Are regional parties a bad thing?

Elections in India, as almost everyone is aware by now, follows a ‘first past the post’ system. It’s a deeply flawed idea that often throws up results that do not represent the true will of the people as elections are supposed to. The most common quirk of this system is that in a large and plural democracy like India it encourages the tyranny of an even smaller majority (caste) than the one faced by other small western nations that have adopted some form of Parliamentary democracy. This post will attempt to examine how it works as a barometer of “true will.”

To begin, let’s point to the greatest flaw of this system: the post in the ‘first past the post’ is not really a post. That is, it’s arbitrary and decided after the event. It’s not set at say 50% which contestants have to attain in order to win. In a tight four cornered race, usually the winner has less than 30% of the votes. In effect, a political party is left with a zone of vote-share optimality in order to maximize its seats won. Let’s take an example to prove the point. Consider a constituency like Vidisha where Ms Sushma Swaraj secured 78.8% of the votes while the closest rival had 8% votes. This means a lot of voters who voted for Ms Swaraj just wasted their support for BJP in one constituency and the party would have been better off had a chunk of them been spread out uniformly across the country. On the contrary, if every BJP vote had been so uniformly spread that in every constituency it contested, it had its vote share equal to that of its national average at 18.8%, it would probably have lost almost all its seats.That leaves the BJP wanting to operate in a zone where they do not want additional support in paces where it isn’t needed any more and yet don’t spread it too thin that they aren’t winning the marginal contests.

If we take the 2009 election outcome and compare it with the vote share, what emerges is that the two are correlated reasonably fairly. The INC won 28.8% of the votes and 206 seats — that’s 38% of the seats were won with 28% of the votes. Which is not such a bad distortion for the leading party. The BJP won 21% of the seats with 18.8% of the votes. As one goes down this path, the ‘hit rate’ dramatically reduces for smaller parties. Does that make Lok Sabha a much fairer place compared to say the House of Commons where the distortion is far worse? Let’s look at that in some detail in the next post.

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