Spandan Roy, from DSE, discusses the shortcomings of electoral politics as we know it, in the context of West Bengal.
Political democracy is a product of human choices and elections are central to the functioning of democratic systems. Over the years, people have tried to study the choice of electoral systems made by different countries and the impact these choices have on political outcomes; outcomes that include the quality of representation, the polarization of political party systems, voter turnout and voting behaviour, and stability of political system.
The key dimensions along which electoral systems differ are the electoral formula (plurality/majority, proportional, mixed, or other), the ballot structure (i.e. whether the voter votes for a candidate or a party and whether the voter makes a single choice or expresses a series of preferences) and the district magnitude (the number of representatives to the legislature that a particular district elects).
Commonly used electoral formulae include First Past The Post (FPTP), Block Vote (BV), Party Block Vote (PBV), Alternative Vote (AV), and the Two‐Round System (TRS) are all plurality/majority systems; List Proportional Representation (List PR) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) are both proportional systems; and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) and Parallel systems are both examples of the mixed model. In addition, there are other systems such as the Single Non‐Transferable Vote (SNTV), the Limited Vote (LV), and the Borda Count (BC).
In Britain and erstwhile British colonies(such as the United States, Canada, India, Kenya, and Nigeria), the most commonly used electoral formula is the plurality formula, sometimes called first past the post(FPTP) system. A major drawback of this system, however, is that governments may be voted into power on a meager vote share. In Russian State Duma elections, for instance, it was quite common for candidates to the single – member districts to be elected by small percentage of vote (as low as 19 percent) because there were many candidates running for election.
Another popular electoral system is the majority formula, which is most often associated with “runoff” elections. Several countries use this formula for the direct election of their chief executives (such as in France, Russia, Poland, and Argentina) as well as election to the legislature (as in the case of France). This method has the advantage of providing voters with a wide range of candidates from which to choose in the first round. If there is no majority winner in the first round, then this system provides for a second round, which yields a winner supported by a simple majority of those voting in the runoff.
A third form of system that is an alternative to single – member, winner – take – all systems of electing representative assemblies is one based on proportional representation (PR) in multimember districts. This system is found in practice in Germany.
The second dimension of an electoral system is the district magnitude. District magnitude refers to the number of candidates who will be elected from any given constituency. Advocates of single – member district systems defend the system for there is clarity of responsibility, democratic accountability by giving citizens in each district the ability to hold their representative responsible and hedging of risks to keep out fringe elements and extremists out of the political system (Sen & Maskin, 2014).
An interesting argument in favour of proportional representation can be found in Duverger’s Law, which states that plurality elections (single-vote single-winner) tend towards a contest with two just contenders. As opposed to this, more parties can persist under PR. Plurality voting creates a barrier to entry against new “third” parties. Such barriers to entry may potentially incentivise corruption.
Duverger’s law thus suggests that electoral systems may differ in their effectiveness at deterring political abuse of power, which is a basic goal of democracy. Another vitiating factor in plurality systems is Gerrymandering, the manipulative tactic of redrawing the map of a council/constituency to promote a particular party or an ethnicity.
Elections is West Bengal: The way it has been
Like any other Indian state, West Bengal (WB) faces election at three different levels. At the lowest level, Municipal Elections in urban sector and Panchayat Elections in rural areas. Panchayats are further divided into three different tiers – Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad. At the second tier, state level Assembly election and the uppermost level Parliamentary elections are conducted. West Bengal has forty-two parliamentary constituencies (PC) further sub-divided into 294 assembly constituencies (AC). First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system of elections adopted in India gives disproportionate advantage to the bigger parties. Thus the Indian National Congress (INC), which was the largest political party at the time owing to its involvement in the Indian Independence struggle, gained an undue electoral advantage. In the first three elections held in 1952, 1957 and 1962, Congress held a comfortable majority in both General and Assembly contests and West Bengal was no exception to this trend. By 1967, signs of disaffection with the two decade Congress rule was evident. In the 1967 Bengal elections, the Congress party failed to breach the majority mark, winning only 127 out of 280 seats-a loss in majority attributed to its failure in effectively addressing issues such as food crisis, refugee rehabilitation, unemployment and price inflation.
