Home » Politics » Indian Politics » Back to the Basics: The Game of Elections

Back to the Basics: The Game of Elections

The election is a game for the politicians. It is a competition for them which they have to win. But lets not get mistaken, it is a game for us too: We have to use our one vote to ensure the best possible outcome according to our perspective. This responsibility does not end at choosing who you want the winner to be and voting for him, but requires you to generate a ranking of the candidates in order of preference and calculate who your vote should go to backwards.

Those familiar with economics will recognize my attempt at explaining the basics of Game Theory. But to understand the need for this we must first understand how elections take place in India and what are the implications.

I am sure all of us are aware of the absolute basics: The country is divided into 543 constituencies which are suppose to be roughly equal in terms of their population. Each of these constituencies elects a representative. This representative need not even achieve a simple majority (i.e. 50%); as long as he has more votes than any other single candidate he will be given the seat in the Parliament. For example, if there are 3 people running from a constituency and the vote share is divided in the ratio 25%, 35% and 40%, the candidate with 40% will be declared the winner. This is called First-past-the-post voting (FPTP).

What does such a mechanism imply? It can result in skewed representation. For example in the 2012 UP state elections SP (Samajwadi Party) received 29.3% of vote share and were allocated 226 seats in the assembly out of 403, where as BSP (Bahujan Samay Party), who received 25.9% of the vote share were allocated only 80 seats. This happened because the SP won several seats against the BSP over a very small margin. Thus while BSP received considerable votes overall, they were thwarted in individual battles and thus annihilated in the war in the world of FPTP.

This may seem like an unfair mechanism, specially when compared to the proportional representation method. But that is a debate for another blog post. What I would like to discuss is what the voter should do.


Let us imagine that the people who voted for BJP would rather have BSP if their only other option was SP. Their strategy should be obvious: Instead of voting for BJP, who anyway did not have a chance of coming to power, they should have voted for their next best choice which was BSP. If we assume that in each constituencies the vote share was identical to the state level data, then with the transfer of BJPs 15% to BSP, the party would be propelled to number one status with almost 41% of the vote share. Thus the BJP supporters might not get their first choice, but at least they would not be stuck with their 3rd or 4th one.

This example is obviously simplified using several assumptions, but the principle remains the same. At the central election level this effect can be observed with Modi being portrayed as the PM candidate for BJP. While Congress’ abysmal performance has lost them support, voters who fear Modi more will fall back to Congress which is the only credible force to stop BJP. The same applies to people who fear another five-year reign of Congress: Recognizing this possibility they will leave their regional parties and flock to Modi (also discussed in Back to the Basics: Polarising Mr Modi).

The FPTP system often has the effect of bringing the war down to two parties. Understanding the system is important or your vote may actually count for nothing.



  1. anandkumarrs says:

    Good post. While on this – pls read my post – “Lest we forget !!” http://wp.me/p1dZc2-fY
    Feedback most welcome !


  2. Yuvamani says:

    Over long term FPTP leads to 2 parties is accepted political science wisdom. It also works, say in regional contests and has worked kinda in TN politics.

    However regional parties destroy this idiom again and again. Mr. Naveen Patnaik has been extremely succesful as an independent party and there are others too. People suggest that people will vote differently in national elections than state elections but this is also countered by the fact that regional party voteshare INCREASED in the 2009 elections.

    So I am not too sure that Congress vs BJP will be what the 2014 elections will be about. Its about BJP vs regional parties….


  3. Pkeday says:

    Hi Yuvamani, sorry for the late response.

    My opinion differs for the following reason: While in 2009 the regional parties vote share increased because firstly – not everyone believed UPA faired poorly. Secondly: Neither was Modi as big a name back then nor was he presented as the PM candidate.

    Now Congress’ failure is clear and fully recognized. So is the success of Modi. This has created a strong support for Modi that you do not deny. But as my earlier post discusses, Modi has a polarizing effect: People either love him or hate him. The ones that hate him will recognize the threat of him coming to power and will flock to Congress – the only real threat to Modi. I do believe this is how the preferences will turn out if Modi remains the PM candidate of the BJP.


  4. Chaturvedi says:

    The premise of the post however noble stands hollow when you consider the (lack of) rationality the Indian voter displays. A lot of times voters, especially in rural parts, vote based on emotions and past memories, and hardly ever based on reason. Fact that political parties still have past Prime Minister’s photos on their election banners and posters attests to this. Hence, your argument that majority voters consider reasons such as track record, governance to be important might be far fetched.

    Having said that, I do believe this election will be a polarized mandate (voteshare wise), but due to BJPs insignificance in many states, regional parties will play a decisive role. It might all change if Modi takes out a pan-India campaign which cannot be discarded at the moment. Good post.


    • Pkeday says:

      Thank you Aashish 🙂 . In response to your comments:

      The premise of this article is that elections are a game which I cannot agree is hollow. The article is not assuming, but asking people to recognize this truth and reconsider their strategy.

      I also do not agree with your premise that voters are irrational. I believe we just do not understand their rationality.


  5. Chaturvedi says:

    After going back and reading it, I see your point. Modi’s campaign should be interesting to watch.


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