Party spoilers in Indian politics

Recent history suggests that these spoilers have almost always been left-aligned parties themselves – parties that claim to fight the BJP’s brand of politics. In reality, they have often managed to help the party they claim to fight.

Image credit: LegalDesire
Image credit: LegalDesire

Many would not be surprised at the Congress’s laidback campaign and the subsequent dismal performance in the Delhi assembly elections. This is the third consecutive election in the state where the party has failed to win a single seat. To some, this is a sad eventuality for a party that governed Delhi for 15 years since 1998.

But could this political retreat be part of a deliberate and well thought out strategy?

A very strong argument could be made in favor of Congress sacrificing its Delhi seats in an effort to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party away from power. If we assume Aam Aadmi Party voters to be more liberal than conservative and therefore more likely to vote for Congress than BJP, then a strong case could be made that Congress has made a conscious decision to transfer its votes to AAP. In essence, it has decided not to be a party spoiler in Delhi.

Over the years, third parties or seemingly ideologically similar parties contesting elections separately have had important implications at both national and state levels. One does not need to be a political scientist to know that especially in state elections, a shift of a few thousand votes can determine the outcome of a constituency. And when this is replicated in a few more constituencies, party spoilers can change the course of a state for the next five years.

And so, I have decided to test the impact that party spoilers have had in Indian politics in recent history.

Perhaps the most well-known case of a party spoiler is that of a little-known Maharashtra based party called the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. Founded in 2018 by Prakash Ambedkar through a merger of small likeminded caste-based parties, it claims to espouse values of Ambedkarism, progressivism and secularism.

The party has been shaky from the beginning. It initially formed an alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen which broke up prior to the Maharashtra assembly election over seat-sharing disagreements. The party was also in talks with Congress over an alliance prior to the 2019 parliamentary election, but the talks broke down again due to VBA demanding 12 seats in Maharashtra which the Congress declined.

Perhaps as retribution, the party then decided to contest in all 48 seats in the parliamentary election in Maharashtra. However, the party’s claim of fame was the assembly elections, where it contested more seats than any other party but failed to win a seat. Even though it received less than 5 percent of the total votes, this was enough to split votes in at least 25 seats where a BJP candidate eventually won and at least 8 where a Shiv Sena candidate won. In other words, if the VBA allied with Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, it could have declined at least 25 BJP and 8 Shiv Sena MLAs, and in the process even won a seat or two for itself.

Of course, these 33 additional seats would still not have given the Congress and NCP a majority in the assembly, but this goes to show how decisions by apparently inconsequential parties have potentially significant consequences in state elections.

By party spoilers, people may think mostly of a third party. However, disunity and fragmentation among opposition parties are equally helpful in altering the outcomes of elections.

The most glaring example of this was the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Despite clear evidence of a possible landslide by the BJP riding on the Modi wave, the opposition parties failed to unite under an alliance. The Samajwadi Party did strike up a deal with the Congress, but the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party backed out and this potentially handed the BJP an easier victory than they themselves could have expected.

The vote share figure makes obvious the implications of this decision. While BJP bagged 312 seats with 40% of the votes, the SP, BSP, and Congress cumulatively got only 73 seats despite their vote share exceeding 50%.

A closer look reveals a more dramatic picture. Of its 312 seats, the BJP won at least 199 where either the Congress and SP deprived a BSP candidate or the BSP deprived a Congress and SP candidate the victory. Clearly, had the tri-party alliance worked out, they could have declined BJP the biggest state in the union.

Another example is the Karnataka 2018 assembly elections. Here too, the cumulative vote share of Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), both of which contested the election separately, was 57 percent. This was significantly higher than the BJP’s 36 percent. Even though the two parties eventually formed a shaky post-election coalition, it is useful to point out that both parties had split each other’s votes: JDS split enough votes in at least 23 seats to decline Congress a victory, and Congress returned the favor by splitting votes in at least 13 seats. And to rub salt to their wounds, all these seats were eventually grabbed by the BJP.

This was made even more consequential by the fact that BJP eventually formed the government by engineering a defection of 16 MLAs. If the Congress and JDS worked out a pre-election alliance, the BJP would have been reduced to 80 seats, which would have made their task of forming a government all the more difficult, if not impossible.

Of course, the thrill of party spoilers extends to the national elections too, albeit with a lesser significance. For instance, in West Bengal, the Congress denied Trinamool Congress at least 6 seats, in Uttar Pradesh, Congress split votes in at least 8 seats and in Orissa, it again split at least 6 seats – all of these were eventually won by BJP. While these were certainly not enough to change the overall election outcome, it further reinforces the often-self destructing strategy of left-aligned parties to contest elections they have slim chances of winning.

As I have argued before, the BJP is largely a minority party, both nationally and in most states. Despite two consecutive landslide victories, Modi remains a factional leader, albeit with very durable support of between 30-35 percent of the voting population. To keep his party in power, in addition to this core voter base, he needs party spoilers like the VBA and, more importantly, a fragmented opposition.

Recent history suggests that these spoilers have almost always been left-aligned parties themselves – parties that claim to fight the BJP’s brand of politics. In reality, they have often managed to help the party they claim to fight.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views or opinions of TheRationalDaily in any manner.

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