Since the object of study is the state of West Bengal, I refer only to the outcomes of State Assembly Elections unless there are compelling reasons to believe that events playing out on the national stage has impacted results of the state elections, as as was the case, for instance, in the years following the declaration of emergency in 1975. 1967 could be seen as a point of inflection that had far reaching consequences on subsequent election results. Non Congress parties were mainly divided into two camps- United Left Front (ULF) consisting of eight parties led by CPI(M) and Peoples United Left Front (PULF) mainly comprising of Bangla Congress (a breakaway of INC) and left parties like CPI & Forward Block (AIFB). Communists have traditionally been strong in Bengal since independence, and 1967 was the first election after the split between CPI & CPI(Marxist) in 1964. The dynamics of an FPTP electoral system is quite different under alliance or coalition movements. Since Congress failed to get majority, ULF & PULF, the two fronts with centre-left political orientation, came together on the basis of an 18 point programme as United Front (UF) and formed the government under the Chief Ministership of Ajoy Mukherjee, with veteran Communist leader Jyoti Basu as his deputy. But like many other non-Congress combines analogous to Janata Experiment of 1977, this coalition failed due to the defection of 16 MLAs to Congress. After a year of President’s Rule, state elections took place once again in 1969. Unlike the last election, a pre poll alliance was forged by the members of UF, resulting in an astounding win with an absolute majority of 216 out of 280 seats and a 49.7% vote share. But contradictions within the front became the undoing of the second UF government; a largely communist coalition government (with CPIM as the largest member with 80 seats in the assembly) headed by a non communist Chief Minister , Ajoy Mukherjee, of a minority faction ( Bangla Congress with 33 seats) was bound to fall. And so after 13 bitter months of squabbling, the UF coalition government fell.
These two critical elections demonstrate the uncertainty associated with plurality-FPTP system. In the 1967 election, Congress received 41.13 percent of votes winning 127 seats (45 percent) and during 1969 they won 41.32 % (slightly more than last time) but barely managed to win 55 seats (less than 20% of the total seats). However, the pre-poll alliance between ULF and PULF changed the entire dynamics of the election in ’69, by preventing the splitting of non-Congress votes . Calculated permutation and combinations of alliances among political parties will later, almost become a rule in India. In the snap poll declared in 1971, Congress managed to win 105 (almost double the seats) with just 29 % vote share (far less than last time) because the opposition was divided. Not only does this episode resemble Janata politics at the Center between 1977-80 but also the subsequent events. The 1971 government again failed to last, and elections were called in 1972 when the Congress came back to power with a strong mandate, winning 216 of 280 seats (49 percent votes) as they did in 1980 at the Center. It is worth mentioning that it is the huge surge in Congress’s vote share (20 percent) that gave them a outright majority. This shows that electoral systems like FPTP reflect the change of people’s preference more strongly in final outcome as compared to Proportional Representation.
