India is gearing up for assembly elections in five states – Chattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan. And in another six months, the world will once again witness electoral politics in action in the largest democracy, with about 800 million registered voters. In none of these elections, though, is the winning party or a coalition, expected to receive the support of a majority of the people in the provinces or nationally.
India’s ability to maintain a broadly constitutional and electoral democracy, her political pluralism, despite enormous social-economic diversities, have surprised many political observers, both inside and outside the country. On the other hand, there are those who question India’s democratic credentials, given that a winning party might gain political power with the support of barely 10-15% of total voters.
In the forthcoming assembly election in Delhi, opinion polls are generally predicting about 22-28% of votes to each of the three main contending parties – AAP, BJP, INC. In the bipolar election in Rajasthan, with two major parties – BJP and INC, the winning party may gain majority of the seats with less than 40% of the votes polled, or with the support of only 25% of the total voters.
Rather than being its weakness, the low percentage of votes for the winners, actually is the strength of Indian democracy. The low threshold increases the prospect of a new political party to make its presence felt. And if the support base for the new candidate or party is restricted to a small geographic area, then the prospect of actually winning a seat increases significantly.
The possibility of effectively organising a campaign and building a political movement, which can take advantage of the low electoral threshold, have kept most of the political actors within the constitutional process. If that was not the case, there could have been a much larger section of people who would have not only felt disenfranchised, but may have given up on electoral process, and sought to go outside the boundaries of the constitution. One dreads to think if a sizeable minority had opted for extra-constitutional or out right violent methods.
For democracy to survive in large communities and countries, where only representative democracy is possible and practical, democracy has to be minimal, so that it does not offend or alienate too many people. Secondly, as societies become complex, there is a need to recognise the challenges of centralised government, and devolve greater political authority and autonomy to lower tiers of government and local communities.