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The philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the life of men in the state of nature as nasty, brutish, and short. The same description could apply to the life of members of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly.
The road for those who aspire to represent their fellow citizens is paved with obstacles: The necessity of building an individual support base through patronage, the struggle to get a ticket, the sheer competitiveness, and the cost of the election. Contesting elections is an expensive proposition with much uncertainty attached to it. To make things worse, these efforts, if successful, are unlikely to pay off for a long time, as few MLAs get to serve more than one term.
The average turnover of the members of the Uttar Pradesh state assembly between 1957 and 2012 was 58.5 per cent. In other words, it means that on an average, nearly 60 per cent of the members of the legislative assembly are first-time MLAs, in every assembly.
This is particularly high if one compares UP with most other democracies, where individual incumbency is the norm rather than the exception. In the United States Congress, for instance, individual incumbency can be as high as 90 per cent, the incumbent candidate benefiting from their established reputation and party support.
In India, the phenomenon of anti-incumbency, or the propensity of voters to reject those they elected in the previous election, is well known. Even if governmental incumbency has increased in India in recent years, UP remains highly volatile: No government there has served two consecutive mandates since 1985.
Even if the tenures of governments have recently stabilised, with the BSP and the SP obtaining simple majorities in 2007 and 2012, individual anti-incumbency remains high, which means that despite their overall performance, parties seldom retain the seats they had won in the previous election. This volatility can be explained through three main reasons.
The first reason is that less than half of incumbent MLAs re-run after their first election, as parties frequently deny them a ticket for their own re-election. Parties may do so to prevent anti-incumbency, or to punish non-performing representatives. They may also change their local caste alliance and ditch their representatives accordingly.
Factionalism, or intra-party rivalry, also accounts for a part of the turnover of candidates. The influence that senior leaders wield within their party is measured by the number of tickets they can secure for their own affiliates. In some less frequent cases, MLAs choose not to re-run, or become MPs, or die, or bequeath their seat to a family member.
There are variations between parties in this regard. Considering the records from 1989 onwards, the BSP discards on average 62 per cent of its sitting MLAs in every election, against 41 per cent and 46 per cent for the BJP and the Congress respectively. The SP’s figures are situated in between, with a rejection ratio of 54.4 per cent.
The second reason for the high turnover is that in every election, a number of sitting MLAs change party affiliation, hoping to join a stronger party. In 1989, for instance, 57 Congress candidates, including 43 sitting MLAs and 10 ex-MLAs, deserted their party to contest on a Janata Dal ticket. Between 1952 and 2012, nearly a quarter of MLAs have changed their party affiliation at least once, and seven per cent more than once. In most cases, the transition did not pay off. The third reason for high individual anti-incumbency comes from voters themselves, who tend to reject the people they voted for in the previous election.
In the 1970s and 1980s, around 41 per cent of re-running MLAs were re-elected. That ratio fell to 28 per cent in the 1990s and 2000s. This means that for an individual elected for the first time the odds are three to one that they will have just the one chance of serving a term. This is an indicator of the huge gap that exists between voters’ expectations and what representatives can actually deliver. Many MLAs often complain that they cannot possibly meet all the demands they receive from voters.
Individual anti-incumbency is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the turnover of MLAs was higher in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Congress used to dominate the political scene in UP. The party was then riddled with factionalism. With the exception of Govind Ballabh Pant, chief minister from 1946 to 1955, not only could no Congress chief minister impose their faction upon others, but they also had to deal with insubordination and internal competition constantly within the organisation, the assembly, and even within their own cabinet. As a result, the Delhi high command would try to tame factionalism and insubordination by organising the rotation of MLAs as an instrument to control the party’s cadre.
Such high turnover is not exceptional, nor is it particular to highly competitive states. The Lok Sabha currently counts 318 newly elected MPs. This is not surprising after a swing election like that of 2014. Even in a stable bipolar party system state like Gujarat, the MLA turnover over the past 20 years has been at comparable levels.
This state of affairs has at least three important political consequences.
The first is that the assembly has to work with a majority of inexperienced MLAs. One can laud the democratic value of alternation or of the rapid renewal of political elites, but a high turnover of representatives means a loss of accumulated experience after every election.
A second consequence is that, considering the costs incurred and the hardships undergone to enter into politics, a short political life expectancy acts as a powerful inducement for predatory behaviour.
In other words, legislators who spent crores of rupees to get elected know that they have a little less than five years to recoup their investment.
A third consequence is that political power tends to be concentrated within a few hands, as the stable political class, or those who succeed in being elected more than twice, comprises on average about a hundred individuals at any point of time since Independence. Most of them are currently with the SP (63 per cent) and the BJP (15 per cent). Congress MLAs make for only 5 per cent of the number of “stable” politicians by this definition.
This is significant since the increased diversity of the UP state assembly and the regular alternation of parties in power tends to be misleading about how concentrated political power actually is.