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Posted at: May 20, 2019, 6:53 AM; last updated: May 20, 2019, 6:53 AM (IST)

Do 12% voters decide the elections?

Atanu Biswas

Atanu Biswas
Since 1996, the combined vote share of the Congress and the BJP was around the 50 per cent mark. This clearly indicates that exactly half the people of the country have been supporting any other party except the Congress and the BJP while casting their ballot.
Do 12% voters decide the elections?
Numbers: Of India’s 130-crore population, there are around 90 crore voters.

Atanu Biswas
Professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

Barring the short tenures of four non-Congress and non-BJP former prime ministers — VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral — totalling 1,222 days, nearly seven decades of independent India has been governed either by the Congress or by the BJP. 

However, in a diverse multi-party political system like ours, there must be different national and regional parties to cater to and represent the aspirations of 130 crore people, of which there are 90 crore voters. Prior to this Lok Sabha election, in addition to the Congress and the BJP, there are five national parties, 36 state recognised parties, 329 regional parties and 2,044 registered unrecognised parties. 

However, we might be interested to assess their combined support base among the electorate of the country in the nine General Elections during the past 35 years.

The BJP came into the electoral picture in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, and got 7.74 per cent votes. The next Lok Sabha elections in 1989 marked the beginning of the coalition era in Indian politics. 

However, both the 1984 and 1991 elections were held under exceptional circumstances due to the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, respectively. And in these two elections, the Congress and the BJP received around 56 per cent combined support — it was 56.84 per cent in 1984, and 55.7 per cent in 1991. The Congress bagged the lion’s share among them, of course. 

Except these two, in all other elections since the entry of the BJP into the electoral arena, especially since 1996, the combined vote share of the Congress and the BJP was around the 50 per cent mark, either a little less or a little more — with a minimum value of 47.35 per cent combined vote in 2009, and a maximum combined vote share of 52.05 per cent in 1999. 

The average value has been 51.49 per cent for all elections since 1984, and this average becomes 50.12 per cent if we exclude 1984 and 1991 from our consideration.

This clearly indicates that exactly half the people of the country have been supporting any other party except the Congress and the BJP while casting their ballot.

Let’s look at the number of seats, as that matters in our electoral set-up. In our system, seats are not proportional to votes, we know it well. 

Usually, the numbers of seats are magnified with the increase in the vote share. Interestingly enough, except the unusual scenarios of 1984 (when the Congress enjoyed a landslide sweep after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the BJP was also a new party) and 1991 (in the post-Rajiv Gandhi assassination period), the combined seat share of the Congress and the BJP has remained around the 300-mark all around. 

What’s more interesting is that the combined Congress-and-BJP seats didn’t attain the maximum in 1999 (when they enjoyed the maximum combined vote share) or it didn’t reach to the minimum in 2009 (when their combined vote share was the lowest). Rather, the combined seats of the Congress and the BJP were the maximum (326) in 2014 amid the Modi wave, and the minimum figure of 282 was attained in 1989, although the combined tally of the 2004 election was almost the same (283). 

The average of the Congress-and-BJP combined seats in these seven elections (excluding 1984 and 1991) is 305. It indicates that all other parties, with a combined support of half of the electorate, could manage only 238 combined seats! Certainly, among the ‘other’ parties, some performed well in some election, whereas others did badly in some cases.

Also, some new parties emerged in between and could succeed to gain momentum. Still, the overall combined support base of the others remained near the half-way mark in terms of the vote share, which resulted in around 238 seats on an average. And, thus, 50 per cent voters (with a possible maximum variation of 2-2.5 per cent on either side) and 56 per cent seats (with a maximum possible variation of four per cent on either side) decide who’ll rule the country. 

That had been the equilibrium point in our elections for the past quarter of a century. One needs sufficiently strong hawa (buzz) to dislodge this equilibrium in either direction. 

Do we have that much hawa in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? If not, the situation should be more or less similar in this election as well. And if it is so, the fate of the country will be decided by the way these 305 seats, on an average, are distributed among the BJP and the Congress. Even if a non-Congress, non-BJP government is formed, that is also decided by the way these 305 seats are divided (along with other chemistry, of course).

In fact, most of these 50 per cent votes are not crucial to form the next government. There are huge ‘committed’ votes for each party, which can be looked as the core support base for the corresponding party who vote for the party even when it faces an election debacle.

We may try to get an estimate of the percentage of committed votes for any party by the lowest percentage of votes obtained by it in any Lok Sabha election during the past three decades (ie after 1989). In this process, the Congress attained its minimum vote share of 19.52 per cent in 2014, while the BJP had its minimum in 2009 when the party got 18.8 per cent votes.

Combining these two figures, we observe that about 38 per cent votes were maybe committed to either the Congress or the BJP. And thus only the remaining 12 per cent votes determine the course of the election. By the same token, the outcome of about 100-120 seats among the 305 BJP+Congress seats is known almost surely, some favouring the BJP, and some the Congress. The remaining 185-205 seats keep the surprise and thrill of the election alive, and might become decisive. These are due to the 12 per cent floating voters who oscillate between the Congress and the BJP.

That’s the summary for May 23, for the time being.


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