It's interesting that an electoral verdict that left the largest party 66 seats short of a majority is being seen as “decisive”, and even hailed as “overwhelming” in some circles. Hyperbole aside, this is a pointer to the fact that India has lived with tenuous coalitions for 20 years.
As usual, there are all sorts of theories floating around. Unfortunately India is simply too fragmented and complex a political landscape to dovetail neatly into statistical analysis. There are always several trends, sometimes several dozen.
One theory is that the electorate has decided on stable governments controlled by a dominant single-party. A superficial analysis suggests this is true. The BJP’s seats declined from 138 to 116 while the INC improved from 145 to 206—a total of 322 seats in 2009 compared to 283 in 2004. The INC gained far more at the expense of the Third and Fourth Fronts than the BJP.
However, at vote share level, the theory breaks down. If voters want a single- party government, they would vote either BJP or INC. So the combined vote-share of the two parties should increase.
The BJP and INC combined actually lost vote-share. The BJP’s vote-share dropped from 22.2 per cent to 18.8 per cent. The INC vote share rose to 28.6 per cent from 26.5 per cent. The total vote-share (BJP+INC) in 2009 was 47.4 per cent. The 2004 total was 48.7 per cent.
Thus, overall vote-share suggests fewer votes for centralisation. The split of vote-shares between Shiv Sena-MNS and Praja Rajyam-TDP-TRS, etc., creates the illusion. Formations like MNS in Maharashtra cut into BJP votes leading to the 10 per cent differential in favour of INC.
The saddest story in terms of non-conversion of vote-share into seats is that of the BSP. It won over 6 per cent of the vote but less than half the seats where it was a serious contender. One theory floated by Mayawati suggests this was due to Muslims abandoning the elephant. News reports however, suggest the Dalit turnout was much lower than in the 2007 UP elections—certainly it was low in reserved UP constituencies.
Rahul Gandhi made his bones by insisting the INC go alone in UP. An unquantifiable factor in favour of the INC may have been the large, visible presence of relatively young faces in the party ranks. They were all derided as baba-log piggy-backing family connections. None comes through as blindingly intelligent.
But they are young and energetic and this may have struck a chord with a young electorate. By contrast, any voter, who has seen a beloved parent or grand-parent sliding into senility, would have felt uncomfortable resonances watching the performance of most of the BJP’s stalwarts.
One BJP stalwart who showed no signs of senility was Narendra Modi, who is touted as heir-apparent by the hard right. According to the INC, Modi campaigned in 200 seats, out of which the BJP bagged 38. According to a more careful analysis by Salil Tripathi, Modi campaigned intensively in 21 seats including 7 in Gujarat. There were changes in nine of these, while as many as 12 returned the same party as in 2004. In five of the swing seats, the BJP gained, in four they lost. Does Modi really have the pan-India appeal the BJP desperately seeks?
So where does the above debunking of convenient theories leave India? Just as fractured as before. The INC made what turned out to be smarter alliances. It is a younger party, which has a clear lead over the BJP in terms of all-India appeal. But the electoral mandate for the UPA eventually depended on the performance of the Trinamul, the DMK, the BJD and others. It was not a vote for centralisation.