VIEWPOINT

At the constituency level, the 2009 election was the most competitive election India witnessed in the last five decades.

Elections to the Lok Sabha are highly competitive. Indian politicians win with smaller margins than their counterparts in other countries with a similar electoral system, such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

In a first-past-the-post electoral system, a candidate needs 50 per cent plus one vote to win the election if only two candidates compete for a seat. If there are three candidates who are equally strong, a winning candidate will need only one-third of the votes plus one additional vote. In India, usually a large number of candidates compete for each Lok Sabha seat, many of whom are non-serious. This makes it possible for several Indian politicians to get elected with a very low vote share.

And, this may have important implications for their legitimacy and accountability as people’s representatives. 

Vote share & popularity

Figure 1 shows the constituency-level percentage of the vote received by the candidates who won in each constituency between 1962 and 2014. The winning vote share is informative because it tells us how much support a politician actually had in her constituency. This can be viewed as a sign of the legitimacy a politician has as a representative of the area she is elected from.

The horizontal black line in the bean plots in Figure 1 shows the average winning vote share for each year. The winning vote share for each constituency is represented by the small black dots along the centre of each bean. The thickness of each grey bean indicates the distribution of the constituencies. In a wider bean, more constituencies have approximately the same winning vote share. A thinner bean means that there is more variability in the data, implying that in some constituencies the winner got a very low share of the votes and in others a fairly high share. The figure does not report values less than 15 per cent, since no candidate won a Lok Sabha seat with less than 15 per cent of the total votes. The maximum value reaches 100 per cent, like in the rare cases when a candidate runs unopposed.

Between 1962 and 2014, Indian MPs were elected with an average of 49.5 per cent vote share. Half the MPs were elected with a vote share ranging between 43 per cent and 55 per cent. However, quite a few candidates were elected despite a very low vote share.

For instance, in Shahjahanpur constituency in Uttar Pradesh in 1967, 12 candidates contested from the seat and nine of them managed to get more than five per cent of the total votes. The winner, P.K. Khanna, was elected to the Lok Sabha with only 16.7 per cent vote share.

Figure 1 shows that in the elections to the Lok Sabha between 1971 and 1989, the winning candidate on an average received a vote share of over 50 per cent. The average winning vote share of an MP since the 1991 Lok Sabha election has been just shy of 47 per cent. In 2014, the average winning share was just over 47 per cent.

Was 2014 election different?

Contrary to common belief, the 2014 Lok Sabha election was not exceptional when it came to the vote share of the winning candidates. In fact, the vote share of the MPs elected in 2014 looked very similar to the pattern observed in the elections held between 1991 and 2004.

The most exceptional election in this period was actually the 2009 election, when the winning candidates received just 44 per cent of the vote share on an average. This implies that at the constituency level, the 2009 election, where the UPA government was voted back to power, was the most competitive election India witnessed in the last five decades.

Margin of victory & competitiveness

Another commonly used measure for understanding the degree of competition in an election is the Margin of Victory (MoV), or simply the difference between the vote share received by the winner and the runner-up in a constituency. The MoV tells us whether a seat was won by a narrower or a wider margin.

This measure is important because parties and politicians may care more about competitive areas, where MoV is smaller, than the places where they win overwhelmingly. For example, a study of MPLADS spending shows that politicians in safer constituencies are less likely to spend all their available funds. It may also be easier to hold politicians accountable in constituencies where they are not so sure of being re-elected.

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Pradeep Chhibber is with the University of California, Berkeley. Francesca Jensenius teaches at the University of Oslo. Harsh Shah, an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley, is a political analyst and works in the private sector.

This is part of a series of articles in ThePrint that will provide readers with comprehensive, research-based information about the Indian elections since 1962. The articles will also draw upon recent findings from Constructing a Majority: A micro-level study of voting patterns in Indian elections (forthcoming Cambridge University Press) by Francesca Jensenius, Pradeep Chhibber, and Sanjeer Alam. Read the first article here 

Article first published in The Print

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