Analysis: Beating Anti-Incumbency, BJP Style

Analysis: Beating Anti-Incumbency, BJP Style

Ideologies do not contribute to anti-incumbency, given that the opportunistic behaviour of political parties across the board has resulted in ideological dilution

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Wednesday, March 13, 2024, 10:25 PM IST
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ML Khattar | File Photo

Replacing a chief minister ahead of polls is a strategic if risky move. The BJP’s bold decision to effect a change of guard in Haryana was not surprising; M L Khattar was close to the powers-that-be, but his winnability was in doubt. The BJP has raised beating anti-incumbency to a science, even as it leverages the incumbency advantage.

Anti-incumbency is an umbrella term. It covers the spectrum of interrelated factors that prompt voters to oust incumbent representatives, parties and governments. These range from blatant misgovernance and underperformance to poor expectation management and voter fatigue.

Voters are more likely to be upset with the proximate cause of dissatisfaction, ie, the elected representative. Some incumbents may blot their copybooks with unacceptable behaviour. Others may simply have underperformed. The BJP makes it a practice to replace MPs and MLAs whose voter outreach, both in person and through social media, is subpar.

The first list of Lok Sabha candidates saw 33 sitting MPs get the axe. Among them was New Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi, feisty party spokesperson and minister of state for External Affairs. Even in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP won the assembly elections spectacularly, there are five and seven new faces respectively.

The BJP also factors in more distal causes of voter disenchantment, such as CMs and ministers. In Uttarakhand, replacing an unpopular CM ahead of the 2022 assembly elections paid off. Public opinion changed with the change of CM, and the party returned to power, albeit with a reduced voteshare and seatshare.

While Khattar was not an underpeformer, his replacement is a better fit, electorally speaking. Nayab Singh Saini has the advantage of being an OBC, the numerically dominant community in Haryana. The powerful Jats are aligned largely with the Congress, and to win without their support, the BJP must cement the OBC vote.

The converse of anti-incumbency is the incumbency advantage. This refers to the incumbent’s access to state resources, familiarity with the electorate (‘better the devil you know’) and the ability to make promises and policy statements ahead of polls. Many voters are also prey to cognitive dissonance, ie, having voted for a candidate, they develop a preference for him/her.

In Madhya Pradesh in 2023, the BJP scripted a pro-incumbency wave. While the Congress barely lost 0.5 per cent of its voteshare, the BJP gained a spectacular 7.5 per cent. The Congress attempted to do the same in Rajasthan, but only managed to add only 0.2 per cent to its voteshare. The BJP, riding on a positive swing of 2.3 per cent, swept the incumbent aside.

In terms of political strategy, the BJP was the first to realise the importance of aggregating votes at the ground level. In absorbing or allying with small parties and independents, it received the benefit of their voteshare, without having to sacrifice the aspirations of its own cadre.

Not surprisingly, the rise of the BJP has coincided with the weakening of electoral anti-incumbency. The period from 1989 to 1999 is referred to as the ‘anti-incumbency phase’ in Indian politics, precisely because 77 per cent of governments lost elections. This trend began to weaken from 1999 onwards, and from 2003-2008, less than half the incumbent governments were thrown out. From 2009-13, 22 assembly elections were held and incumbents were relected in 14 of them.

Pro-incumbency voting behaviour owes to several factors. While access to resources is certainly an advantage, other determinants are more meaningful: a track record in terms of development and public policy, smart electoral strategies and credible leadership. The incumbent must not only shout, but have something to shout about.

Ideologies do not contribute to anti-incumbency, given that the opportunistic behaviour of political parties across the board has resulted in ideological dilution. Nor does the the bijli-sadak-pani (power, roads, water) formula contribute to re-election. Today’s electorates are concerned with overarching messages of development, improvement in the quality of life and ease of living, and progress of women. Internet availability, jobs for women and youth and a sense of participation in the India story are of greater moment to voters.

While India does not have the classic ‘political business cycle’ — the use of policy instruments to stimulate the economy ahead of elections — politicians do attempt to manipulate voter sentiment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, has been on a project inauguration spree.

Both incumbents and challengers offer freebies or ‘revdis’, but voters have become savvy. Promises have been broken too often to carry credibility. Voters are beginning to question the cost of the revdis and the capacity of the challenger to deliver. For instance, Karnataka deputy CM DK Shivkumar famously declared that there was no money for development after delivering on electoral promises!

Political scientist Radhika Kumar wrote in 2013, “In re-electing a party to power the electorate could be expressing one of the following: affirmation of its support for the government’s development agenda; a willingness to give the party in power another chance to improve its performance on various fronts or a promising political personality.”

In seeking a third consecutive term in power, the BJP is relying on this trifecta. It can tom-tom a track record of financial inclusion, welfare measures, economic growth and infrastructure development and promise to do even better in its third term, under the leadership of the inimitable Narendra Modi.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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