'Split factor' decides the outcome

Print edition : November 06, 1999

A SIMPLE arithmetical calculation shows that if a split had not taken place in the Congress(I) and the various parties had got the same vote share they did in this election, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, would have won just nine Lok Sabha seats from Maharashtra, and the Congress(I) alliance's tally would have been 39, instead of the final figures of 28 and 11 respectively. This alone would have changed the majority equation in Parliament, with the national verdict looking much different from what it does today. This demonstrates once again how an electoral verdict is as much an artifact of party managers and the first-past-the-post system as it is a product of the changing mood of the electorate.

The results did not come as a surprise. Both the Congress(I) and the breakaway Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) knew that the split could prove to be suicidal. Yet, each of them hoped that it would be able to claim a sufficiently large chunk of votes to defeat the Shiv Sena-BJP combine. However, as it turned out, there was no hidden hand to save them from the consequences of the split. The Congress(I) and the NCP together cornered 58 per cent of the popular vote: 33.3 per cent for the Congress(I) and its allies, and 25.1 per cent for Sharad Pawar's NCP and its allies. The split of votes between the two brought the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) in the State to 63, down from 88 in last year's elections. This drop of 25 percentage points in the IOU is enough to explain the verdict. Maharashtra's is a classic case of the "split factor" rather than the "swing factor" deciding the outcome of the elections.

Indeed, it is surprising that the Shiv Sena-BJP combine did not gain more than it did from this huge split. After having consolidated the gains made in its surprise victory in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine fared poorly in the elections last year, losing in terms of both votes and seats. It lost another 4 percentage points of votes this year - less than it was expected to lose - but added 18 seats to its kitty. It could have gained more, but for the fact that the split worked unevenly in different parts of the State. The split hurt the Congress(I) the most in Vidarbha, where it had won all the 11 seats last time. Although the NCP took only 15 per cent of the votes here and the IOU was 67, it was enough for the Shiv Sena-BJP combine to take six seats. In Mumbai and Konkan, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine retained its supremacy with a little help from the split in the Congress(I). In the north and in Marathwada - the two regions that recorded the highest increases in turnout - the NCP effectively demolished the Congress(I) by making it lose 4 seats in each region, without being able to pick up any seats for itself. It was only in Sharad Pawar's stronghold of western Maharashtra that the NCP was able to translate its vote share into seats. The Congress(I) was the spoiler here. But since the Shiv Sena-BJP combine finished a poor third, the split did not seem to have hurt the NCP very much.

Some analysts had hoped that voters may succeed where the leaders failed, that many voters would resort to tactical voting by choosing the stronger of the candidates from among the Congress(I) and the NCP in order to defeat the candidates of the ruling alliance. The Lok Sabha results show that while the electorate certainly did not favour the combine, its voting choice was not based solely on that consideration. The rivalry between the Congress(I) and the NCP was as fierce as the competition between the Shiv Sena-BJP and non-Shiv Sena-BJP political forces.

This was not the first time that Pawar contested in Maharashtra as a non-Congress(I) candidate. Between 1980 and 1985 he was out of the Congress(I) fold. In the 1980 and 1984 Lok Sabha elections he managed to get for his party 11.8 and 12.1 per cent of the votes and one and two seats respectively. In the 1980 and 1985 Assembly elections his Congress(S) managed to get 20.5 and 17.8 per cent votes and 47 and 54 seats respectively. It is indeed creditable that Pawar has managed to retain his base. He obviously needs to do better to support his national ambitions.

At the Assembly level, the overall verdict appears to be a near repeat of the 1995 verdict, with the BJP and the Shiv Sena losing a few seats each. A closer look reveals that a good deal of churning has taken place. Of the 288 seats, only 133 have been retained by the same party that won in 1995. The figure goes up to 166 if one includes the 33 seats the Congress(I) has now lost to the NCP. The Congress(I) could retain only 28 of the 80 seats it won in 1995. The BJP and the Shiv Sena did a little better and retained 41 and 52 of their seats respectively.

