a mere 4 seats. This outcome likely occurred in part because India’s winner-takes-all system led some voters to believe that a vote for the Common Man Party was a wasted vote, since the two coalitions are much stronger. The Common Man Party took second in quite a few districts, but under the winner-take-all system second place means nothing in terms of representation. India has the world’s largest democracy, but by handing majority rule to a party that only won 30% of votes and suppressing aspiring third parties, its electoral system is holding it back.