Why the government should worry about the warning signs of anti-incumbency

High levels of anti-incumbency is a warning to the political class, and to parliamentary democracy itself.

 |  4-minute read |   22-12-2018
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The recent state election results of the five states that went to polls in November and December only confirm a broad trend of state election results since 2014.

I give below a table of state elections held since 2014 and the outcome of these elections:

table5-copy_122118065922.jpg

A look at the table shows that out of 22 state elections held since 2014, incumbent governments have been voted out in 17 states and retained in only five.

Gujarat did show signs of anti-incumbency but could be retained only by special efforts of the prime minister who belongs to the state. This shows a massive level of voter dissatisfaction and anti-incumbency. These are warning signs in any democracy and the political class better take this seriously.

A closer look at the governments that fought this anti-incumbency shows some interesting insights.

Four of the five governments that fought this anti-incumbency belonged to regional parties. This does confirm the fact that regional parties are closer to the problems of the people than national parties.

They appear to be more responsive than the national parties. This was not the case with the BJP governments of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the past but the high command culture seems to have crept into the party.

bjp1_122118072923.jpgHas the high command culture found a place within the BJP? (Photo: PTI)

These results are strange, considering that we have been the fastest growing economy in the world in recent times. But it seems that economic growth of 7 plus percent is not sufficient to bring about voter satisfaction. What could be the reasons for this disenchantment of the average voter?

It is not as if there have not been periods when there has been pro-incumbency voting. The period between 2004 to 2009 saw most governments return to power. It was also a period of high economic growth – probably higher than the present, despite new statistics showing the reverse.

That was also a period that saw higher agricultural and rural growth than the present and which also saw the introduction of MGNREGA which resulted in extra income generation in rural areas – explaining the high levels of voter satisfaction.

manmohan-sonia-copy_122118073118.jpgThey got some things right: The period between 2004 to 2009 saw pro-incumbency voting. (Photo: PTI)

The present period of anti-incumbency is accompanied by acute rural distress, multiple farmer agitations and serious joblessness. Farmer unrest has been on the radar for a very long time. Bumper harvests have been accompanied by low food prices, causing the farmer very low growth in income.

The problem has been compounded by the promises made by the present government, of a procurement price 50 percent higher than the cost of production, and doubling farmers income by 2019', which has been lengthened now to 2022. There is thus a feeling of despondency and helplessness that seems to have crept into the rural areas.

The scene on the jobs front is equally dismal. There has hardly been any job growth. Tall promises of job creation have been forgotten and we do not have any clear idea of unemployment figures. It is as clear as daylight that the present level of growth has not been able to bring about a noticeable improvement in the lives of the poor.

What can be done? The farmer's problem is a difficult one to solve. Large-scale agricultural reforms are needed, freeing agriculture from state and government control. The farmer must be free to market his or her produce wherever s/he wishes, including for exports.

farmer1-copy_122118073144.jpgWith low food prices, even bumper harvests can be a problem for farmers. (Photo: PTI)

Our agricultural production is high enough to meet the needs of our population. We carry huge food grain stocks which in fact rot, so any chance of food shortage is remote. This can be done only if all political parties come together and apply their minds and arrive at some agreement. This is the need of the hour.

An equally tricky problem is that of job growth. Large numbers of people have to migrate from rural areas to industry to ease the pressure on land holdings. This can only happen if labour-intensive industries are promoted in a big way in rural and urban areas. There is a need to bring about labour law changes to promote employment. This again requires political agreement and will.

This high level of anti-incumbency is a warning to the political class and parliamentary democracy itself. The political class must stop taking petty advantages to win elections and instead think seriously about some problems that do not seem to have any solution.

They owe it to the people whom they claim to represent.

The time for tinkering is over. The time for real changes is here.

Also read: Farm loan waivers are great politics, but do they help farmers? Here’s what the numbers say

Writer

Nishat Shah Nishat Shah @nishatshah2

Writer is an alumnus of IIM-A. He is an Ahmedabad-based commentator on business and economic affairs.

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