Decoding TN’s coalition politics: Why Dravidian behemoths bank on smaller parties

Most alliance negotiations with smaller parties depend not on the aggregate vote share, but are rather based on the pockets of influence of these parties and their ability to garner votes that increases the victory margin of the big Dravidian party

Tamil Nadu, Elections, Rajya Sabha, Upper House, Lower House, Lok Sabha elections, AIADMK, DMK
The recent tie-up of the ruling AIADMK with the PMK is a classic example of Cube’s law. By roping in PMK, AIADMK aims to cover 53 constituencies – where PMK in 2016 had got more votes than the difference in the winning margin – with a greater victory margin and challenge in 30 constituencies where the DMK won with a margin much lower than that of the PMK votes. Photo: PTI

Tamil Nadu is the only state in India that has seen coalition politics in assembly elections since 1967 without a break. Every five years, the state goes to polls with either the AIADMK or the DMK, the two principal regional behemoths, at pole position followed by a long tail of smaller parties. It is therefore natural that before every election, the state comes alive with coalition politics where various permutations and combinations are discussed ad nauseam by the electorate.

It is a known fact that the Dravidian party that manages to strike the best deal with smaller parties ultimately wins the elections. But why an alliance is required at all when the two larger parties — AIADMK and DMK — have massive support base and enjoy large vote shares is a million-dollar question. Can they not win an election on their own? Well, this is a fascinating tale of the tail wagging the dog – or in other words, smaller parties have more power in a coalition than we think.

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But before that we need to understand two principal terms — vote share and contested vote share.

Vote Share is the votes a party secures as a percentage of the total number of votes polled in a particular seat or constituency. For example, if in Tamil Nadu, one crore voters poll across 234 assembly seats, a party or alliance that gets 25 lakh votes will have a vote-share of 25 per cent.

Contested Vote Share in last 4 elections- Smaller regional parties tend to have high contested vote share

The contested vote share is calculated differently. For example, if a party contests only 117 seats and the total number of votes polled is 25 lakhs, then the contested vote share would be 50 per cent. Contested vote-share as a metric gives a better picture of the performance of smaller parties, as they have their support bases restricted or concentrated in specific regions or geographies.

Strike rate is another method to evaluate the value of a particular political party that wishes to join an alliance. In simple terms, it is the ratio of the number of seats won to the number of seats contested by a party in an election and is expressed as a percentage.

The myth of the third front

The calculations would show that the ‘Third Front’ is only a bogey in Tamil Nadu because historically speaking the ‘next best alternative’ or the third-largest party in Tamil Nadu never has had much of a choice. If a smaller party wished to be recognised in the assembly, it must have a minimum vote share and for that, it must align with either of the ‘Kazhagams’.

The alliance impact factor

Many naive observers may wonder how smaller parties with very low vote shares mange to drive a hard bargain with their bigger partners when they sit down for seat-sharing talks. After all, one may think single-digit or fractional percentage vote shares are not exactly going to help a smaller party to scale. Besides, smaller alliance partners are given no guarantee that they could be part of the government after a victory.

But there have been instances in the past when a smaller partner has benefitted from being part of the winning dispensation. In 2011, DMDK, a party floated by actor Vijayakanth contested 41 seats in alliance with AIADMK and won 29 seats. Interestingly DMDK won more seats than the principal opposition party, DMK. As a result of this, they were recognised as the principal opposition and Vijayakanth was elected as the Leader of the Opposition.

The 234-member Tamil Nadu assembly saw a close contest in the 2016 elections where 136 seats were won by the AIADMK as against 98 by the DMK with their respective vote shares at 40.8 per cent and 39.8 per cent respectively. In other words, a mere 1 per cent difference in vote share resulted in 38 seats more to the AIADMK. This is a peculiarity of the first, past the post system of elections.

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This in psephology is referred to as the Cube’s law, which applies to elections in Anglo-Saxon democracies. It says that the ratio of assembly seats of two major parties is approximately the cube of the ratio of votes. Both in theory and in practice, the cube rule is only applicable in a two-party system. Until the development of the Cube Rule, the number of seats won by political parties in elections had largely been a mystery, particularly when examined with the number of electoral votes gained. In a multi-party democracy, operating under the first-past-the-post system, the cube law invariably fails. Tamil Nadu, however, seems to be a textbook example of the Cube Rule. In other words, the winner gets many extra seats (“winner takes all”).

PMK’s ‘winning’ model

The answer to the Tamil Nadu alliance conundrum lies in the ability of the smaller parties to dent into the vote share of the majors. If we take the example of the PMK in 2016, when the party stood independently and was not part of any alliance, it polled a total of 23 lakh votes, accounting for 5.36 per cent of the vote share. The PMK has a track record of constantly changing sides and is considered as a preferred alliance partner. This is because the side they switch ended up being the ‘x’ factor in the past. In the 2016 elections, in 83 constituencies, the difference between the major parties (DMK and AIADMK) was lesser than the votes that PMK obtained. This means that assuming that the vote transfer to the alliance is reasonably good, PMK could swing the results.

We have seen the real-world application of Cube law in the Tamil Nadu assembly and the major reason has been these switches in the alliances, thereby mimicking a two-party system form of elections. Of the 83 constituencies in which the PMK got more votes than the difference in the winning margin (between DMK and AIADMK) 53 constituencies were won by AIADMK alliance and 30 by the DMK.

Therefore by roping in PMK as a part of the alliance for 2021, AIADMK hopes to cover these 53 constituencies with a greater victory margin as well as offer a challenge in 30 constituencies where the DMK won with a margin much lower than that of the PMK votes. Therefore the “price” for this was the allotment of 25 seats and conceding to the demand of an internal reservation of 10.5 per cent for Vanniyars, the caste that forms the party. The trade-off is that in case if these 25 seats are not offered to the PMK, the AIADMK stands to lose 53 seats to the DMK. In fact, most alliance negotiations with smaller parties depend not on the aggregate vote share but are rather based on the pockets of influence of these parties and their ability to garner votes that increases the victory margin of the big brother Dravidian party in the alliance.

For smaller parties, it is an existential problem. They need to ally with bigger parties to get the status of a recognized state or national party as per the criteria listed in ‘The Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968’. This order is amended from time to time. According to this, a political party shall be eligible for recognition as a state party in a state, if, and only if, any of the following conditions is fulfilled:

• Secure at least 6 per cent of the valid vote and win at least two seats in an Assembly General Election

• Secure at least 6 per cent of the valid vote and win at least one seat in a Lok Sabha General Election

• Win at least 3 per cent of the seats or at least 3 seats, whichever is more, in an Assembly General Election

• Win at least 1 out of every 25 seats from a state in a Lok Sabha General Election

• Secure at least 8 per cent of the total valid vote in an Assembly or a Lok Sabha General Election

(The third part of this series will discuss other smaller parties and their pockets of dominance as well as the “third front factor”. Read the first part here)

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