In the aftermath of the emergency of 1975, the results of the 1977 results may look surprising. Assembly election were held a few months after the Loksabha elections in 1977, when the Janata party came into power with an overwhelming majority. That the Congress performed poorly in both these elections came as no surprise. The Left won 21 seats and Janata Party won 17 i.e. 40 percent of the seats in Loksabha from Bengal. But in the assembly elections held a few months later, the Janata party was routed, winning just 10 percent of seats (29/294) whereas Left Front won 80 percent of the seats (230/294). This could be attributed to consolidation of votes by Left Front (CPIM, RSP & AIFB) as Janata Party retained its vote share but lost heavily in terms of seats due to plurality system of elections where even 5 percent vote swing can result in a three-fourth majority. The Left front achieved absolute majority in the six subsequent state elections (’82, ’87, ’91, ’96, 2001, 2006), and ruled for 34 years, becoming the longest-serving democratically elected communist government in the world. In the above mentioned three and a half decades there had been overwhelming domination of the Left at all three levels of government. Barring the 1984 elections where the Congress came to power on the back of a sympathy wave following the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, the Congress’ performance at the assembly elections during this period has been abysmal. Although the Left Front’s and INC’s vote share remained fixed roughly at 50 percent & 40 percent respectively throughout this period, the FPTP system ensured a huge victory for the Left. PR electoral system could definitely have given the Opposition more voice, something that is seen to be necessary in a democracy. Furthermore, Gerrymandering, a political maneuver that plurality systems are particularly conducive to, was ruthlessly used by the ruling Left to its advantage. Democracy in West Bengal during these years came very close to the East European variant of the ‘People’s Democracy’ where nobody expects an upsetting victory or defeat. The emergence of two poles and the clustering of political parties at these poles, the Left and Congress in the case of West Bengal, also bears out the predictions of Duverger’s law. The entry of a third perspective into the fray became highly improbable, the 1991 election where BJP managed to secure 11% of the votes being an exception. Alternate explanations to the Left’s success in West Bengal include the implementation of land and tenancy reforms (Land Reforms and Reorganization and Operation Bharga) and political clientelism. With regard to the former explanation, findings from Bardhan and Mukherjee(2006) show that reform efforts and distribution of ‘minikits’ were markedly higher in regions where victory margins were small.
Since the election of 2006, there has been slow transformation in the political landscape of Bengal. Revolt and rebellion centering around Land Acquisition opened up some space for the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC); especially so after the Singur-Nandigram incidents. The immediate fallout of the emergence of a new party was seen in 2008 Panchayat Election where for the first time since 1978, the Left failed to secure a majority in more than half of the Gram Panchayats and the Opposition party gained majority in four out of seventeen Zilla Parishads. This marked the beginning of decline of Left rule in Bengal. The alliance between AITC & INC in the state during the 2009 general elections prevented the fragmentation of Opposition votes. Coupled with protests over Land Acquisition and festering anti-incumbency sentiments, the alliance won an unprecedented 26 seats out of 42. Owing to FPTP system, the loss of a mere 4.4% votes as compared to the 2004 general elections meant a decisive loss in the elections. In the 2011 assembly election, an alliance led by AITC came to power winning three-fourths of the seat, further raising the tally from the 2009 elections. The unique nature of electoral contests in Bengal is noteworthy because, while 43% vote share in Bengal means little in terms of claiming a majority due to the polar nature of electoral contests, in states like Uttar Pradesh, owing to quadrangular structure of politics, a 30% vote share is sufficient to achieve majority. In the 2013 Panchayat elections, the ruling AITC wrested control of almost all the Zilla Parishads from the Left. This paved the way for AITC retaining control in 2014 and 2016. In 2016 Vidhansabha elections the AITC managed to retain power with simple majority, despite the alliance between the Left and the INC.
The question of BJP with regard to West Bengal has gained much relevance lately. Vote share of BJP in 2011 & 2016 had been four percent and ten percent respectively (in ’87 BJP had less than one percent votes which rose to eleven percent in ’91). In Loksabha elections, BJP performed better in terms of vote share, being a national party (e.g. seventeen percent vote share in 2014). In first-past-the-post rule, it will be difficult for a third political party to gain much ground. Moreover a grand alliance in Bengal blocking BJP’s bid to power, like in the neighbouring Bihar, could further dampen the prospects for new entrants. Since 1952, right-wing parties like Bharatiya JanSangh or Hindu Mahasabha had little or no hold in Bengal. Unless the party shifts more from the right side of political spectrum to centre, its prospects are uncertain, since having voted INC, United Front, Left Front AITC to power in the past, it can certainly be inferred that the state’s median voter lies somewhere in the centre or left of centre.
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