Home / Opinion / Views /  Pro-incumbency gets votes in Indian democracy

The re-election of Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and the “surprise" victory of the BJP in Uttarakhand, along with ruling parties doing unexpectedly well in Goa and Manipur compels us to conjure a mythical fable to describe reality. Let’s say there is a country that once was stricken by an infectious ailment every few years. Pundits were right to discuss and analyse this phenomenon. Then came a time when a few regions of the country stopped showing the same “once every few years" syndrome. Some scholars noticed this; but media pundits either ignored it or dismissed as a fluke. As time passed, more and more regions of the country started providing clear evidence that the “once every few years" phenomenon was waning. Media pundits kept discussing the old syndrome even as the data and statistics revealed the contrary to be the fact. Finally, a time came when even the most obdurate pundits were compelled to pay attention to this change.

That in brief is the story of the Indian voter, the fabled power of anti incumbency, the reality of pro incumbency and Indian elections in the 21 st century. The electoral story is no longer about anti incumbency sentiments deciding verdicts; it is about what is propelling the “pro incumbency" wave in the country. The longer we are stuck like a broken record on the word anti “anti incumbency", the more myopic and foolish we will appear in hindsight after results of assembly or Lok Sabha elections are announced. No doubt, India is still a country where “anti-incumbency" sentiments are very much around as a check and warning to non-performing leaders. But it is also a fact that voters are rewarding leaders with pro incumbency verdicts when they perceive he or she remains the preferred choice once the negatives and positives are weighed against each other.

Data Reveals All: Let’s look at the evidence first. Since the 1980s and 1990s were dominated by governments being thrown out, anti incumbency became the political trend or norm that needed to be analysed (Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party were the only exception to the “norm" back then by winning three successive mandates). But the first hint that the tide could be turning came from Delhi when Sheila Dixit won a comfortable second term by beating the “powerful" BJP, which in turn, had won Gujarat again in 2002 under chief minister Narendra Modi. That trickle was the first hint of the flood that would follow. In 2004, the Congress-NCP alliance won a second so successive term in Maharashtra, as did the Naveen Patnaik led BJD-BJP alliance in Odisha. In 2006, Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi won his second successive term as chief minister in Assam and the Marxists won a seventh, and last successive term in West Bengal, followed by Modi winning yet again in Gujarat in 2007. Against all odds, Sheila Dixit won a third consecutive term in Delhi while Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh of the BJP won second consecutive terms in Madhya Pradesh in 2008.

Then came one national and two state level pro-incumbency shockers. Even as Mayawati and myriad other leaders were dreaming of becoming the prime minister, the self effacing Manmohan Singh won a second, bigger mandate to rule India. The NCP-Congress alliance won a third consecutive term. In Andhra Pradesh, Y.S.R. Reddy dropped all old “allies" and still won a massive second consecutive mandate. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik performed a near miracle by dumping the BJP as an ally and still single-handedly winning a third consecutive term.

We could go on and on. But everyone can check the data from the Election Commission of India to confirm that the 21 st century is indeed one dominated by pro-incumbency. Even without Kerala and UP, pro-incumbency verdicts were becoming the norm in states that accounted for more than 300 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. The obvious question is: Why? At C Voter Research Foundation, we identified three major reasons behind the emergence and persistence of pro-incumbency as the predominant theme and flavour in 21 st century electoral politics (A small book analysing this phenomenon is being published soon). They are: the presidential style and personality cult-driven politics and elections that have developed firm roots; the cornucopia of welfare schemes that have often persuaded the voter (particularly women) to persist with the known devil, and the structural weaknesses of rival opposition parties in states where pro-incumbency is becoming the norm.

