First Past the Post & Pyrrhic Victories

The physics of a two cornered contest varies vastly from that of a multi-cornered contest. That’s common sense and quite a trivial observation. However, the way relative strengths of the competing parties in such a contest work is interesting.

Consider an election where there are only two main players — like say an Obama v Romney contest. The American polling data usually reports favorability and unfavorability numbers of both candidates. The former usually (though not always) has high correlation with the likely vote share reported for each candidate and is rarely interesting. The latter measure though is what Data Analysts in either camps use to decide where to spend their resources in trying to convince people. This convincing is usually along the lines of ‘the other guy is worse than you think.’  In such a contest the task is simple and straightforward as a concept; it’s far more difficult to implement it however, especially when both sides have unending resources as they did in 2012.

In a multi-party Parliamentary democracy where voting has high correlation with demographic data, the asymmetry in unfavorability rating can be even more debilitating. In the most basic example, if there is a three-way split and and say the leading party has a 5 percentage point lead over its nearest rival and about 10% of the voters are undecided or are willing to shift allegiance, under normal circumstances, one’d expect the leading contender to be more comfortable than in a bipolar contest. But the difference between a bipolar contest, say in the United States, and Indian elections is that the reason people swing are very different. The American swing voter is undecided because he/she is more often equally likely to vote either way. The Indian voter maybe undecided but the decision to not vote a particular way is often a given. For example, in the last General Elections of 2009, the “swing voter” of Uttar Pradesh was Muslim; swinging from SP to INC and giving the party an unexpected 20 MPs from the state. In other words, the undecided voter was not going to vote BJP anyway and therefore was only undecided within one half of the contest. To a lesser extent, the upper caste Hindu was undecided too;  swinging towards BJP from the BSP if the previous Assembly Elections were a benchmark. That partly explained the 10 seats that the BJP won. This upper caste Hindu wasn’t going to vote SP just as the Muslim wasn’t going to vote BJP.

Therein lies the paradigm of recent Indian elections for the two major parties: the INC may face significant corruption charges and have low favorability numbers owing to poor governance but the BJP possibly has a basic level of high unfavorability rating among sections of population that is far more difficult to surmount. That is, it’s more difficult for the BJP to win any election where there isn’t a bipolar contest than it is for the INC. Even worse for the BJP, it’s easier to lose what it holds given the above structure. This hypothesis also explains another phenomenon: by definition, in such a scenario, those who support the BJP are more committed and ideologically inclined. To lesser degree, it could be argued, it’s true of the candidates themselves. That is to say, the conviction threshold required of the BJP cadre and its office bearers in their own ideology and in the collective outpouring of their animosities towards their opponents is far higher than is required for the INC. Conversely, therefore, the INC cadre and its office bearers are less likely to be as ideologically committed, more likely to view the politics as a means and suffer the million issues that crop with it.

If the above analyses were true, the certainty of ideological commitment of one party will alienate even the genuinely undecided: such as  those who aren’t voting exclusively on caste lines mostly because they are upper caste themselves. And if they aren’t part of the choir already, the aggression of the zealous can only be counter-productive. The reason the undecided are that is not because they cannot decide but that they are unsure how to weight a complicated moral choice; in which the silence of the mercenary is a better electoral weapon than the aggression of a bigot.