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2012 Uttar Pradesh Elections: Sweeping mandate, humiliating defeat or none of the above?

- March 21, 2012

The following election report is written by Devesh Tiwari, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC-San Diego, and appeared previously at Fruits and Votes.


Over a three week period, approximately 60 percent of India’s Uttar Pradesh region’s 126 million eligible voters participated in state level elections that took place in seven stages, making this election larger (and logistically more complex) than the national elections of many countries. By way of background, Indian states are parliamentary democracies where the majority of the legislature must support the executive. On March 6th, the results were announced and the Samajwadi Party (SP) easily gained a majority of seats, placing the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) out of power . The results were striking. The BSP, which entered the race holding 206 seats (51 percent of the 403 seat assembly) lost nearly 60 percent of its seats, winning only 80 seats (20 percent of seats). The SP nearly doubled the number of seats it held, increasing it from 97 (24 percent of seats) to 224 seats (56 percent of seats). Such a drastic swing could characterize this election as giving the SP a massive mandate, and could be equally characterized as a humiliating repudiation of the BSP.

A closer look at the election results reveals that both characterizations are overblown. Uttar Pradesh uses a “First Past the Post” electoral rule whereby the party with the most votes in a district wins the seat. This system is known to produce disproportional results where a party may win a higher proportion of seats than votes. For example, in the 2005 Parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party won 55 percent of districts while only obtaining 35 percent of the vote. Thus while disproportionality is not something new, its magnitude in Uttar Pradesh is impressive.

The SP won 56 percent of districts by only winning 29 percent of the state vote. The BSP’s vote share of 26 percent translated to a seat share of only 20 percent. In other words, the 3 percentage point difference in vote shares resulted in a 36 percentage point difference in seat share.

While the BSP was on the short end of the disproportionally stick in 2012, they benefited from it in 2007. In that election, the BSP won 51 percent of seats by only winning 30 percent of the vote. The SP, on the other hand, won 24 percent of the seats while winning 26 percent of votes state wide. Taken together, the SP more than doubled the number of seats between elections by increasing their vote share by a mere 3 percentage points.

So what accounts for these startling results? Why is disproportionality so high in Uttar Pradesh? The answer is that political competition in Uttar Pradesh is highly fragmented. In 2012, each district had, on average, 13 parties contesting the election; in 2007 the average was about 9. Partisan fragmentation in Uttar Pradesh is further evidenced by the fact that in 2012, the average district vote share of winning candidates was only 35 percent (and was 36 percent in 2007). Thus the combination of party system fragmentation, and the disproportionality caused by the FPTP electoral rule, exacerbates vote share volatility to even higher levels of seat share volatility, producing high levels of political uncertainty.

Such a political environment changes the incentives of both legislators and political parties on two fronts. First, it creates incentives for parties to place a higher premium on fielding candidates that can win elections, even at the expense of party reputation and governance. This may partially explain why parties in Uttar Pradesh (and India as a whole) would be willing to field candidates with ties to criminality; winning seats is more important than long term party reputations and governance. Second, it shortens the time horizon of parties. Since a governing party would have little faith that their tenure in office would last long, they have no incentive to invest in programmatic policies whose political benefits would be realized in the future. Instead, parties would focus on short term political exchanges whereby they trade government benefits for political support.

Uttar Pradesh’s political environment undermines the production of programmatic policies and thus reinforces the political logic of clientelism. These are precisely the incentives that Uttar Pradesh does not need. As one of the poorest, and most corrupt, state in India, Uttar Pradesh would greatly benefit from reforms that reduce corruption, increase bureaucratic quality and increase the investments of public goods and services. Thus while Uttar Pradesh is a democracy in the sense that there is alternation of power, it has not produced a system whereby parties act for the benefit of the people as a whole.