Rock Star Personalities: Even sceptics would reluctantly agree that the individual has become bigger than the party. Of course, Narendra Modi is the most telling example. In a cadre and ideology based party like the BJP, for one person to dominate the party like Indira Gandhi did the Congress was perhaps unimaginable a decade ago. The moment Modi succeeded in defining the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections as a gladiatorial contest between him and Rahul Gandhi, it was game, set and match for Modi and the BJP. Even the other die-hard cadre-based party CPM has succumbed to the personality cult. The last remaining state where they rule, Kerala is all about Pinnari Vijayan, forget Marxism and class struggle. If “cadre" based parties can become so dominated by individual personalities, what chance do the others have?

The interesting thing is that these pro-incumbency champions have unique personality cults of their own, often in glaring contrast to each other. Naveen Patnaik, who looks set to break Jyoti Basu’s record of being the longest serving chief minister of a major state by Diwali next year, is a man who once led the high life before joining politics, and rarely raises his suave voice even during election rallies.  In contrast, we have the feisty self-confessed street-fighter Mamata Banerjee, whose words for Modi are rarely polite. Chalk and cheese, but both successful. They all differ, but have a few things in common: they tower over their parties, are immensely popular and have that ‘connect’ with voters, can be decisive and ruthless when required (think of Arvind Kejriwal’s rivals in AAP), and are willing to take bold gambles.

The ‘Labharthi’ generation: In 2018, Telangana chief minister K. C. Rao pre-empted Modi by implementing a welfare scheme in which all land-owning farmers got 5,000 in direct cash transfers per acre per cropping season. So, if you were a farmer owning five acres and sowed twice a year, you would get 50,000 a year in your account; no questions asked. For a state with a per capita income of 1,50,000 a year and where small farmers rarely crossed 100,000 a year in income, 50,000 was like manna from heaven. No wonder Rao won a massive mandate for a second successive term. Nitish Kumar became famous the world over for giving free bicycles to girls attending school, along with free uniforms. Shivraj Singh Chauhan has the Laxmi Ladli scheme where a girl gets scholarships every year during school years and then gets a lump sump of 100,000 when she turns 21 provided she didn’t marry before turning 18. Arvind Kejriwal provides 200 units of electricity and 20,000 litres of water free to every household. All pro-incumbency champions have championed welfare schemes targeted at the poor, particularly at women.

Towering above them all is Narendra Modi with his panoply of welfare schemes that include Swachh Bharat toilets, Ujjwala gas connections, PM Awas Yojana pucca houses, Ayushman Bharat medical insurance for 500 million Indians, zero balance Jan Dhan bank accounts for 400 million Indians and free food/ration during the pandemic for 800 million Indians. The curious folks would always ask: why were politicians of the era gone by not using the obviously magical power of welfare schemes to keep winning elections? Were they callous or daft? Not at all. There simply was no money. Now there is. According to finance ministry and Reserve Bank of India data, revenue receipts of the Union budget have gone up from about 80,000 crores in 1991-92 to more than 22 trillion in the current year.

So near, yet so…: In 2017, it looked as if the BJP would lose Gujarat. It appeared confident and Modi looked visibly nervous. The Patel agitation and 22 years of accumulated “anti-incumbency" were working against the BJP. The Congress did give a fright, but couldn’t finish ahead at the last mile.

Political parties would do anything to get a 40% vote share in a state. And yet, the Congress failed to breach Gujarat despite getting that. It’s called structural weakness. While the Congress displays it nationally, the BJP is prone to it in pockets. Since 1993, the BJP has failed to win Delhi, losing thrice to Sheila Dixit and thrice to Arvind Kejriwal. For such a dominant political force to keep getting humiliated in Delhi is a shame; but there you have it. So a weak opposition does play a role in prolonging pro incumbency even when the incumbent is no longer very popular. That was the 2020 Bihar elections story. The NDA barely squeaked through with 125 seats, just two above the majority mark while the RJD led alliance was stuck at 110. The Congress lost 51 of the 70 seats allotted to it.

Let’s hope more analytical attention is devoted to examine the power of pro-incumbency. Otherwise, we will keep behaving like pundits who fail to see the obvious.

Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru are, respectively, founder editor and executive director of CVoter Research Foundation

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