When I moved from India to the US around a year ago, it took me a while to get used to a lot of things: the accent, the social customs, daylight saving, and the shopping. In this process of acclimatisation, the difference in politics, and particularly electoral politics became visible to me only last month, at the time of the US Presidential elections. India and the US are among the biggest democracies of the world and have been run by their respective constitutions for a long time (centuries for the US and decades for India). And yet, the two countries follow the exact opposite form of governments: India is a parliamentary democracy where the legislature is linked with the executive, while the US is a presidential democracy with the legislature and executive being fairly independent of each other. I have tried to describe here what I learnt while trying to understand these differences.
Let us start with the basics. The United States, as the name suggests, is a federation of many states (currently fifty) and significant power is shared between the states and the federal government. This contrasts with the political structure of India that is best described as a quasi-federation. The central (or union) government holds more power than the state governments and even has the right to overthrow state governments if the need be. Further, the President of the United States is the head of the state, both in name and function, while in India, the President is only the nominal head of state and the Prime Minister controls most of the executive power. However, the biggest difference between the two heads of state is that while the voting populace of the United States directly votes for the Presidential candidates, the voters of India only vote for their representative to the Parliament, who then vote for the Prime Minister. This combined with the fact that India is a multi-party system (unlike the US where two parties dominate) makes the election of the Indian Prime Minister a lot more complex than the American counterpart.
I’ll first describe the American voting system since that has fewer cogs at play. Even though the American voters vote directly for the presidential candidate, the one who gets the most votes does not simply become the President-elect. Instead, each state has representatives that vote for the presidential candidate based on what the majority of the people in their state voted. This process creates two non-linearities in the way the outcome is decided. First, the number of representatives each state gets, or the weight of each state in the outcome, is only roughly proportional to the population of the state. In practice, this means that people in states with very small populations get more weight in the decision in comparison to people in more populous states. Further, most states follow a winner-takes-all system i.e. all the 55 votes of the state of California would go to the candidate that leads there irrespective of how the votes are split. This mathematical non-linearity means that a candidate with fewer votes might win the election if their voters are strategically placed. Good examples are furnished by the presidential elections of 2016 and 2000, where Hillary Clinton and Al Gore indeed got more votes than Donald Trump and George W Bush respectively but lost the election. This is however rare and has happened only five times in the history of the United States of America.
Now, a lot of constituencies have more than two candidates contesting for the seat that creates a situation where you might not want to vote for the candidate you prefer the most. Consider for instance three candidates A, B and C where B and C have very similar ideologies which are in sharp contrast to A. Now if A gets 40% of the votes and B and C get 30% each, A wins despite their policies being supported only by a strict minority. To avoid such an outcome, the supporters of B and C might try to pool their votes in favour of one candidate of the two. This way, they are not voting so much for the candidate they like but voting against the one they dislike. In such a situation, the prediction about the election outcome, like an opinion poll, might impact the election outcome. Someone tied between voting for B or C would choose the one more likely to win according to the prediction, hence making the prediction a self-fulfilling prophecy. While multiple candidates make for a better representation of a diverse set of interests instead of the left-right binary, it makes the voting process a more complex game. An interesting case is of AAP MP candidate Atishi asking voters to vote for the most popular non-BJP candidate in their constituency irrespective of their criminal records.
To put things in perspective, in the 2009 Union elections in India, the single largest party, Congress only had 206 seats out 544 and 28% of all Indian votes while the next largest party, the BJP, got 116 seats and 19% of all votes. Dr Manmohan Singh from Congress was elected Prime Minister with external support from the left and regional parties, but isn't hard to imagine a BJP candidate being elected Prime Minister if the same other parties were to join hands with the BJP. In 2004, Congress got even fewer seats (145) with a vote share of 27% and until some time after the election, it would have been hard to guess who the Prime Minister would be.
Both forms of democratic governments have stood the test of time and come with their share of pros and cons. In the US, the 2020 elections saw a 1.2% vote share for the Libertarian Party represented by Jo Jorgensen which had policy proposals significantly different from the two major parties. In 2016, the two major Presidential candidates together got only 96% of all the votes, hinting that there is a small but significant number of US voters who do not align with either of the two parties. Contrary to this, the multi-party system in India allows for the representation of a diverse political spectrum, especially regional political interests.
On the flip side, MP elections in India are increasingly being fought over the Prime Ministerial candidate and less so over the MP's policies for their constituency. The increased frequency of toppled state governments after MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly, similar to MPs but at the state level) could also be avoided in a presidential system. In general, both systems try to share power across institutions with checks and balances in place. Like most systems with real humans involved, it is hard to design an infallible one.