Nudging the voter in one direction?

Praveen Chakravarty
April 06, 2016


Simultaneous elections for State Assemblies and Parliament can have a tangible, and perhaps undesirable, impact on voter behaviour.

‘The permanent campaign’ was a phrase coined and popularised by Sidney Blumenthal, adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, in his 1980 book that lamented the culture of election campaigns crowding out time for policymaking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi agrees with Mr. Blumenthal. He recently bemoaned the incessant demands of electioneering for various State elections leaving little time for governance. > He called for reforming India’s electoral cycle to hold simultaneous elections to State Legislatures and Parliament, ostensibly to break out of this ‘permanent campaign’ syndrome.

In India’s own version of the ‘permanent campaign’, in the last 30 years, there has not been a single year in which there has been no election either to a State Assembly or to Parliament. In 1967, 22 States held elections along with the Parliament elections. That number dwindled to four by 2014. Efficiency arguments of costs and resources aside, the intangible impact of this perpetual election mode on the legislative and executive abilities of the Central government is perhaps far more onerous to the nation than mere exchequer losses. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for the 2014 national elections had also mooted this idea. This reform seems to have won support across the political spectrum, including regional parties, save for the Trinamool Congress. The benefits of simultaneous elections aside, it is also important to ask the question — will holding simultaneous elections to the State Legislature and the Lok Sabha impact voter behaviour, and hence electoral outcomes?

Voting for the same party It is a widely held belief among political observers and politicians that the Indian voter is astute and distinguishes between voting for her State government vis-a-vis the national government. As with most such electoral narratives, this too is devoid of any evidence. Our analysis shows that on average, there is a 77 per cent chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the State and Centre when elections are held simultaneously.

We analysed electoral data since 1999, the year from which Assembly-wise results of Lok Sabha elections are made available by the Election Commission, to understand voter behaviour in simultaneous elections and otherwise. There have been four Parliament elections starting 1999. We chose all States that have had coinciding elections with each of these Parliament elections, and compared Assembly segment-wise winners for Parliament and Assembly. In 16 cases of simultaneous elections between 1999 and 2014, cumulatively 302 million voters expressed their choices across 2,601 Assembly constituencies in six States. In 77 per cent of these constituencies, the winner came from the same political party. In other words, when handed two ballots at the same time to choose their representative for both Parliament and State Assembly, voters chose the same party in 77 per cent of the cases.

Analysis This trend of choosing the same party has gone from 68 per cent in 1999 to 77 per cent in 2004 to 76 per cent in 2009 and 86 per cent in 2014. Contrary to the popular notion that the average voter is acutely discerning of the difference between voting for her State representative and national, there is very little actual evidence of it. If any, as our analysis shows, the ability or willingness of the voter to vote differently is only decreasing with time. To determine a truer impact of concurrent elections on voter behaviour, we analysed six cases during this same period when Parliament elections and State Assembly elections were held separately but within six months of each other. That comprised 1,131 Assembly constituencies and 155 million voters. In 61 per cent of Assembly segments, the voters chose the same party for both Parliament and State, down from 77 per cent when elections were held at the same time. This includes the large State of Maharashtra where elections were held at the same time in 1999 while in 2004, 2009 and 2014, the elections were held six months apart. Karnataka presents an even more intriguing picture. Elections were held at the same time to both Assembly and Parliament in 1999 and 2004 while in 2009 and 2014, State elections were held four years after the prior Parliament election and one year before the next. In the years that elections were held together, 77 per cent of the Assembly constituencies produced a winner from the same party. When the cycle was broken, only 48 per cent of the constituencies produced the same party winner.

We readily acknowledge that in a complex plural democracy such as India’s, electoral outcomes are a manifestation of various factors. This is an analysis of 513 million voter choices expressed over a 15-year period across six States that reveals the plausible impact of concurrent elections on voter behaviour and potentially nudging voter preferences in one direction. This article is not to argue against holding concurrent elections which requires cautious consideration of all attendant costs and benefits. This is to merely present evidence of one crucial cost of voter behaviour that has often been ignored and presumed to the contrary, through popular narrative. Justifiable attempts to alter India’s permanent election malaise can have a tangible and perhaps undesirable impact on voter behaviour.

Praveen Chakravarty is fellow in political economy at IDFC Institute, a think tank in Mumbai. Rithika Kumar and Swapnil Bhandari, associates at the institute, have also contributed to the article.



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