"“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 compulsions of incessant election campaigns that crowd out time for policy making. Prime Minister Modi agrees with Blumenthal. Reportedly, at a recent national executive meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Prime Minister bemoaned the incessant demands of electioneering for various state elections, leaving very little time for governance. He called for reforming India’s electoral cycle to hold simultaneous elections to State Legislature and Central 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 the Parliament. In 1967, there were twenty two states that 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 legislative and executive abilities of the central government is perhaps far more onerous to the nation than mere exchequer losses. The BJP’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 state legislature and Lok Sabha impact voter behaviour and hence electoral outcomes?
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 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% 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 which was 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 since 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 1999-2014, cumulatively 302 million voters expressed their choices across 2601 assembly constituencies in 6 states. In 77% 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% of the cases. This trend of choosing the same party has increased steadily from 68% in 1999 to 77% in ’04 to 76% in ’09 and 86% in the 2014 elections. Contrary to 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 1131 assembly constituencies and 155 million voters. In 61% of assembly segments the voters chose the same party for both Parliament and state, down from 77% when elections were held at the same time. This includes the large state of Maharashtra where elections were held at the same time in ’99 while in ’04, ’09 and ’14, the elections were held six months apart. The state of Karnataka presents an even more intriguing picture. Elections were held at the same time to both assembly and Parliament in ’99 and ’04 while in ’09 and ’14, 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% of the assembly constituencies produced a winner from the same party. When the cycle was broken, only 48% 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 6 states that reveals the plausible impact of concurrent elections on voter behaviour and potentially nudging voter preferences in one direction. This column 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."
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