In an opinion piece published in ‘The New Indian Express’ after the results of the assembly elections in four states and a Union Territory were available, journalist GS Vasu quoted a columnist’s message: “Democracy is a chapati we have to keep flipping or else it gets burnt.” ‘Flipping’ here possibly meant a change in the ruling party. In democracy, some sort of ‘flipping’, however, is a continuous process – even if the ruling party remains unchanged. We often fail to realise this, particularly when the incumbent retains power in an election.
Take the example of 2021 West Bengal, where the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress (TMC) could beat 10-years’ anti-incumbency.
What’s more, the number of seats of the ruling TMC remained roughly the same as before.
So, apparently it may sound curiouser if we call it a vote for ‘poribortan’ (change). However, it is actually so, according to me. Let’s note the changes in 2021 compared to the assembly elections of 2016.
Most remarkably, the BJP has replaced the Left and the INC completely to fill the space for opposition in West Bengal.
Of course, it was apparent from the last Lok Sabha election that it was going to be an electoral battle between the TMC and BJP only. BJP, however, could bag roughly the same number of seats the Left and INC got in 2016, and thus the volume of opposition remained unchanged. However, the nature of opposition would certainly differ – no doubt about that. However, the ‘poriborton’ through the Bengal election is certainly much beyond that. For it is not just that the BJP had won only seats won by the Left and INC in the 2016 election, it grabbed a number of seats won by the TMC in 2016.
Similarly, TMC could win many traditional Left and INC dominated constituencies as well. The number of constituencies where the winner is from a different party compared to 2016 is 129 out of 292 – a whopping 44 per cent.
How large is this percentage? A comparative picture might illustrate this. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK-led alliance regained power after a decade, and in 111 seats of the state – 47.4 per cent of 234 seats – the winner was from a party different from the winning party of 2016.
And, in Kerala, where the Pinarayi Vijayanled LDF created history to retain power, such a constituency-wise change happened in only 19.3 per cent seats – 27 out of 140. This occurred in 32.5 per cent seats in Assam – 41 out of 126 seats. Thus, the large proportion of legislators elected from a different party compared to 2016 in Bengal is certainly a significant event.
If the voters of Bengal elect four out of nine representatives from a different party, shouldn’t we call it a vote for ‘poribortan’? It is not only about seats though. Let’s investigate the vote shares also.
BJP’s vote share evolved from 10 per cent in 2016 to 38 per cent in 2021. However, it will be an over-simplification to assert that BJP had exactly 28 per cent new voters.
For not everybody would repeatedly vote for the same party in a democracy. So, my guesstimate is that about 30-32 per cent new voters have pushed the button for the BJP in the 2021 Bengal elections.
Similarly, TMC, which managed about 45 per cent vote share in 2016, now got 48 per cent support. This certainly doesn’t mean that exactly 3 per cent of new voters have voted for TMC. Following the same logic, my guesstimate is that 7- 8 per cent or more new voters might have voted for TMC this time around. This will be apparent by looking at the changed orientation of political strength in the map of West Bengal.
And this might be clearer still if vote shares of different parties can be scrutinised booth-wise in the state. Considering possible new votes of other parties as well, well above 40 per cent voters might have pushed the button for a different party when compared with 2016.
This is not counter-intuitive though.
The voters who cast their votes for the same party for a long duration – possibly a decade or more – may be considered to be committed. In fact, the proportion of ‘floating voters’ is huge in any democracy. In her 2012 book ‘The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents’, Linda Killian observed that 40 per cent of all American voters – the largest voting bloc in the country – are Independents who occupy the ample political and ideological space in the centre, and they have determined the outcome of every election since World War II. And their numbers are growing continuously.
The British Election Study shows that the British electorate is highly ‘volatile’. Across three elections from 2010 to 2017, almost half the UK electorate (49 per cent) didnt vote for the same party, and a whopping 43 per cent voters switched between 2010 and 2015.
And, it is understandable that the actual percentage of floating voters may be more as someone volatile doesn’t necessarily mean that he’d vote for a different party. A 2014 CSDS study indicated that 43 per cent of the Indian voters go with the ‘hawa’ as well.
Thus, in the 2021 Bengal election, a large proportion of the floating voters might have pushed a different button compared to 2016.
Overall, however, the electorate of Bengal has illustrated that the chapati can be flipped even while keeping the ruling party and its strength in the assembly unchanged. The political landscape of Bengal after the 2021 election is far different from after the 2016 election.
Thus, it’s really interesting to study how such a sublime flipping is continually happening in any democracy. Higher the flame of the oven, the flipping is done more frequently. Just to save the chapati from burning.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.