A Congress Debacle in UP? On Votes versus Seats

Kenneth Bo Nielsen, SUM, UiO

Was Rahul a failure?

The Samajwadi Party (SP) swept to power at the recently concluded elections in Uttar Pradesh. The party polled just short of 30 percent of the votes, enough to win 224 seats and a majority of its own in the house of 403. Much of the media attention after the election focussed on the transfer of power from septugenarian SP honcho Mulayam Singh Yadav to his son, Akhilesh Yadav, who is the state’s new Chief Minister. But the Congress Party and its heir apparent Rahul Gandhi made the headlines to almost the same extent. The party won only 28 seats in all; and in the Nehru-Gandhi bastions of Rae Bareli, Sultanpur and Amethi it could win only two of the 15 seats. The press was quick to label this performance as variously ‘disappointing’; ‘humiliating’; ‘a debacle’; and a major ‘setback’ for the Congress and for Rahul Gandhi, who had led the campaign, in particular. But while the Congress may have entertained high hopes for a better performance, it did not fare that poorly after all. It was, in fact, the Congress’ best UP assembly election in nearly 20 years. Why did the media not report on this? Before I explain why I need to say a few words about how the electoral system works in India.

The sole aim for a candidate in the Indian first past the post system, where the electorate votes for candidates in single member constituencies, is to get more votes than his (usually male) opponents. It does not matter whether the margin of victory is one vote or one lakh votes – the winner takes it all, leaving nothing for the runners-up. In that sense the votes that went to loosing candidates can be considered wasted.

In India there is, therefore, no straightforward connection between the total number of votes won by a party, and its number of legislators (in contrast to the Norwegian system of proportional representation, where the number of seats won by a party corresponds closely to its share of the votes). In a hypothetical scenario, Party A may win all the seats in the state assembly with only 35 percent of the votes, provided that the competing parties, Party B and Party C, poll only 33 percent and 32 percent respectively in all constituencies. In this system, even minor changes in voter preferences can lead to a major redistribution of seats between parties: Had Party B been able to lure just 2 percent of the voters in every constituency away from Party A, Party B would have ended up with all the seats in the assembly instead of zero!

The UP elections illustrate the logic of the Indian first past the post system perfectly. This year the SP increased it vote tally from 25.43 percent to 29.15 percent, that is, by a mere 3.72 percentage points. These few extra percentage points were, however, enough for the SP to win an additional 127 seats compared to the 2007 elections. In other words, by attracting an additional 3.72 percent of the electorate, the SP increased its presence in the state assenbly by 131 percent!

(Source: The Indian Express)

The reason why nobody noticed that the Congress actually performed pretty well in UP is that media pundits who analyse Indian elections tend to focus almost exclusively on how the parties perform in terms seats. Few pay attention to the percentages. However, if one wants to know how, and to what extent, voter preferences actually change on the ground, one has to look at the numbers and not the seats. And when looked at ‘from a numbers point of view’, the performance of the Congress in UP is far from a debacle. The Congress actually increased its tally by 3.02 percentage points (from 8.61 percent to 11.63), that is, almost by as much as did the SP. But for that they were only rewarded an additional six seats compared to 2007. The problem for the Congress, in other words, was not that it did not attract many new voters. It did. This year more than 8.8 million UP voters voted for the Congress, compared to only around 4.5 million in 2007. And the 11.63 percent that the Congress polled was its best performance in the state since 1993. The problem was rather that the Congress’ starting point was so poor that all these new voters were still not enough to produce any significant increase in terms of seats won. Hence few people noticed the very real improvements in the party’s performance.

The political analyst Badri Narayan, who visited a number of villages in UP during the campaign, recently wrote of how villagers, across castes, were developing a visible sense of affiliation with and attraction to Rahul Gandhi. This time around the pay-off for the Congress in terms of seats has been modest; but in terms of voters it has been significant. Rather than a debacle, the Congress performance in UP may be seen as a first step in the rigth direction, however tentative. There may still be hope for the grand old party and its young leader both in UP and the rest of India.

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