Thought experiments with elections

  24-Jul-2020 10:46:32

IndiaElectionsBJP Congress USA Election Commission

The premise

According to ECI, 2598 political parties are registered in India. While a majority of them are smaller players, 7 national and 52 state parties took part in the 2019 elections. Members belonging to 37 parties (including independents) found their way to the 17th Lok Sabha. In contrast, in the US, two parties account for 98 out of the 100 senators, all the seats in the house of representatives, and ~95% of the votes cast in the 2016 Presidential elections. While most of the countries of the world are multi-party democracies, America continues to be the bulwark of the two-party system.

Many of us are influenced by the culture, ideas, and policies of the US. Some on the right and left side of the political spectrum, for differing reasons, have pushed the narrative that we are aping the United States. But what if Indian polity mirrored the American one, with only two parties competing for all the 543 constituencies? Each constituency in this scenario would represent the political equivalent of a US state*.

The idea might sound stupid to you at first thought. The diverse political landscape in India with a plethora of distinct regions, languages, races, castes, and ethnicities makes it impossible for just two parties to capture the nation. Perhaps the Congress, until the late 1980s, was a truly national party. Then why can’t 2 national parties exist at the same time?. To answer this in a sentence, the Indian independence movement being spearheaded by a single party and imposition of emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975 have made our polity how it is today. These are in themselves very interesting topics and I would like to cover them in some other article.

If the idea is practically impossible, why should we entertain it?. There are two reasons. First, "never say never in politics" is a good mantra. Who would have imagined Narendra Modi becoming PM, just 12 years after he was reprimanded by the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee for his handling of the Gujrat riots in front of the national media? Second, it is an interesting thought experiment. I first came to think of this when I read that the minimum votes required for winning the American presidential elections are ~23% of the total votes.

Getting into the details

What would the figure be in India? To answer that question we need to find out the 272 seats(out of the 543) that are the easiest to win. The 272 seats are plotted below on a constituency level map (in green). Data being used belongs to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections

The state-wise breakdown of the easiest and most difficult seats to win is represented below**

A cursory look at the map shows the constituencies in the states in the north, including the two major ones (UP and Bihar), are easier to win. Bengal, MP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh have constituencies difficult to win. In the south, the difficult-to-win constituencies are present in Karnataka, Andhra & Telangana whereas the easier ones are in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Potential reasons for this variation

1. Variation in the population densities

2. The no. of seats allotted to each state based on its geographical size

  • Constituencies in Kerala are simpler to win on account of less area, despite having high population densities. Rajasthan has a lower population density but is the largest state (by area) in India. The size overcompensates for the population density, meaning the constituencies are harder to win.

3. Voter percentages

  • Voting% in the south is on an average more than that in the north. Many constituencies in UP & Bihar are easy to win because even though they have a high no. of electors, the voting percentages are low.

The Big Question

The vote share of the 272 easiest seats and the 271 most difficult is shown below.

To win the elections by securing the least no. of votes, a party must win little over 50% of the votes polled in the 272 constituencies. It doesn’t matter how the party performs in the other 271 constituencies. Applying that logic, the minimum voter percentage required to win is 21.59%. For the "number junkies" out there, the no. of votes needed to win in such a scenario are 13,25,90,724 out of 61,41,72,823 votes polled in the 2019 general elections***.

Note that all the figures are based on the no. of voters in the 2019 general elections. If this was done based on the no. of electors, the map would change a lot. I plan to cover that in my next article in the series.

*The other way of representing would be to take the complete state as a single voting unit. Since in India the constituencies have a large no. of electors, I have chosen to equate a US state to an Indian constituency.

**“Others” include Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Puducherry, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Chandigarh, Daman & Diu, Lakshadweep. “North East” includes Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim.

***Total votes including elections in Vellore that were held at a later date.

By: Chaitanya

For information regarding the methodology (in brief) click here