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Home / Opinion / Views /  A poll win needn’t mean approval of a government’s performance

The winning of an election by the incumbent government is often seen as an endorsement of the work done by it. Any unease among people over various issues of governance tends to go unnoticed when a government gets re-elected. In the past, too, governments have got re-elected when they performed well and have been thrown out of power when they did badly. Government performance on economic issues has been critical to getting re-elected or defeated. But assembly elections conducted earlier this year in five Indian states indicate different patterns. Despite people’s critical views on price rise and unemployment, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments retained power in all the four states under its rule. These verdicts point to a new trend in Indian electoral politics: poll victory should not always be interpreted as an endorsement of the work done by the incumbent administration.

An electoral conundrum
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An electoral conundrum

Of the five states that went to polls, while the BJP kept its government in four, the Congress party lost power in Punjab to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Though the BJP’s tally of assembly seats went down in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand and rose slightly in Goa and Manipur, India’s ruling party registered a convincing victory overall. The BJP (and its allies) won 47 of 70 seats in Uttarakhand and 273 of the 403 assembly seats in UP.

Though the BJP’s count of seats decreased in UP, its increased vote share in 2022 compared to 2017 is an indication of a party support base enlarged over the previous fives. The BJP’s vote share also increased in Manipur, but declined marginally in Uttarakhand and Goa from previous assembly elections in these smaller states. The BJP polled 43.8% of all valid votes in UP and 44.3% in Uttarakhand. In Manipur, it polled 37.8%, while in Goa’s multi-cornered contest, it polled 33.3% of the total valid votes cast in the polls held this year.

However, the results may not reveal much about perceptions of an incumbent government’s performance. Findings from a post-poll survey conducted by pollster Lokniti jointly with Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) show enormous unease among people about rising unemployment. Jobs are hard to find. The survey’s findings indicate that in all five states where polls were held recently, there is a popular view that people are facing a problem of unemployment and job scarcity. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that the unemployment rate in India remained at about 5.5% for a long period of time (1991-2019), but joblessness increased during the past couple of years. Latest CMIE readings indicate that India’s employment rate on 17 May 2022 was around 7.3% on a 30-day moving average basis. So the data collected by the Lokniti-CSDS survey endorses what is commonsensically understood about a job problem in India. As the survey’s findings indicate, in all five states, a huge majority (more than 80%) say they believe unemployment increased, while very few disagree with this (the table above has data on four states).

The survey’s results also put a seal on the pinch that people have been facing on account of high retail inflation. Today, it is widely known that the prices of essential commodities are on the rise, especially those of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and various food items, which are seen to be reaching sky-high levels. A recent report showed rising wheat prices across the country. Atta, or coarsely ground wheat, which used to sell at 15 per kg in 2010, had risen to 33 per kg in April 2022. The survey was done before India’s official Consumer Price Index (CPI) showed an April upshoot in retail price levels, but price escalation was a problem far earlier. As picked up by the Lokniti-CSDS survey, more than 80% of people feel the pinch of price rise and agree that prices have increased during last five years, while only a small proportion of respondents disagreed (as seen in the table).

Earlier, people’s opinions on the performance of governments, especially on issues of day-to-day concern such as price rise and unemployment, used to have an observably direct impact on their political choices. Almost invariably, the incumbent party would lose elections after its government got such negative ratings on economic issues, but that trend no longer holds true. People have re-elected the ruling party despite their inflation woes.

The 2022 round of state elections was the first to be held in the backdrop of more than a year-long farmer protest against three farm laws passed by the Centre. There is enough evidence to suggest that farmers have been critical of not only these laws (withdrawn before the polls), but especially of the way the Centre tried to deal with farmers during the agitation. Survey findings show that not only farmers, people across various sectors of employment see the condition of farmers as having deteriorated over five years. This opinion is shared in large numbers in UP, where 42% say they believe the situation of farmers has deteriorated, while 24% hold a contrary view. Goa is not much of a farming state, so it shows less concern, but large numbers in Uttarakhand and Punjab share the view that farmers have seen conditions worsen.

The BJP got re-elected in four states, but the opinions of people on the performance of its four state governments, especially on three issues—price rise, unemployment and the condition of farmers— have been largely negative. It forces us to think deeper: Is re-election of an incumbent party necessarily an endorsement of the work done by its government? The evidence suggests not.

These are the author’s personal views.

Sanjay Kumar is a political analyst and professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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