The regional patterns also show a subtle change. The Congress(I) has improved its position significantly in Mumbai and Vidarbha. Its performance in Mumbai is noteworthy since it differs from the trend of the Lok Sabha results. The NCP won a majority of its seats from western Maharashtra at the cost of the Congress(I) and independents who were backed by Pawar in 1995. The number of independents fell from 45 to 12.

Although there was a lot of speculation about how much of the Congress(I)'s vote Sharad Pawar would take away, the CSDS survey shows that the most likely quantum is somewhere around one-third. Sharad Pawar was thus unable to do what Mamata Banerjee succeeded in doing in West Bengal - split the Congress(I) evenly down the middle. On the other hand, despite an undistinguished term in government, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine was able to hold on to a considerable percentage of those who had voted for it in 1998.

Thee Shiv Sena-BJP combine did not do as well in being able to make those who voted for it in the Lok Sabha elections to do so in the Assembly elections. Whereas 88 per cent and 93 per cent of the people who voted for the BJP and the Shiv Sena respectively in the Assembly elections also voted for the combine in the Lok Sabha elections, the retention rate is not nearly as high when looked at from the other direction. From among those who voted for the combine in the Lok Sabha elections, only 74 per cent voted for it in the Assembly elections. The BJP voters were bigger 'ticket splitters' than the Shiv Sena voters.

Maharashtra's voters are not as polarised along caste lines as those in many other States - except at the lower end of the caste hierarchy. Instead of different groups aligning with different alliances, each caste group seems to be getting divided among the three coalitions. The Maratha and Kunbi vote, which was firmly behind the Congress(I) last time, was fragmented among the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, the Congress(I) and the NCP this time. Since 1990, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have been trying to attract the traditional Congress(I) votes, and to some extent they seem to have succeeded in this. Thanks partly to the Shiv Sena and partly to the split in the Congress(I), they now occupy the space in the middle, and fare well among the Kunbis and other OBCs. They continue to fare badly among the Dalits and Adivasis, and particularly with Muslims, virtually none of whom voted for them. Interestingly, the BJP and the Shiv Sena have rather different social profiles.

During the campaign, the NCP was criticised for trying to unite the four Ms: Marathas, Malis, Mahars and Muslims. It succeeded in this partly, but an analysis of its voter composition shows that the NCP bears an indelible Maratha mark. The Muslim vote was split almost evenly between the Congress(I) and the NCP: 46 per cent for the Congress(I) and 40 per cent for the NCP. As usual, the composition of Congress(I) voters was pretty balanced. However, since its support base spans across all social groups, the Congress(I) lacks a specific social identity. This is fine when a party is on the upswing, but problematic when it is on the decline.

Despite the much-vaunted claims by the Shiv Sena that it has received the support of the lower sections of society, the combine is very much a party of the elite. It fared well among the upper classes and the educated. The reverse was true for the NCP and the Congress(I). However, the index for media exposure shows an effect over and above the pattern for class and education. Whereas the lowest classes and the least educated were pretty much equally divided between the Congress(I) and the NCP, the Congress(I) showed a clear lead among the least informed members of society, receiving 41 per cent of the vote from those who have no media exposure.

The usual story of more women than men voting for the Congress(I) and vice versa for the BJP is as true for Maharashtra as it is elsewhere in the country. The NCP, however, scored pretty much equally among both the sexes.

The Congress(I) lost to the NCP particularly badly in the rural areas. The rural verdict was split almost evenly among the three main players. The Shiv Sena-BJP combine did substantially better in the urban areas, which comes as no surprise.

Despite Sharad Pawar's vehement stance against Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin, her standing in the popularity stakes as the choice for Prime Minister did not suffer too badly. Overall, 26 per cent of the respondents named her as being their choice for Prime Minister, which was more or less on a par with the national average. However, 19 per cent of the sample felt that she was an unsuitable candidate because of her foreign origin. This figure was higher among the Shiv Sena-BJP combine voters at 31 per cent, than it was with NCP voters at 22 per cent.

The elections have thrown up a complex picture of emerging political loyalties which defies the easy bifurcation of the State polity into two rival political camps. This fragmentation removes the possibility of a formation of the weaker and deprived social groups into an electoral bloc. Just as there are no winners and losers in the elections from Maharashtra, there appear to be no progressives and reactionaries in State politics anymore.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor