Race for Mandate
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Mandate, defined as “an authorisation to act” means in electoral politics “the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election”. Winning an election is winning the mandate of the electorate. How far the winner has the mandate of the people to act as he does or how far he fails to act as he has promised become issues in the next election.
The electoral mandate to pursue a particular policy is not a legal contract except in referendums. It is just an understanding, an expectation and hope based on trust. Chances of a winning candidate or party honouring or dishonouring the promises made are equal.
Representative democracy has emerged as functionally the most suitable and hence popular form of democracy although there are differences over the method of representation. Modern democracies believe in principal-agent relationship where a particular person is authorised to act on behalf of others. Since the views of others may not be unanimous, the agent must be authorised to use his judgment without approaching his voters on every issue. The representative having the mandate must act as the trustee of the constituency he represents.
The Congress that ruled the major part of seven decades since Independence got its mandate by winning a majority of seats (either alone or in alliance with others) and not majority of votes. In all general elections when the Congress won a majority of seats and formed the Government, its vote share was 43 to 48% of total votes polled. Such a mandate to form a Government is possible in a multi-party system and is inevitable with scores of parties in the fray. Nonetheless, they are electoral victories and give legitimacy to form the Government, but without a clear and positive mandate of the electorate for any policy or candidate.
In 2014, the BJP which got 52% of seats won 31% of votes only. Next stood the Congress with 19% of votes and 8% of seats, the BSP with 4% of votes did not win any seats whereas some regional parties with a much less proportion of votes managed to get higher proportion of seats due to concentration in less space. The AIADMK restricted to Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry recorded 3% votes, but bagged 7% seats.
The 2014 was more a mandate for the BJP leader Modi as 1971 was for Indira Gandhi and 1999 for Vajpayee. In the Indian experience, leadership plays a crucial role in winning the electoral mandate more than the name of the party.
Winning an electoral mandate with a minority of votes is common and several Governments have successfully worked their full term. The percentage of candidates winning by minority of votes polled was 67.28 in 1952, 58.09 in 1957, 60.03 in 1999, and rose to 75.87 in 2004 and 82.68 in 2009. As more and more parties enter the field, the vote share reduces for almost every candidate. Consequently, the electoral mandate and the actual people’s mandate are different. The latter cannot be expected in a representative system of democracy.
The voter turn-out was 66.14% in 2014 and 56.97 in 2009. In the current Lok Sabha election, the voter turn-out was around 69% in the first two phases and 62% in the third and 64% in the fourth phase. The electoral arithmetic shows that winners hardly get the mandate of even 30% of voting age population in their constituencies. The lower the voter turn-out, less clear the mandate.
Considered alongside voter turn-out, election data suggest that a winning candidate is not at all a true representative of his constituency. In very few places, the voter turn-out exceeds 60% of registered voters and cases of missing names remain a mystery for no fault of the voters.
Such calculations behind the race for mandate encourage candidates to shift focus from canvassing support for policies and programmes to securing votes by reinforcing social divisions and mobilizing vote banks based on narrower considerations or purchasing votes in return for favours. In either way, it is politics of manipulation of the mandate to construct a majority of seats.
The fair winning of an election to have a legitimate mandate to govern is the principal concept of a representative democracy. It may be argued that an elected Government has the mandate of the electorate only to implement whatever was promised during election campaign and its written manifesto and has no mandate for major shifts in policies/programmes.
However, no legitimate Government can be restricted to such a narrow sphere as no one can predict what the future has in store necessitating policy changes, course corrections, emergency operations, and innovative approaches. That is the reason, that Governments are given a mandate for governance as long as they retain the confidence of Parliament. The majoritarian concept is central to the claim of mandate in representative democracy and for ensuring stability of Governments.
Mandates are for various reasons elusive. Voters in most cases are ignorant of national issues and policies of different parties and are inclined to vote on immediate local issues. Candidates also in many cases of regional parties in a federal system lack a policy on national issues making votes cast to them meaningless in Parliament election. Where principal contenders are State parties, mandate for national policy is irrelevant in the absence of pre-poll alliance with a national party. And mandates are being made weaker by purchase of votes going on a large scale in terms of cash and promises of freebies in the present Parliamentary elections. The one and only goal of parties/candidates is to win the electoral mandate.
Parties are indispensble for political education of the citizens, for articulation of their views and for providing a vehicle for participation in the democratic process. They have a legitimate, definite, and permanent role. The mandate given in an election is to the party/parties getting a majority of seats. The preeminence of parties is widely acknowledged that those with an ambition to come to power try to capture the leadership of the party first against their rivals. Securing the mandate within the party is the stepping stone to the climb upwards to the Government.
Such considerations lie at the root of parties growing as family fiefdoms. Exceptions in India are the BJP and Communist parties.
As an alternative to the First-Past-The-Post system under which electoral mandate may be obtained on minority votes, proportional representation (PR) is adopted in some countries. For some time, even in Britain there was clamour for switching over to PR and a campaign called “Make my vote count” was vigorously conducted as a positive means of reconnecting politics to the people.
PR, in the absence of national consensus on major policies and goals is unworkable and will destroy whatever democratic character survives in our system. Parties are now specialising in blocking work of their opponents and cannot do any team work. We have to educate the voters on electoral mandate —- a task parties have failed to perform. —— INFA