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Waiting on a big result in India

India waits on results after the biggest election in the world’s history. Exit polls suggest an opposition landslide, but perhaps shouldn’t be taken at face value.

The world’s biggest ever election is finally over: yesterday saw the ninth and final phase of India’s general election, which has been staggered over more than a month in order to ease the strain on both logistics and security for a mammoth operation in which more than half a billion people went to the polls. But the waiting isn’t over – counting will take place on Friday.

If the exit polls are right, it will be a big win for the opposition National Democratic Alliance, led by Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. All but one of them show the NDA with a majority of the 543 seats in its own right, and the average puts it almost 180 seats ahead of the governing United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party.

But beware: exit polls in India are unreliable, and have shown a particular leaning towards the BJP. Last time around, in 2009, the exit polls said things were almost neck and neck, with the UPA just a few seats ahead of the NDA. In fact it won by more than a hundred seats and easily put together a majority with the help of a few minor parties.

It would be unfair to criticise the pollsters too much, though: opinion polling in India is hard. Not just because doing just about anything nationwide in India is hard, but because its electoral system does a poor job of correlating votes cast with seats won.

The electoral system, like many other things in India, is a legacy from the British: a very standard British system of first-past-the-post voting in single-member constituencies. Big ones, since India has about the same number of MPs as Britain but nearly 20 times the population. Sometimes its very size and diversity means that the unfairnesses of the system cancel out, but not always.

In 2009, at least the relative positions of the top two parties came out about right. (That hasn’t always been the case – 1999 was a striking failure.) But further down there were weird anomalies. The “third front” of mostly leftist parties finished just a few points behind the NDA, 20.7% to 24.3%, but won only half as many seats. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which runs candidates across much of the country, managed only 16 seats for its 5.3%, while the Samajwadi Party, concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, won 23 seats with 3.4%.

With all that said, there’s still no reason to doubt that Congress, in office for ten years, is going down to defeat and that Modi and the NDA will end up on top. But the scale of that result, and the extent to which Modi will have to depend on possibly unruly allies, will have to wait on actual counting. (Check out the Election Commission’s website here.)

It’s also reported that turnout was just fractionally short of two-thirds, at 66.4%. That’s up more than 8% on 2009 and eclipses the previous record of 64%, set in 1984. Credit is being given to a government education program that more than doubled the cost of the election, but it’s still a remarkable achievement.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating often, that India gives the lie to just about every argument about why democracy won’t work. Dreadful poverty, inequality, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, huge distances, troubled histories, logistic nightmares – India starts with almost every problem you can think of. Its democratic process, unsurprisingly, doesn’t always work well. But it does work.

And if it can work in India, it can work anywhere.

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