The 1951-1966 period saw the strongest pro-incumbency trend, with most governments getting re-elected. The 1999-2003 phase saw the strongest anti-incumbency phase, with most state governments getting voted out. In most other periods, voters have accepted and rejected ruling parties in equal measure
When all explanations fail in deciphering an election verdict, one evergreen answer always comes to the aid: anti-incumbency. Had the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government lost power in Bihar, the dominant narrative would have been one of anti-incumbency. Parties themselves blame anti-incumbency as an explanation once they are voted out, as if Indian voters are habituated to voting against ruling parties.
An analysis of electoral data since independence suggests that anti-incumbency is nothing more than a loser’s lament. Voters have rejected and endorsed ruling parties in almost equal measure at the national level, the data shows. At the regional level, there are some states where incumbents have a long history of losing. But equally, there are many others where incumbents have repeatedly won elections over decades. Moreover, these trends are not immutable. Parties ruling for a long time have got the boot even as voters have rewarded incumbents in states where re-election rates have been historically low.
Another common perception that higher turnout signals discontent with the ruling party and leads to electoral reversals is also not supported by data. Across the seventeen Lok Sabha elections held since 1952, governments have won and lost power, regardless of changes in turnout.
This is largely true at the state level as well. State governments have won back power in elections with higher turnouts and lost elections with lower turnouts throughout the history of Indian democracy.
Overall, the 1951-1966 period saw the strongest pro-incumbency trend, with most governments getting re-elected. The 1999-2003 phase saw the strongest anti-incumbency phase, with most state governments getting voted out. In most other periods, voters have accepted and rejected ruling parties in equal measure.
As with any large country, there are wide regional differences in patterns of re-election. In states such as Kerala and Rajasthan, anti-incumbency indeed seems to be the norm. Since 1993, no government in Rajasthan has been re-elected. In Kerala, no government has been re-elected since 1977, with the state switching between the United Democratic front (UDF) alliance and Left Democratic Front (LDF) each time.
It is worth noting that the governments have changed after every assembly election in Kerala irrespective of whether turnout increased or declined. In Rajasthan in contrast, increased turnout typically coincides with a change in government. The exception was in 2018, when the incumbent lost despite the turnout being similar to that in 2013.
There are other states where governments have typically lasted only one term but have now broken that pattern. Punjab, for instance, where voters routinely rejected ruling parties in every election since 1977. The state bucked the trend in 2012, with the incumbent Akali Dal-BJP government winning a second term.
At the same time, there are states where incumbents kept coming back to power for decades before they were finally shown the door. In Sikkim, it took 25 years before the government changed. In Tripura, it took 35 years before the government changed. In another Left-ruled state, West Bengal, the communists enjoyed power for more than three decades before the Trinamool Congress defeated the Left Front in 2011.
At the moment, Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, remains the only major state where a party continues to be in power for more than 25 years at a stretch.
Many other states of the country do not fit any of the patterns described above and have seen parties getting re-elected for a few terms before they lost power. In states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Assam, the ruling party won three assembly elections in a row before losing power.
In all of these states, electoral upsets and victories do not show any link with change in voter turnout. Electoral verdicts seem to be shaped by changes in alliances and social coalitions from one election to the next, the performance of the government, and the mobilization by opposition parties. It is true that governments have on occasions lost power despite reasonably good performance but it would be incorrect to generalize such a trend and impose a law of anti-incumbency on Indian elections.
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