Independent candidates: Party-poopers in disguise?

Praveen Chakravarty
November 28, 2013

In our electoral system of first-past-the-post, the probability that an independent will influence the eventual outcome of an election is statistically high

Praveen Chakravarty

In the 2009 Lok Sabha election in Pune, there were 36 candidates that contested, of which 25 were independent candidates. A total of 25,701 people voted for these 25 independents but the highest vote share for a single independent candidate was just 3,088. The winner – Suresh Kalmadi defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Anil Shirole by 24,768 votes. A mischievous question – had all the voters that voted for independent candidates instead together voted for Anil Shirole, would we not have had the Commonwealth Games scam? It is a mathematically silly, but a deliberately provocative question.

In the Tonk-Sawai Madhopur constituency in Rajasthan, out of the 17 candidates that contested the 2009 elections, nine were independent candidates and secured a total of 24,070 votes. The winner, current Union Minister of State for Finance Namo Narain Meena, won by just 318 votes. Do voters that vote for independent candidates inadvertently impact the eventual outcome?

The chances of an independent candidate winning a Lok Sabha election is less than 0.4 per cent. To contextualise, that is akin to the odds of a cricket captain winning the toss eight consecutive times. Only Colin Cowdrey has achieved that in the nearly 150 years of international cricket. A mere 13 out of 3,806 candidates that contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as independents, won. The winning percentage of independents has been declining steadily over the past four Lok Sabha elections (see table). More than half the independent candidates get less than 5,000 votes or 0.65 per cent of the votes polled. An independent candidate on average has got between 4,500 to 7,000 votes over the previous four Lok Sabha elections. In contrast, the Election Commission has set a minimum threshold of 16.7 per cent vote share to not lose the Rs 25,000 security deposit, implying that anyone securing less than this is not a serious candidate. Such abysmal odds stacked against independent candidates of even getting back their security deposit, forget incurring election campaign expenses and winning the election, it should ideally deter people from contesting as independents. But, that is not the case.

The number of independent candidates from the 1998 Lok Sabha elections to the last 2009 elections rose from 1,915 to 3,806 – a near 100 per cent growth. Of the total 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, there were independent candidates in 515 constituencies in the 2009 elections. In the 1998 elections, independents contested in 473 constituencies. Nearly one out of every two candidates in the 2009 elections was an independent candidate, jumping from one in three in the 1998 elections. Bizarrely, there are more candidates contesting as independents in more constituencies with every passing Lok Sabha election, making it even harder for anyone to win or even retain their security deposit. Is this merely a case of irrational behaviour? No.

The potential to “impact” the eventual outcome in a constituency is what drives this “independent candidate” movement. In the 2009 elections, nearly 10 million people collectively voted for 3,793 independent candidates across 502 constituencies. None of these 3,793 candidates won. But they together impacted outcomes in 164 constituencies. A mere 2.5 per cent of all voters impacted the electoral outcomes in more than 30 per cent of all Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2009 elections. For the purposes of this analysis, if the total number of votes cast for independent candidates is greater than the winning margin of the eventual winner, it is categorised as having impacted the eventual outcome. An analysis of the last four Lok Sabha elections reveal a dramatic growth in the number of “impacted” constituencies – from 49 to 164. To put this in perspective, the BJP, as the second largest party, secured 116 seats in the 2009 elections vis-a-vis independent candidates impacting outcomes in 164 seats.

This is not to argue that the electoral outcomes in each of these 164 “impacted” constituencies in the 2009 elections would have been different, nor is it possible to prove the counterfactual argument that had these independent candidates not contested, outcomes would have been different. The attempt here is to showcase that a vote cast for an independent candidate has a higher chance of impacting who the eventual winner can be rather than helping that independent candidate actually win the election.
In our electoral system of first-past-the-post, where a candidate with the most number of votes wins irrespective of the margin of victory or total percentage of votes secured, splitting an opponent’s vote becomes as important as getting a vote for oneself. And this is how votes for independent candidates can potentially lead to inadvertent outcomes.

Is it merely a coincidence that the number of independent candidates are growing rapidly despite their odds of winning, reducing dramatically? Unlikely. Splitting an opponent’s vote is an important electoral strategy and independent candidates can be an effective tool to achieve this. While it is impossible to attribute real motives behind an independent’s candidacy, the probability that an independent will influence the eventual outcome is statistically high.

Historian Ramachandra Guha in his poignant description of India’s first general elections of 1952 narrates an incident in Himachal Pradesh about a young woman carrying her bent mother to cast her vote because in her words “at least on that particular day, she felt very important”. Many of our neighbours would yearn for this right to vote, a right that our freedom fighters fought for more than 100 years to achieve and leave behind as a permanent legacy. Casting our vote is one of the most important decisions we make as citizens. Amid increasing apathy towards established political parties and politicians, it is very tempting to vent our frustrations by voting for an independent candidate. By doing so, we may unintentionally be aiding the very candidate or political party that we are revolting against.

The author is founding trustee, IndiaSpend – India’s first non-profit, data journalism initiative.


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