The uniquely Indian concept of 'anti-incumbency' and how Narendra Modi's BJP bucked the trend, returned to power

'Anti-incumbency' is a term that to the surprise of many, is used mostly in India only. It is evident from the Wikipedia entry for 'anti-incumbency' that runs just four lines

Raghav Pandey May 24, 2019 15:16:17 IST
The uniquely Indian concept of 'anti-incumbency' and how Narendra Modi's BJP bucked the trend, returned to power
  • To be automatically resenting the incumbent political class is something that should ideally come across as weird, and is weird in most other countries

  • However, in India this has just not been only a part of political discourse and sloganeering, but is also a hard-political reality

  • This means that the electorate does actually get disenchanted with the incumbent for a multitude of reasons

'Anti-incumbency' is a term that to the surprise of many, is used mostly in India only. It is evident from the Wikipedia entry for 'anti-incumbency' that runs just four lines. The political theory around this doctrine is that there is always some resentment associated with the incumbent class that wields political power. That anti-incumbency is a local phenomenon, is also evident when one analyses the re-election rates in any other country. In the US, for instance, a US president has a very high probability of being re-elected, and re-election rates for Congressmen are more than 80 percent even in the Congressional Elections.

To be automatically resenting the incumbent political class is something that should ideally come across as weird, and is weird in most other countries. However, in India this has just not been only a part of political discourse and sloganeering, but is also a hard-political reality. Hence, in practice, this means that the electorate does actually get disenchanted with the incumbent for a multitude of reasons.

This is something that needs further investigation, because there has to be some commonality among the reasons for such a disillusionment from the incumbent.

It is important to note that this important theoretical understanding went out of the window in the Lok Sabha election of 2019. The BJP led by Narendra Modi was able to not only dislodge the practical and theoretical understanding of anti-incumbency, but in fact was able to register an electoral victory that was more emphatic in terms of the sheer numbers.

The uniquely Indian concept of antiincumbency and how Narendra Modis BJP bucked the trend returned to power

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Kedarnath temple. Twitter @BJP4India

This electoral outcome is explainable once we study the reasons of anti-incumbency in India, in the first place. The chief reason among many is the absolute failure of the Indian State on delivering the promises of the political class. This is especially when the political class is actually willing to be true on those promises, but even then, the Indian State is so broken that it fails on delivering.

Rajiv Gandhi himself had once remarked that if the government spends a rupee, only 15 paisa reaches to the intended beneficiary. Therefore, even if the electorate chooses a political class that has all the intentions of delivering on promises in all its earnest, the State apparatus fails the political class. To address this, there was a need for a major overhaul in terms of functioning of the Indian state, that the Union government led by Modi was able to do, or else the BJP this time would have also have been a victim of the malice of anti-incumbency.

Interestingly, the statement by Gandhi was quoted by the apex court of the country while upholding the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme of the government that promised to remove the intermediaries between the electorate and the government.

Aadhaar is a very important instrument through which the government made sure that its promises were delivered to the doorstep of the intended beneficiaries. Similarly, the prime minister's emphasis on Digital India made use of the technology to decrease the gap between the government and the common man.

During the past five years we saw Union ministers led by the likes of Sushma Swaraj, Suresh Prabhu etc conducting grievance redressal on social media. This was something that hadn't happened in India's contemporary history. The electorate got that feeling that the political class was not alien and was in fact bothered when the electorate was not receiving the care of the State, to which it is entitled.

Modi initiated certain schemes for social welfare and made sure they were implemented with full efficiency; the delivery was monitored through the use of technology.

Schemes like Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna and Swacch Bharat were immensely popular and did deliver whatever they promised even in the remotest corners of the country. Also, these things were something which were visible to the common masses, even if they didn’t use them. For instance, gas connections were frequently lying unused because gas cylinders were expensive.

Similarly, toilets were built in villages, but were not used as much in certain cases. Even then, the Indian electorate had something tangible and substantial to see in front of its own eyes. The general sentiment was positive about the prime minister because he did act on his promises, even if the result was not absolutely what it should have ideally been. The electorate of India values honest intentions over anything else, or so it seems. This led to a general sentiment that the prime minister is honest in his intentions and is genuinely looking to work for the betterment of the country, so why not give him a second chance.

Hence, the Modi government precisely knew the reasons for anti-incumbency and strategically worked to target it, which yielded a result that is historic in terms of vote share as well as in terms of seats for any incumbent in India. Even Jawaharlal Nehru was not able to achieve this kind of vote share, when he was the incumbent. It is one thing to imagine political narratives from various developments happening across the country, but what wins an election for an incumbent in India is only one thing — the fulfilment of promises. This is the most important reason that returned Modi to power.

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