India: Anti-incumbency wave in northeast no less than BJP wave

  • The BJP’s sterling election performance in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya proved two things. First, the BJP is no longer a party as representing only Hindus and Hindi-speaking areas: it has all-India appeal.
  • Second, anti-incumbent sentiment is high, and is driving election results. This spells danger for the BJP, the incumbent in New Delhi.
  • Some analysts think the BJP has gained unstoppable momentum from its north-eastern triumph. This is a reminder of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sweeping victory in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in Dec 03, leading him to believe he had unstoppable momentum that should be harnessed in an early election. Alas, he lost that election.
  • A similar warning needs to be sent to the BJP after its north-eastern triumph. It must not interpret anti-incumbency as a pro-BJP wave. Some political analysts say the BJP is considering an early election instead of waiting for the regular date in May 19. That risks repeating Vajpayee’s mistake.
  • Consider the history of anti-incumbency. For several decades after Independence, the Congress won repeatedly, despite rising dissatisfaction. A highly splintered Opposition meant repeated Congress victories because of TINA (there is no alternative).
  • That era came to an end in 1989 when VP Singh emerged as an alternative at the Centre and regional parties emerged as strong alternatives in many states.
  • In the 1990s, incumbents lost 75% of all elections. This high fatality rate flowed from economic and social discontent, plus disgust with corrupt politicians.
  • This pattern reversed dramatically when economic growth zoomed above 8% after 2004. Apart from fast growth that lifted all boats, a new breed of chief ministers came to power in several states whose USP was personal honesty and decent governance.
  • In the decade after 2004, incumbents were re-elected in 75% of cases, reversing the earlier trend. Some analysts called this a victory for bijli-pani-sadak (electricity-water-roads) policies. More correctly, improved governance and infrastructure accelerated economic growth, which reached an incredible 11% in Bihar. That was the clincher.
  • The BJP is far from unbeatable. Modi is a very popular Prime Minister, but so was Vajpayee, and that did not save his party.
  • What many see as a BJP wave in recent times is better viewed as an anti-incumbent wave. This toppled both BJP and non-BJP state governments in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in 2017. It significantly reduced the majority of the incumbent BJP in the Gujarat state election.
  • What of coming elections? The anti-incumbent trend suggests that the BJP will beat the ruling Congress in Karnataka. But it also suggests that the BJP, being the incumbent, will be in danger in the Dec 17 state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
  • The chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are among the respected icons that have won repeatedly in the past. But they should heed the warning signal from the recent defeat of Manik Sarkar in Tripura, another respected CM who had earlier won repeatedly.

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