BY: Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta
Incumbents in the state have an advantage. But it is difficult to use the results to cull out statewide or nationwide trends.
The results of the recently held bypolls have led many to ask whether the honeymoon period for the BJP is over and if the “Modi magic” no longer works for the party. The BJP lost the by-elections to all three seats in the Uttarakhand assembly. The grand alliance of the JD(U), RJD, and Congress won six out of 10 seats in Bihar, where the BJP-led alliance was expected to win big, given its recent performance in the Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, the BJP had to cede an assembly seat in Madhya Pradesh and in Karnataka, the party could retain only one of its two seats and lost its stronghold of Bellary Rural.
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What do the results of by-elections signify? In many parts of the world, by-election results are seen as a referendum on the performance of the incumbent government. While there may be some truth to the claim about declining popularity of the BJP government, an analysis of by-election results since 1967 in India suggests that by-election results are not an indicator of incumbency sentiments. The by-election for an assembly or parliamentary seat happens due to three reasons: vacancy due to the resignation of a sitting member, vacancy due to the death of a sitting member, and vacancy due to the disqualification (or void due to a similar reason) of a member.
We analysed 1,100 by-elections for assembly seats and 213 by-elections for parliamentary seats that took place between 1967 and 2012 and found that the incumbent party in the state is more likely to win these seats than the incumbent party at the national level. The data presented in the table show that when incumbent parties in the state and at the Centre are different, the incumbent party in the state is twice as likely to win a bypoll seat. But when the incumbent party in the state and at the Centre is the same, the party is more likely to win the by-election seat than its competitor. These data make clear that the odds of the Congress doing well in Uttarakhand and Karnataka, and the JD(U) and its allies in Bihar, as ruling parties, were much higher than the BJP’s chances of doing well. We did a closer analysis of bypolls held in each Lok Sabha election year and found similar results. For example, 90 bypolls to assembly seats were held after the Lok Sabha election results in 2009. In states where the Congress and its allies were not in power, they won only one in every three of by-election seats, whereas in states where the constituents of the UPA were in power, they won four in every five by-election seats.
Does this in any way reflect that bypolls are better indicators of state-level incumbency sentiments? Our analysis suggests it is not. For example, the RJD did very well in the bypolls in Bihar in 2009; however, the party suffered a massive defeat in the assembly elections held a year later in October 2010. Similarly, if by-election results were a good indicator, then the YSR Congress should have been much ahead of the TDP-BJP alliance in Seemandhra in the 2014 polls. We matched results of by-elections held within two years of assembly elections with the eventual state-level outcomes. Our analysis shows that the winner of a by-election has less than half a chance of winning the next assembly elections in the state. This suggests that local-level dynamics dictate by-election outcomes and there is hardly a statewide or nationwide trend. The JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance should take comfort in the by-election results, but the battle for the 2015 assembly elections in Bihar is wide open.
Likewise, the assembly elections scheduled for later this year would be a better indicator of whether there is a decline in the popularity of the BJP government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. To remain popular in the public eye, the party does not have to win all four states going for polls this year. There have to be realistic parameters against which the popularity of Modi and the government can be assessed. The BJP is likely to form the government in Maharashtra, emerge as the single largest party in Haryana and Jharkhand, and become a key player in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. The Lok Sabha results have set the parameters for the party in these states, and failing to achieve the aforementioned will certainly dent Modi’s image. The job is clearly cut out for the new team that Modi and new BJP president Amit Shah have recently put together inside the party. The party must focus on extending its organisational base and its government in New Delhi (and the states) should at least be perceived to be working towards fulfilling the promises made during the general election campaign if it wishes to replicate its Lok Sabha success in the assembly elections.
Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US. Gupta is with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi