In February 1974, the British general election threw up a strange verdict. The Labour Party secured 301 of the 635 seats in the House of Commons; the incumbent Conservative Party won just four seats less; and the Liberals got 14 seats. In percentage terms, Labour won 47.4 and the Conservatives 46.8. However, in terms of popular votes, the Conservatives secured 11.87 million (37.9 per cent) and Labour polled 11.65 million (37.2 per cent).
Edward Heath, the Conservative leader, was a sore loser and created a minor fuss when the Queen invited Labour’s Harold Wilson to form a government. Heath’s disappointment was understandable. Normally, the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and favours the dominant party. The February 1974 election was a rare case when the more popular choice of the voters was deprived of the largest number of seats.
That was certainly one of the rarest of rare cases and, quite expectedly, resulted in another election in October that year when Wilson coasted to a more manageable majority that endured till 1979. There are many critics of the Westminster system. Some argue for proportional representation, others for the preference vote (as in Australia) and still others for a list system (à la Germany). Yet, it is one of the cardinal tenets of democracy that the legitimacy of any government formed under whichever electoral system is prevalent is not questioned. With the solitary exception of President George W. Bush, who was charged by his naturally intemperate critics of “stealing” the election in 2000 on account of the disputed Florida count, both convention and common sense deems that the winner is declared the winner and the loser(s) occupy the Opposition benches till the battle next time. These are the rules of the game.
Last Friday, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance won an impressive parliamentary majority by securing some 335 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha. The BJP, polling some 32 per cent of the votes, won a simple majority on its own and the total votes for the National Democratic Alliance candidates was a notch below 40 per cent. The election was important in another respect: the voter turnout rose by nearly 9 per cent to touch the 1984 figure.
Undeniably, the results came as a complete shock to those who had assiduously propagated their contention that Modi was a “fascist” who was “unelectable” because his values offended “the idea of India”. The electorate had an opportunity to hear their views and then vote very differently. The reasons that contributed to the “tsuNaMo” may well be a legitimate subject of future discourse but there is no question that when Modi is sworn in on the evening of May 26 it will be on the strength of a clear and, indeed, unequivocal mandate.
That is why it is astonishing, if not downright offensive, to hear the carping noises of a section of the dispirited intelligentsia (including those with lofty political pedigrees) that Modi’s victory is bereft of both a mandate and legitimacy. Their reasoning is worth considering. Modi, it is being argued, secured less than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Add to the 60 per cent who voted differently (or chose Nota) the 35 per cent who didn’t vote at all, and the pro-Modi forces are reduced to a pathetic minority.
Conceding that statistics can often outdo the best tricks of a P.C. Sorcar, by this logic India has never had a legitimate majority government ever. Neither Jawaharlal Nehru — whose “idea of India” drives a section to blind anti-Modi rage — and Indira Gandhi, nor Rajiv Gandhi, who won the highest majority ever, secured more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Are they all to be retrospectively illegitimate? Secondly, how can it be presumed that every citizen who either didn’t vote or found their names missing from the electoral rolls were part of the save-India-from-fascism brigade?
The dejected Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, Sitaram Yechury, has asked for India to consider moving to proportional representation. The suggestion is worth a debate, considering that in the 1980s some BJP leaders were strong advocates of it. But no amount of statistical skulduggery can deem that a system ought to be changed with retrospective effect. The dissenters have a right to form and take membership of an Electoral Reforms Society, but they have no right to question the validity of a democratic verdict.
However, those who cannot countenance the humiliation of the Congress and the outright rejection of dynastic rule are guilty of more than just nit-picking. What is significant about the decisive mandate is that it is accompanied by the burden of soaring expectations. In what was quite definitely a presidential-style campaign, the electorate didn’t merely vote out a government; they also chose a leader who was entrusted with the responsibility of ushering the promised achche din [good times].
In Western parliamentary democracies, people also couple their choice of an MP with their preference for a leader. However, this leadership test is also accompanied by a relatively more rigorous debate on policies proffered by the competing political parties. In India, while the odd constituency may be swayed by purely local considerations, a Lok Sabha election is principally an assessment of leadership capabilities.
The Modi wave didn’t lead to the BJP bagging a rich haul of seats in three states: West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Here, the regional parties successfully converted the battle for Delhi into a quasi-referendum on the three formidable chief ministers. The national made strong headway, but the regional prevailed on the strength of the same advantage that the first-past-the-post system confers on the dominant party. The implications are worth considering. The vote that saw the Trinamul Congress, AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal candidates prevailing wasn’t on the strength of a programme of governance. They were votes for Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik respectively.
Indians tend to vote for a leader and then they leave it to the leader to formulate policies and run an effective government. This is at the heart of the fear that drives Modi’s detractors to statistical absurdities: the fear that Modi may unsettle a cosy consensus and break the mould of politics. Most important, they fear that, unlike other leaders who emerged from the Congress system, Modi could well dismantle an existing Establishment that has exercised uninterrupted dominance since 1947. It is a fear based on the perceived loss of self-importance and a morbid dread of the aesthetes being replaced by the outlanders, particularly those with the wrong accents. Certainly, the raw energy demonstrated by the Modi campaign would suggest that many of the cultural assumptions of an earlier age no longer find favour with Young India.
Modi became the flavour of the season not because he played by the old rules but because he defied them aggressively. His is not a mandate for consensus, but for a very different way of doing things. Today, the Establishment is understandably anxious to co-opt Modi into the beautiful world of Lutyen’s Delhi. This is not because they secretly admire him but because they seek to de-fang him and turn him into just another plodder. They seek to blunt the sharp edges of a mandate that is not merely for rapid economic growth but for a social transformation.
Have no doubts, by questioning the legitimacy of Modi and denying him the mandate he has won, the refined voices of the ancien régime are pressing for the status quo to prevail. From being the Gir lion that many perceive Modi to be, the high priests of loftiness want him to be another pussy cat prime minister. Let’s hope Modi can resist the assaults and blandishments.