OPN Meghalaya
Supporters of National People's Party (NPP) celebrate Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma's victory in State assembly elections in South Tura constituency on Thursday. Image Credit: ANI

Results of three state assembly elections in India’s northeast came out yesterday. In Nagaland and Meghalaya, no party had a clear majority by itself.

Yes, pre- and post-poll alliances will produce stable governments. Yet it is worth asking why small states often have so many parties, and rarely deliver a single party majority. The smaller the state, the more fractious it seems to be. Even though the three states that saw results yesterday may get stable governments, small states also often have great political instability.

Tripura’s 60 seats are divided between 5 parties. Meghalaya’s 60 seats are divided between 8 parties and 2 independents. Nagaland’s 60 seats are divided between 7 parties and 4 independents.

This is not unique to the northeast. Elections in Goa and Kerala look similar. In Kerala one alliance or the other may win the election, but after decades of ruling the state neither the CPM nor the Congress is in a position to win Kerala without a pre-poll alliance with small parties.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate Tripura Chief Minister and party candidate from Bordowali Town Manik Saha's victory in the state assembly elections, outside party election office, in Agartala on Thursday. Image Credit: ANI

Small parties exist in the large states of the Hindi heartland as well, and yet, big parties often win clear majorities. At best, the coalitions are of 2-3 parties, such as in Bihar and Maharashtra.

Why are small states so fractious, why does their politics often seem more complicated? Uttar Pradesh’s 150 million voters have been delivering clear majorities, with the a brief interlude of the coalition era between 1989 and 2002.

Yet, Nagaland’s 1.3 million voters can’t give any one party a majority. The last time Meghalaya had a clear majority for one party was in 1972. In Goa, only once has a party reached the majority mark of 21 seats. In 2022, the BJP fell one short, stopping at 20, and this too was a rare feat.

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Doing the math: Electors per seat

One clue to the answer is that you’ll find the candidates to be far more important in these small states than in big states. In UP, ask someone on the street the name of their MLA and chances are that they might not know.

In small states, people care a lot about their MLA. The smaller the state, the more they seem to care about whether they like the candidate or not. For this reason, party and ideology matter less in small states than in big ones.

But again, why might this be the case?

The answer lies in the number of voters per seat. In Nagaland, the average number of voters per seat is less than 22,000. In Meghalaya it is 36,000. In Tripura it is around 27,000. In Uttar Pradesh it is 3,75,000.

How is an MLA expected to keep in touch with 3,75,000 voters? And that’s just the average. In some seats it may be much more. How is an MLA expected to remember the names and faces of so many voters?

Voters expect their MLA to attend their children’s birthday. How is it possible for one person to go around worrying about the issues, concerns and complaints of so many people?

As the number of seats have remained frozen and the population has grown, the MLA has become less and less important in large states.

The chief minister has thus grown in importance. Technology and mass media have further helped with centralisation of power. People think the MLA does nothing.

When I go around travelling during Indian elections, I often hear people complain they never saw their MLA. Not once in 5 years.

From Goa to Meghalaya, from Uttarakhand to Pondicherry, small states see much greater engagement between voters and their direct representatives in the state assemblies. The exceptions only prove the rule.

Today Uttarakhand may seem to have stable BJP majority two elections in a row, but until recently the state used to see a lot of independents and small parties win seats.

In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP had a lot going for it until a few months ago. There was the Modi factor and a divided, dispirited, underfunded Congress. But the MLA factor is so important that rebellion over ticket distribution in the BJP cost them the election in December 2022.

Similar rebellion by those who are denied election tickets is unable to dent the BJP in large states like UP and Gujarat.

Delhi is also a small state with just 80 assembly seats. But Delhi is a densely populated urban centre with around 15 million voters. That’s around 1,83,000 voters per seat.

Tripura Polls: BJP won 32 of 60 Assembly seats in Tripura

A big country needs more lawmakers

This is true of national elections as well. A member of parliament in the Lok Sabha now represents, on average, 1.6 million voters. No wonder national elections also centre entirely around the party and top leader.

This is unhealthy. In a democracy — or in any form of government — citizens need political access to government not just to get things done but also to make their political views heard in the corridors of power.

In UK, writing a letter to your MP is a big thing. It matters. The MP is meant to represent his constituency’s views and concerns in Parliament on everything from the state of roads to wars between other countries. How is an Indian lawmaker at the national or state level supposed to do that when she represents such vast numbers of voters?

When the MLA becomes more important than party/ideology/leader, it deepens the roots of democracy. People have a greater say in lawmaking and in political affairs. The lesson from India’s small states is that the larger states — and indeed the national parliament — need more seats to keep up with the rise in population.