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Can BJP replace Congress as apparent beneficiary of simultaneous elections?

Do incumbents gain when simultaneous elections are held? This is a question bothering political parties, psephologists and political pundits ever since the mooting of the idea of simultaneous polls for both the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies. 

A quick analysis of 35 simultaneous Assembly polls held during eight general elections between 1989 and 2014 provides no clear trend. Incumbents do not necessarily hold an advantage. On the contrary, not being an incumbent might be an advantage.

The analysis looked at the results of Assembly polls held at around the same time the general elections were held. The purpose of the analysis was to see if the ruling party at the Centre gained or lost in the Assembly polls held during the eight general elections since 1989. It, however, is qualified that the analysis relies mainly on the percentage of votes polled, without taking into account the prevailing electoral or political factors in play. 

The Congress or alliances led by it were the incumbent group in four of the eight general elections held between 1989 and 2014. There were simultaneous Assembly elections in 21states in those four instances. But it won eight, or less than half of those Assembly elections held. Regional parties won as many as 11 state Assembly elections during this period and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won just two state Assembly polls. 

The BJP is yet to benefit from simultaneous polls if the data for the last eight general elections are anything to go by. It was an incumbent party at the Centre in two general elections in this period – in 1999 and 2004. It drew a blank even as six simultaneous Assembly polls were held along with the general elections; two of these went to regional parties and four to the Congress. 

Regional parties were at the helm wielding power at the Centre before two general elections – in 1991 and 1998. Eight state Assembly elections were held along with these two general elections. And regional parties won only three states. The Congress’ performance was equal, with three states won, and the BJP had to rest content with only two wins. 

In the aggregate, of the 35 state Assembly elections held in this period, regional parties had the largest share, with 16 wins, followed by the Congress, which won 15 states, and the BJP, which won only 4 states. But it is important to note that most of the Congress wins in Assembly polls were earned when it was not an incumbent at the Centre. Similarly, regional parties won most of their Assembly elections when they were not part of the ruling coalition at the Centre. And all the four BJP wins in state Assemblies came when it was not an incumbent at the Centre.


Why this analysis?

Since Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister in 2014, he and BJP President Amit Shah have given immense importance to multiply the party’s political footprint in Indian states. BJP ruled eight states in 2014 on its own or in alliance; that number has gone up to 19 today. 

The political debate in the past two years has often revolved around the prospect of holding parliamentary and Assembly polls together, owing to the government’s efforts to prompt the issue through various reports, including a parliamentary committee report in 2015, a discussion paper by the NITI Aayog in 2016-17 and and a note by the Law Commission in 2018. 

The argument pushed forward is that this would save costs and allow the elected governments to focus on governance rather than electioneering. 

Though all the reports under this government delve extensively on how the schedule of state elections need to be attuned to the general elections cycle, they shed little light on the potential change in voter behaviour, and thus political outcomes, under simultaneous elections to date. 

A closer look

The Business Standard analysis of 35 Assembly elections held simultaneously with seven Parliament polls in 25 years showed that the Congress and regional political parties shared the benefits, if any, of simultaneous polls. 

The BJP managed to win only four of those, in addition to a coalition in Odisha and forming government later in the term in a hung Assembly in Karnataka once. 

However, the time trend of these elections also shows that the Congress’ winning streak has been cut short, and regional parties have improved their performance, while the BJP might have entered a phase of political boom since 2014, as it did in the 1990s. 

An indicator derived from the vote shares also points in a similar direction. The numerical difference between parliamentary and Assembly vote share (vote share in parliamentary election minus the vote share in Assembly election) in the simultaneously held elections is higher for the BJP in recent times, while it is in the negative territory for the Congress. 

In initial years under consideration, the Congress used to have a definite edge in parliamentary elections over Assembly elections in a particular state where elections were held at the same time.

It suggests – and supports the hypotheses of political scientists – that BJP’s dominance continues to strongly emanate from the national level, and the Congress’s dominance, characterised by a grassroots network of local leaders, has weakened to the extent that the national performance has deteriorated. 

Going a step deeper, there is no clear trend that explains the gap in vote share of the leading and the runner-up political party in a simultaneous election. In some states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the difference, or edge, in vote share among the two leading parties is small, and it could be a result of a strong competition between rival parties. 

Coming back to the leading national parties, it is interesting to observe two instances in this regard. The BJP faced the Maharashtra Assembly election when it was facing 1999 general elections as an incumbent, yet it lost to the coalition of Congress and Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party. 

Similarly, despite facing another big state election of Karnataka in 2004 as an incumbent at the Centre, it again couldn’t secure the tag of the single largest party and formed government only in the last year of the term, owing to a hung Assembly. 

Even in 2014, the simultaneous Assembly election the BJP won was Arunachal Pradesh, which has a limited impact on national politics. Even with these inconsistencies, regional parties strongly so, and the BJP weakly so, have replaced the Congress as the the leading beneficiary of simultaneous elections. 

However, another factor has changed significantly since the 1990s. Back in the 90s, the Centre used to spend more on the public than the states put together. The economy was highly centralised with respect to the tax money spent. 

After the 14th Finance Commission and an improvement in states’ own taxes, states together spend 1.5 times as much as the Centre spends, clearly suggesting that with regard to political control of states, the stakes are running high. 

History tells us that the Congress made the most of simultaneous elections in its heyday. The present tells us that the future of India’s political economy will be controlled by its states. But we can safely say that the impact of simultaneous polls today will be far deeper than it was back then. 

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