No election is an echo of the past
By M J Akbar
In electoral science, statistics are illustrative, interpretation is critical and everything is fluid. Politics is evolutionary, and evolution - even Darwin’s - is a theory, not a fact. No election is an echo of the past, let alone a mirror of the future.
The statistics of this year’s general elections do not justify the self-evident depression that has overtaken Sharad Pawar’s NCP. He got as many votes (19.3%) as the Congress (19.6%). Moreover, he added support: NCP was up from 2004’s 18.8%, while the Congress lost 1.5% of its votes.
And yet, the seats went in the opposite direction. Congress led in 79 assembly constituencies in 2009 as against 69 in 2004 while NCP went down from 71 to 55.
The shock is that Sharad Pawar could not read the internal map of every constituency as well as he once did. Congress confidence lies in its brilliant management of the most important gene in democracy’s biology. It consolidated its vote, while Pawar dissipated his support. Congress has become the natural recipient of the non-Marathi and Muslim vote, both of which have well-defined geographies and therefore, tip their candidates into the lead. Congress strength in the next assembly election, too, will hinge around 40-odd seats within the Mumbai-Pune-Thane cluster. If there is any further dispersal of the NCP vote -- and do remember the ‘if’ attached - then its seat-slippage will continue.
Statistics across the partisan border are no less fascinating. Why is the BJP considered the junior partner of the saffron alliance when it got 18.2% of the vote against the Shiv Sena’s 17% in May? In the five years since 2004, the Sena lost 3% support, while the BJP increased by 4.5%. But, again, the seats were disproportionate. Both were ahead in 62 assembly constituencies. If the Sena had held on to its 2004 vote, the count in Parliament would have been substantively different. You can see the Raj Thackeray effect: he took 3% from Sena and 1% from other parties. Since the damage was not even, it rose to a decisive 20% in many areas. Despite these negatives, the difference between the two alliances is only 10 seats plus to Congress-NCP. Neither side has a majority in assembly-terms in May: it was 134 to 124.
The four big parties have nearly equal support, at least on paper. They should stop worrying about one another so much and take a look at the smaller parties consolidated into ‘Others’ on charts. ‘Others’ got 17.8% in May, and will fetch more in October since the Republicans have left Congress-NCP and are spearheading a separate front. If you add independents to ‘Others’, as one could, their vote share goes up to 25.9%. Madhu Limaye, the socialist veteran who passed away too early, had a theory that a political party began to convert votes into seats at geometrical progression only after its base crossed 23%. This figure will vary a little depending on circumstantial factors. Small parties tend to self-destruct through micro-rivalry, and independents are obviously individualistic.
The obvious, and key, question is whether the Republican-led front will damage Congress-NCP more than Raj Thackeray hurts Sena-BJP. If ‘Others’, including the persistent Mayawati, and independents cross the 30% mark they could skewer results into freakish numbers and produce an assembly with too many satellites and not enough planets. The argument against this possibility is that voters have tended to tilt sufficiently towards stability. A half-hearted endorsement is unusual. The sceptic may well ask how voters could possibly be full-hearted about a government that has driven Maharashtra down with relentless consistency, and an opposition that has driven itself into irrelevance with equal zeal.
A statistical approach to national elections is more likely to provide accurate predictions than to regional polls. A critical mass has now formed for a stable government at the Centre, but interest groups and legitimate demands in large states like Maharashtra have become too diffuse for coherent analysis. Maharashtra is now effectively a combination of four electoral zones with widely differing economies. In theory, good governance should ensure an inter-flow of resources and opportunities to create a better whole. In practice, there is uneven development, and sharp tensions not only along traditional urban-rural lines, but also big city-big town competition. It is a myth that votes gel or splinter only along a single dimension; there are variables even in the support that goes to Raj Thackeray. This is why opinion and exit polls have lost their excitement. The eventual truth tends to be far more exciting.
If you want to know who will form the next government in Mumbai, you will have to check with either God or Mayawati, and neither seem very communicative on the subject.