The fragmentation of votes is also not a recent phenomenon and is innate to India’s electoral process. Even in 1962, there were 20 different political parties with at least one MP in the Lok Sabha
February 19, 2023
Praveen Chakravarty. Credit: DH Illustration
India’s complex religious, cultural, linguistic and regional diversity makes it not one homogeneous nation but a union of multifarious geographical states and anthropological identities. This inevitably manifests itself in its democratic politics. 643 registered parties contested the 2019 national elections; 36 of them won at least one seat; 9 parties won more than 10 seats. India’s astounding political diversity is a reflection of the intricate mosaic of social identities that are balanced deftly and delicately. Political representation is the steam whistle for the pressure cooker of ethnic diversity in a representative democracy such as India.
‘Opposition unity’ is the latest jargon in the lexicon of political scientists and commentators. The putative argument is that a single joint opposition candidate against the BJP alliance represents the best shot at victory in the upcoming national election. In other words, it posits that India’s political diversity must be reshaped and reoriented to a two-party democracy in each state. The clamour for this fuzzy notion of ‘Opposition unity’ is unsound in practice and in theory.
This whole idea stems from a misinterpretation of India’s electoral math that only 37 per cent of all Indians voted for the BJP in the 2019 election and hence, if the remaining 63% can unite, it can oust them. First, the BJP only contested 80% of seats in 2019, leaving the rest for its alliance partners, and so roughly one-fifth of all voters did not even have a BJP candidate on their ballot. Moreover, this is not a new phenomenon. In the last four decades, no winning party has secured more than 40 per cent of the national vote share and even in the greatest ever victory in India’s electoral history, the Congress party in 1984 secured only 49 per cent national vote share, not even half. So, the BJP’s 37 per cent vote share in 2019 has to be read in the context of India’s multi-party democracy and not naively as an absolute number of all Indians’ voting preferences.
The fragmentation of votes is also not a recent phenomenon and is innate to India’s electoral process. Even in 1962, there were 20 different political parties with at least one MP in the Lok Sabha. For all the high-decibel rhetoric of a supposed one-party domination of Indian politics, the number of political parties represented in parliament today is still as high as it was three decades ago. India’s politics is not any more fragmented today than earlier.
The call for ‘Opposition unity’ pre-supposes that it is currently disunited and there are low-hanging electoral benefits to be reaped through tactical alliances that have not already been explored. Drawing an analogy from the ‘efficient market hypothesis’ in economics, India’s electoral marketplace is fairly efficient, with little room for obvious arbitrage opportunities. If some tactical electoral gains are discernible to an external commentator through ‘Opposition unity’ or any other strategy, it is highly likely that political practitioners have already explored and attempted those. In the 2019 election, the Congress party contested the fewest number of seats in its history, leaving a large number to its alliance partners in an attempt to maximise ‘Opposition unity’ gains, which of course proved futile. There were electoral alliances in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar, Jharkhand and in states such as Uttar Pradesh, there were other parties that aligned. To be sure, there can be more opportunistic alliances with former alliance partners of the BJP in states such as Bihar, Bengal and Maharashtra, but those are a function of unpredictable political developments triggered by various other factors and not some grand strategy of ‘Opposition unity’.
The theoretical flaw in the call for ‘Opposition unity’ is the belief that an alliance between, say, the Congress and Trinamool Congress in Bengal will somehow motivate the voter in, say, Gujarat to vote for the Congress. The hypothesis is that a national narrative will reverberate across the country, piercing the thick walls of state borders and spur voters to vote in unison. An alliance between the Nationalist Congress and the Congress parties in Maharashtra does not seem to matter even in neighbouring Gujarat, let alone other distant states. The belief that some national narrative of a joint opposition can woo voters across the entire country is fallacious, even in the modern era of ubiquitous social media and mobile phone-based communication.
Finally, the biggest fault line in the ‘Opposition unity’ notion is the assumption that voters are mere numbers to be added or subtracted. Politics is about representation for social groups, more so in vastly diverse societies such as India. The desire to seek representation cuts both ways – inclusion and exclusion of specific identity groups. With parties such as Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP, formed based on distinct identity lines, the notion that an electoral alliance between them will get their voters also to unite is an affront to the very idea of exclusive political representation that their voters seek. Similarly, expecting a Tamil voter to press the EVM button for the symbol of a distinctly identified Hindi party because of a national electoral alliance may militate against the very politics of many Tamil voters.
The clamour for ‘Opposition unity’ is flawed on several counts. The Opposition was already as united as strategically possible in 2019. The possibility of ‘more unity’ is a function of volatile political developments over time. The premise that a national Opposition alliance with a common narrative and leadership will influence voters across state boundaries is naïve and empirically unproven. Finally, voters are not numerals to be added but identity groups to be represented. A forced, incongruous and more than desirable level of ‘Opposition unity’ can backfire because it runs antithetical to the idea of a multi-ethnic India expressing itself through political diversity.
(Praveen Chakravartyis a Congressman curious about correlations, causes and consequences)