Ground-rules for Seat Distribution in Coalitions

Now that the Bihar elections are over and quite a lot of the “election analysis” too, I was just wondering to myself as to how would their election performance effect the relative dynamics between the JD(U) and BJP in the state of Bihar?

This also brought me to another question, that when two or more parties get together to fight elections as an alliance, how does relative performance impact the equations between them, and I am only talking about the way they do the onerous task of seat distribution. We are living in an era of coalitions, where national and state level alliances decide everything. Most political parties in India have either not thought about this, or just remain fixated on some old formula of seat sharing, and fight to keep that unchanged, irrespective of relative performance.

Now let’s look at the case of Bihar. The NDA alliance of JD(U) and BJP fought the elections together, and their performance was as follows:

  • JD(U) fought in 141 seats and won 115 (a strike rate of 82%)
  • BJP fought in 102 seats and won 91 (a strike rate of 89%)
  • The combined vote-share of the alliance was 39%, and confirmed data now indicates that JD(U) got 23% and BJP got 16% (we will use this data for a hypothetical exercise)

Under normal conditions, the same seat distribution formula will be applied for the next Assembly elections in 2015, although the data indicated a significant differential performance. I propose the following changes:

  • Given the base of seat distribution between two or more partners, the future seat distribution should be constantly changing, and on the basis of relative performance, using two key parameters – proportion of votes garnered and strike rate (i.e. percentage of seats won against contested)
  • The seats to be contested next time round should be split on the basis of proportion of votes that each party was able to garner, and offset by half of the differential in the strike rate

Practically, it would calculated as given below

  • JD(U) got 23% of the votes, i.e. it brought 59% of the votes that the alliance garnered (23 / 39 * 100), and BJP brought in 41% of the votes (16 / 39 * 100).
  • The differential between their strike rates was 7% (89 – 82), and so half of that would be 3.5
  • So JD(U) next time would get 55.5% of the seats (59 – 3.5), which would be 135 of the 243 seats
  • BJP next time would get 44.5% of the seats (41 + 3.5), which would be 108 seats

Now in this example, it just so happens that BJP is likely to get a marginally higher number of seats than the JD(U) next time round, but it could easily have been the other way round.

Now let’s see what kind of psychological changes this can bring about within the coalition partners.

  • One of the reasons alliances break-up is because each party keeps on claiming that it is actually stronger than what the other partner is conceding. This proposed process makes it formulaic, rather than negotiational, and hence likely to survive longer and be more amiable
  • It will make each party chase every last vote in its allocated constituencies, and hence make their appeal more inclusive and moderate, rather than exclusive and radical
  • Performance will become the benchmark for dynamic changes, rather than ossified old formalae, which then could lead to breakage in alliances
  • A fair process for growth is provided to each party in the alliance, so that they don’t feel suffocated that their growth is being hampered

There are downsides to the above process also, which should be acknowledged, especially since we Indians have a way of wanting to bring the other party down. Since this formula is based on relative performance, a partner instead of only trying to improve its own performance, may also try to sabotage the prospects of the other, and thereby benefit from it. In this case, firstly they would be cutting their nose to spite their face, as they would win less seats overall and probably not be able to form the government. Secondly, if this happens, then the alliance should be called off in any case, as the basic element of trust is missing.

What this process also fails to take into account is the changes in vote-base that may have happened from the previous election to this one (five years can be a long time). Maybe this formula should take data from the immediate past election and not necessarily the last similar election, meaning that the above proposed calculations should be used by NDA in Bihar for the LS elections in 2014, and not the next Assembly elections in 2015, or even consider it for the local body elections.

This message is most relevant to the two main poles in Indian politics, Congress and the BJP. Both have had mixed experiences with allies, in their quest for power, although both swear by the unclear concept of “coalition dharma”. Since either one of them is very far from the day when they could come to power on their own (although Congress recently does seem to be getting some delusions of grandeur), they do need to work out a good process to work with regional parties, who have a very different agenda, and often see these two parties as detrimental to their long-term interests in the state.

I don’t claim that this is something earth-shatteringly important (I am sure that both of them would be focusing on the 2014 LS elections). But in their preparation, they would be well-advised to work out how they would, establish, build and sustain their relationships with current and future allies. The above formula could be a good starting point.

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