One phenomenon that is often discussed at the time of Indian elections is the “anti-incumbency factor”, which refers to the disadvantage faced by a ruling party or an elected representative while seeking re-election.
Indian elections have hitherto exhibited a strong anti-incumbency trend resulting in the defeat of many ruling governments and elected representatives, as they fail to perform to people’s expectations. So over the years, it has become fashionable for ruling parties to blame their defeats on the anti-incumbency factor as if to suggest they have been voted out for no fault of theirs.
I have been watching and analysing elections for the past two decades. Interestingly, these days, I am observing a remarkable change in the manner in which ruling parties and chief ministers are adopting diverse approaches to try and beat the anti-incumbency effect. I cite a few cases here:
The re-election of the Narendra Modi-led government in Gujarat last December is one such example. Unlike the high voltage 2002 assembly election that happened in the shadow of communal riots, the December 2007 election was a normal election in which the state’s electorate gave a thumbs up to five years of Modi’s rule. This was by no means a populist government — it was one that went about strictly implementing power sector reforms in the state and even handcuffed a number of farmers who pilfered electricity or defaulted on payments. Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was voted back to power as the electorate reckoned that Modi and his team had governed the state well.
That presents a stark contrast to the approach followed by the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Congress government in Andhra Pradesh, which is scheduled to go for re-election.
YSR, as the chief minister is popularly known, heads a government that is popular for implementing development programmes such as irrigation projects, populist schemes such as one that involves distributing cheap rice and another that promises a free health care programme for the poor in corporate hospitals. You name a section of the electorate, and it has some thing going for it under the YSR administration. Thanks to the popularity of the YSR government, hugely popular film star Chiranjeevi’s fledgling Praja Rajyam Party and the main opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP) are finding the going tough in the state.
In Bihar, however, the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal United (JD-U)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government seems to have taken a leaf out of Modi’s book. Under Nitish Kumar, the administration in the state has vastly improved and the coalition is doing politically well, making a comeback difficult for the Lalu Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Pro-incumbency at play
Thanks to smart governance with the help of a number of popular schemes targeted at the poor and women, the poll-bound BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are also exhibiting a strong pro-incumbency sentiment. In all the three states, there is appreciation from the electorate about the performance of the state governments.
In my assessment, chief ministers of states are much more popular today with their electorates than they were a few years ago for a variety of reasons. Narendra Modi is known for strong leadership and good governance and YSR, for pro-farmer and pro-poor governance. Nitish Kumar is popular as he is considered to be an able administrator, while Naveen Patnaik is known for his personal integrity. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan is perceived as a people’s chief minister whom people admire for his simplicity and development agenda.
Corruption a non-issue
The BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and the Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh haven’t fared well in terms of their ability to root out corruption. Yet, I do not see corruption emerging as a key issue in polls in these states as people seem to condone corruption when it is combined with performance.
Still, while the ruling parties seem to be learning to manage the incumbency effect in their favour, the same cannot be said of the members of legislature (MLAs) of the ruling parties. Without any exception whatsoever, there is a growing trend of a strong anti-incumbency effect against MLAs of ruling parties in all states in the country.
This strong wave of discontent against MLAs has the potential to neutralize the advantages of pro-incumbency enjoyed by ruling establishments.
In the short term, the success of ruling parties will depend on how they manage to neutralize this local incumbency against MLAs by weeding out the non-performing lawmakers. Delimitation of constituencies has also come to the rescue of ruling parties as nearly a fifth of the constituencies are either new or have changed their reservation status.
In the long term though, parties have to evolve a code of conduct to ensure that their MLAs follow best practices and maintain contact with their constituents to earn their appreciation.
Also Read G.V.L Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com