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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Assembly elections: Why anti-incumbency took a bigger toll on Congress

Along with anti-incumbency, a lack of political strategy and graft charges hurt the Congress party in Assam and Kerala

Ever since the 2014 general election, the theme running across all assembly elections has been anti-incumbency.

On Thursday, when the results of polls to four state legislatures and the Union territory of Puducherry were announced, the trend was bucked by two politically crucial states—Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

The results threw up a decisive mandate in all four states—two voted back incumbents while two picked the principal challengers.

Anti-incumbency, which finds expression in voters throwing out the ruling dispensation, is one of the many reasons behind all states ruled by the Congress, or with the party as part of the ruling alliance, that have gone to the polls since 2014—including Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir and, on Thursday, Kerala and Assam—seeing a change of government.

Analysts believe anti-incumbency is one of the key factors that influenced poll results on Thursday, but added that it acts in consonance with other electoral factors.

“Anti-incumbency is ‘a’ and not ‘the’ factor and is often coupled with other factors. For instance, in a basket of factors that leads to the defeat of a political party, one needs to see how dominant a factor anti-incumbency is. If there are other factors which are more important, a political party is said to have bucked anti-incumbency," said Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University, Bengaluru.

According to Shastri, factors like the 34-year-long “misrule" of the Left Front in West Bengal and a split in the anti-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) vote in Tamil Nadu helped the ruling parties buck anti-incumbency, whereas “lack of political strategy" and corruption charges were key factors in Assam and Kerala, which ended up enhancing the anti-incumbency factor.

In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress took over after 34 years of Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front rule. The latter was voted out over issues of misrule, poor law and order, corruption and unemployment.

According to analysts, people in the state were not keen on voting the Left back to power after just a five-year gap.

In Tamil Nadu, one of the key reasons for the AIADMK overcoming anti-incumbency was the fragmentation of the opposition votes between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress alliance, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK)-led alliance and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK).

In the two states where the Congress faced anti-incumbency, the reasons were different. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi had a three-term anti-incumbency to defend. Besides, it faced a new challenger in the Bharatiya Janata Party and was unable to tap into the aspirational class. In Kerala, the party lost out over a series of corruption charges against its leaders.

K.M. Sajad Ibrahim, associate professor in the political science department of the University of Kerala, believes that while West Bengal and Kerala did not make for a strong enough case of anti-incumbency, in Kerala corruption charges mixed with anti-incumbency hurt the Congress’s prospects. “In Kerala, the political culture is very different... The voters in Kerala question the steps taken by the government in power. Here, the government was facing serious charges of corruption," he said.

This election saw a host of local issues either enhance or negate anti-incumbency. This, analysts feel, will have to be borne in mind by those voted to power—they would do well to be mindful of their poll promises.

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