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The art of Vote-Cutting in Indian politics

Tuesday, 11 March 2014 - 7:13pm IST | Agency: dna

The last few weeks witnessed a series of small parties entering the NDA fold- LJP in Bihar, DMDK in Tamil Nadu, GJM in West Bengal and an indirect support by MNS in Maharashtra. There are reports that a deal will soon be struck with Sangma’s NPP, TDP and three smaller parties in Orissa.

At first blush, these allies may look inconsequential because of the number of seats they won in the last elections. However, the electoral impact of smaller parties goes beyond the actual number of seats they win because of their role in the fortunes of major parties.  

There are two major paradoxes of the first-past-the-post system of representative democracy in India which highlight the importance of vote-cutting parties.  First is the disproportionate relationship between vote percentage and number of seats a party wins. In the 2009 general elections, Congress won 61 more seats compared to 2004 general elections even though its vote share improved by only 2.13 percent.  

Further, with the same vote percentage (~ 28 %) in 1999 and 2009, there was a difference of almost 100 seats that Congress won in the two general elections. This is because the anti-Congress vote was split among various non-NDA players in 2009, diluting the opposition. Several vote-cutting parties got enough votes to influence the electoral result but not to win the seat.

Most prominent examples of this were the MNS in Maharashtra, DMDK in Tamil Nadu and PRP in Andhra Pradesh. Second paradox is the low percentage of representativeness and vote share of the winning candidates in our parliament and state assemblies. This is clear from the following table based on the data for 2008 assembly elections collected by Association for Democratic Reforms.


Percentage of winners with less than 40% of the registered votes Percentage of winners with less than 50 % of the votes polled
Delhi 99 67 (47 out of 70 seats)
Rajasthan 98 81 (161 out of 200 seats)
Madhya Pradesh 93 81(186 out of 230 seats)
Chhattisgarh 91 80 (72 out of 90 seats)


90 93 (37 out of 40 seats)

The table suggests that even a small change in votes due to vote-cutting parties can have a major impact in the forthcoming national elections. Electoral victory margins have been consistently declining in India and in constituencies with narrow victory margins and multi-cornered fights, one can expect smaller parties to have a disproportionate impact on the eventual result. To illustrate this, let us look at the performance of some vote-cutting parties in the recent round of assembly elections. 

Rajasthan: The major regional players in the state were BSP and Kirori Lal Meena, who joined Purno Sangma’s National Peoples Party (NPP). BSP contested on all seats but it performed very poorly, reducing both its seats and vote share to half of its 2008 performance. It won just 3 seats and its vote share reduced from 7.6 percent to around 3.5 percent. NPP contested on 135 seats and hoped to play a potential king-maker.

However, the landslide victory of BJP masks a more fragmented shift in the vote share and a strong showing by the NPP. Even though it won only 4 seats, NPP was in the 2nd or 3rd position in 48 constituencies and split the anti-BJP votes. In other areas, regional coalitions like United Front ensured that the contest remained multi-polar and in most cases, their performance had an adverse impact on the Congress vote share. For example, in the Nagar constituency, the SP candidate polled around 30,000 votes whereas the victory margin for the BJP candidate was about 9000 votes. 

Madhya Pradesh: This is the state least susceptible to vote cutting parties. BSP won just 8 seats and SP won 1 seat in 2008. This time, SP contested on 50 seats and the BSP contested on all 230 seats with both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati aggressively campaigning in MP. They were especially fighting to be relevant in the 21 seats where the margin of victory was less than 1000 votes in the 2008 elections. However, the BSP managed to win just 4 seats while the SP failed to open its account. Both parties lost vote shares but did manage to ensure the defeat of Congress candidates in nearly 40 seats, where there was a close contest. Media reports suggest that Congress lost 19 seats in Madhya Pradesh by a margin of less than 3000 votes and 7 more seats by a margin of 5000 votes. Along with NOTA, which got 1.9 % votes, these parties managed to make the elections a lot closer than the actual results suggest. 

Conclusion: Traditionally, the BSP and SP provided the third alternative in states which were traditionally bipolar. However, these parties performed miserably across all the states in the Hindi heartland, losing vote share and seats in all the four major states where elections were held. Instead, a new breed of vote cutting parties emerged which upset the calculations of BJP and Congress- AAP in Delhi, NPP in Rajasthan and the Satnami Sena in Chattisgarh. Several studies have suggested that the Indian general elections are increasingly becoming an aggregate of several state elections. So, these assembly results will be carefully analysed by declared and undeclared prime ministerial aspirants of all hues and shades.

This explains the BJP’s rush to have possible tie-up with regional players like NPP and LJP before the general elections. Go back to the results of the last assembly elections in major states and don’t just look at the bold headlines of the number of seats won. Also note the fine print of vote share which will tell you the extent to which these regional players can wreck the best-laid plans of BJP and Congress.

Apurv Kumar Mishra, 25, is currently a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University

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