The National Bias of India’s First-Past-The-Post System

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorNarendar Pani,Debosree Banerjee,Paul Thomas
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
Original Article
The National Bias of India’s
First-Past-The-Post System
Narendar Pani1, Debosree Banerjee1 and Paul Thomas1
The relationship between the local and the national in Indian politics has taken a variety of forms, from
secessionist tendencies to agitational politics around specific issues. The course of this relationship is
typically explored through electoral performance, primarily whether a party wins sufficient seats to
form the government. There is much less attention paid to the relationship between votes and seats.
This has led to some questions not getting the attention they deserve, particularly whether the first-
past-the-post electoral system that India uses is entirely neutral in the dynamic between the local and
the national. This article addresses this question by developing a model that captures the effects of the
share of the votes of national parties, as well as the concentration of national and local votes, on the
performance of national and local parties. The empirical evaluation of this system points to an overall
national bias, which is eroded over time by the emergence of regionally dominant local parties.
First-past-the-post, Indian elections, national vote, local vote, seat–vote ratio
The relationship between the local and the national has been a recurring theme in the study of post-
independence Indian politics (Brass, 1997). Over the decades, the dynamics of this relationship have
been viewed through the prism of the dominant political considerations of the time, ranging from the
absorption of local politics into national parties (Weiner, 1967) to the rise of regional parties (Pai, 1990).
The changing relationship between the local and the national is reflected in the course of India’s electoral
politics and in the fluctuating fortunes of local and national parties. There is usually considerable popular
and academic discourse on the seats won by these parties, particularly when they cross the threshold to
form the government. There is, however, relatively less attention paid to the vote shares of these parties,
and much less attention paid to the relationship between votes and seats in India’s first-past-the-post
(FPTP) electoral system. This has contributed to at least one critical question tending to be ignored: has
the functioning of the FPTP electoral system in India favoured either the national or local parties? And
National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
Corresponding author:
Narendar Pani, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bengaluru, Karnataka
560012, India.
Studies in Indian Politics
11(1) 49–65, 2023
© 2023 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166183
50 Studies in Indian Politics 11(1)
does this bias remain consistent across the country and over time? This article seeks to answer these
questions through an analysis of state-wise voting patterns in Indian parliamentary general elections over
a period of 35 years.
The Local and the National in Indian Parliamentary Politics
As is to be expected in a large and diverse country, the local has always had a presence in Indian politics.
Even as much of the discourse—especially the popular discourse—has been centred around the larger
parties, electoral politics has not entirely been around the large parties alone. In the years soon after
Independence, the Congress, as the main national party, did try to absorb more local concerns, especially
on issues relating to the territories of linguistically defined states (Isaka, 2015). That this effort did not
address all local concerns ensured that there was a noticeable place for independents. In India’s first
general elections in 1951–1952, 533 independents contested, gaining 15.9 per cent of the vote. Over the
decades since then, there has been a decline in the role of independents in parliamentary elections, with
independents accounting for a much lower 2.71 per cent of the vote in the parliamentary elections of
2019. A significant portion of the decline in the vote share of independents was accounted for by the rise
in the presence of smaller parties. As many as 673 parties contested the 2019 parliamentary election,
compared to just 53 in the first election of 1951–1952. The rise of smaller parties contributed to the
growing significance of state politics. In the 1990s, in particular, parties with state-level influence were
able to gain a significant presence in national coalition governments (Ziegfeld, 2012).
The rise of strong regional parties has sometimes led to state politics being seen as an autonomous
domain (Yadav & Palshikar, 2008). This is consistent with the discourse that tends to focus on parties
that present very specific regional interests, such as the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil
Nadu (Harris & Wyatt, 2013) or the Akali Dal in Punjab (Hardgrave, 1983). But the autonomy of regional
parties can be challenged when state-level coalitions find a place for national parties. It has been argued
that the autonomous state domains thesis needs to be more sensitive to the federal framework (Kailash,
2017). The national can also affect the nature of local parties, as when regional parties are no more than
breakaways from national parties whose influence is confined to a region. The tendency for some
regional parties to be defined by electoral circumstances rather than ideology led Fickett to distinguish,
in 1971, between what he called ‘classical regional chauvinist parties’ and breakaway Congress groups
that survived (Fickett, 1971). This distinction did continue in later decades, if in a somewhat broader
form. The regional parties that emerged in the north-east often demonstrated a strong ethnic character.
Elsewhere, other parties breaking away from the Congress, like the All-India Trinamool Congress, not
only survived but also went on to become major political forces. And breakaways from other national
parties were not unknown either, especially the splinter groups of the Janata Dal. The Janata Dal (United),
the Janata Dal (Secular), the Biju Janata Dal and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are all examples of this
The distinction between regional parties that rely on identity and those that are forced by circum-
stances to have no more than a regional presence is thus useful, but it is by no means comprehensive. It
has been pointed out that state politics also has an element of regions within regions (Kumar, 2009).
There are parties like the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in West Bengal that represent very
specific sub-regional identities (Datta, 1991). There are others that represent castes that happen to be
concentrated in particular areas of a state, like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), seen to be representing
the Vanniyars in Tamil Nadu (Harris & Wyatt, 2013). There are yet others that seek to represent larger
religious groups but have their influence concentrated in particular areas. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul

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