RIGHT ANGLE – The Anti-Incumbency Factor

by Nov 20, 2022Blogs0 comments

In the upcoming elections to the state assembly in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been ruling the state for the last 27 years, has denied tickets to nearly 30 percent of its legislators to negate anti-incumbency and bring fresh blood in. But then this is the strategy that the party under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been adopting since 2014 in every poll bound state.

And it is said that this strategy has worked. After all, Uttar Pradesh defied history early this year in giving a fresh mandate to an incumbent government (under the leadership of Yogi Adityanath). So was the case with Uttarakhand that had gone to the polls along with Uttar Pradesh. Last year, the incumbent BJP government just managed to hold on to power in Haryana, though with reduced numbers and a coalition partner.

One may also argue that there was success in Maharashtra too in the last Assembly polls with a slight reduction in BJP’s number. That its ally Shiva Sena ditched it and joined the NCP and Congress to form the government and later a rebellion against Chief Minister Udhav Thakrey brought the majority of the Shiva Sena MLAs back to the side of the BJP to give the state another government is a different matter altogether.

But the same strategy of fighting anti-incumbency by denying tickets to the MLAs did not exactly work for the BJP in Assembly elections in 2018 in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In fact, these three states, which the BJP had held successfully for many years, were lost after Modi became the Prime Minister and his strategy of fighting anti incumbency was implemented there. Jharkhand, another BJP-held state, met the same fate.

Thus, denial of tickets to the sitting MLAs to fight anti-incumbency has a mixed record. And that is the reason why nobody can say with certainty the success of this strategy in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Reportedly, those who were denied tickets in these two states planned to contest as independents against the official party candidates. And they could undermine the party chances in many constituencies.

Elections in India have been won on the basis of a series of factors; the denial of tickets to sitting legislators and bringing in new faces is not necessarily the decisive one. For instance, when the Congress party dominated the political landscape till 1985, it was immaterial who the party candidates were individually in most of the cases. Unless a legislator was found corrupt or indulged in criminal or immoral activities to evoke public uproar, he or she was invariably preferred to retain the party ticket. Winning or losing depended mostly on the performance of the national leadership, that is, the central government.

In fact, a research study under the auspices of Harvard University by Karthik Muralidharan, which used electoral data from 1977 to 2005, found that that incumbent members of Parliament from national ruling parties and legislative assembly members from state ruling parties were less likely to when the central government was seen incompetent and unpopular than incumbents from the opposition when they come up for re-election.

This study also measured the “honeymoon period” effect, namely, the advantage that candidates from the state ruling party enjoy in national elections that are held early in the state government’s term and candidates from the national ruling party enjoy in state elections.

According to this study, India’s patronage-based democratic system and federal structure creates incentives for voters to favour the same party for national and state office and coordinate their votes. However, the honeymoon period was short-lived (particularly after the period of Congress-dominance) and the positive effect turned into a negative penalty within two years of a party’s term in office.

The main finding of the study was that “while the direct effects of ruling are always negative, the cross effects of ruling are mixed. Being from the national ruling party has a negative effect of 9 (nine) percentage points on an incumbent candidate’s probability of re-election in national elections. The direct cost of ruling in state elections is even higher; incumbents from state ruling parties are 14.5 percentage points less likely to win in state elections than incumbents from other parties.

“The cross effects of ruling – the effect of sharing a party label with the state ruling party in national elections and vice versa – switch from being positive in the first half of the ruling party’s term to being non-existent or negative in subsequent years. In other words, candidates from the state ruling party enjoy an electoral advantage in national elections that are held early in the state government’s term. However, this positive effect of incumbency fades as the state government’s term progresses and the next election rolls around. The cross – effects of national rule in state elections display a similar pattern, though the honeymoon period is shorter.”

What is to be noted here is that the above happened because the honeymoon periods of the central governments, particularly after 1990, proved to be shorter. But that is not the case at the moment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be the most popular leader of India. People, whether at the state or at central levels vote for him, not even the BJP. And that is why Modi was reported to have told a poll meeting in Himachal Pradesh last fortnight that people should not bother about the MLA candidates as their votes for the lotus (BJP election-symbol) is a vote for him. And if this is the case, the anti-incumbency factor for the sitting BJP legislators is not really a big factor as it is made out to be.

As it is, the situation in India is different from Western democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom. The western countries’ legislators are sometimes selected through competitive procedures, such as primary elections, that make their status independent of the leadership, and limit the leadership’s ability to sanction disloyalty. They can even cross vote on many issues by defying their party positions.

In the US Congress, incumbents are able to design for themselves an institution that provides incumbents with remarkable opportunities to build up a personal vote, including a large staff, loose party discipline, a committee system, and generous opportunities for position taking. They have also benefited from other features of the American political system, such as the decentralization of party organizations.

However, in India, all nomination decisions are made centrally, a process revealingly called the “distribution of tickets”. Besides, the legislators cannot defy the party directives during legislative purposes; otherwise they will lose their seats under the anti-defection laws. Unlike their American counterparts, Indian legislators have relatively little independent power. They are invariably caught between the demands of voters and the commands of a remote group of party leaders or party supreme. However much they may wish to follow their American peers and develop their personal popularity, they are frustrated by a political system that gives them relatively little influence or bargaining power.

In this sense, India incumbents are simply prominent casualties of the political centralization that is limited not only to the Congress under Gandhis and BJP under Modi but also regional parties like Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar under Yadavs, Trinamul Congress in West Bengal under Mamata, Biju Janata Dal in Odisha under Naveen Patnaik, Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana under K Chandrashekhar Rao or DMK in Tamil Nadu under Stalin.

In other words, it can be argued that a legislator’s performance is severely controlled by the party positions in India. Thus, if he or she fails to deliver public goods, thereby resulting in anti-incumbency, the fault is not necessarily his or her; it is that of the party or the central leader. And when this is the case, changing him or her by the central leadership and bringing new faces to face the electorate may not actually work, if the top leadership is unpopular.

However, when the top leadership has popular support, incumbency helps rather than harming. This explains why we see people voting for years a Naveen Patnaik in Odisha or a Mamata Benerjee in West Bengal or a Narendra Modi in Gujarat. And that is why in my considered view, when the question of BJP comes, anti-incumbency is immaterial as long as there is something called the Modi-factor.

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