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Decoding India’s Elections: 1947-2022

By Tanmaya Kothari

Numbers have stories to tell, but they need a mediator. This article plays that role, and unwraps many a fascinating but hidden story behind the stale and often intimidating numbers and tables on Indian elections over decades.

Without further a due we would like to talk about the great Indian circus “elections”.

Anti-incumbency is something which people tend to highlight whenever elections happen in India. It has become almost a trend to blame anti-incumbency whenever an incumbent loses an election. However, people start looking for plausible reasons when an incumbent party storms back to power. The question is, does anti-incumbency reflect the mood of the electorate or not?

First let's explain the term, Anti-incumbency is a term coined in India. It is used frequently during elections and refers to the dissatisfaction of people over the unfulfillment of the promises made by the party/coalition parties before the elections.

But answering the question. So long the work done is as per the aspirations of the subjects the incumbency may not be an issue, but the moment electorate realises that there is misuse and abuse of power due to prolonged stay in power, people may vote for anti-incumbency. however, in developed countries, anti-incumbency becomes a reason as people believe in change and they believe change is to be brought for better. A naive optimism and public trust in politicians led to repeated re-election of incumbents in the early phase of the republic, followed by frustration and anger leading to incumbents being voted out furiously. The pro-incumbency period transitioned to anti-incumbency in 1977 and continued until 2002.

Evolving voters

Talking of Electronic Voting Machines, the population is supremely confident that they cannot be tampered with. In a different context, they point out one hazard — the machines are fixed to particular booths, the political leaning of which will be revealed at counting. Paper ballots from all booths were mixed before counting in the pre-EVM days. For instance, between 1952 and 1998, paper ballots in Indian elections cost at least a million trees. How many trees have been saved after India moved to electronic voting machines?

Fifty-Fifty Era

Now we are living in the Fifty-Fifty Era, , which is not pro- or anti-incumbency. It offers a qualitative explanation for this phenomenon — governments which perform are re-elected and those that don’t are rejected.

Voters, now smarter, see through all that ostentatious showmanship (of politicians)... What is more important for the electorate’s vote is that the leader must be a ‘doer’, and indeed, a quietly competent administrator is preferable to just flamboyance. Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, Manik Sarkar of Tripura and Narendra Modi in Gujarat are examples cited in this context.

You can see why India might be seen as a dream for pollsters. Landslides are the easiest to predict and Indian elections have arguably the highest record of landslide results:over 75 percent of Lok Sabha elections in India have been landslides. A landslide result is a dream for pollsters. On the other hand, the amazing heterogeneity across India makes sampling and polling more complex than in most countries around the world.

It’s worth mentioning one common factor throughout India: The Universal Smile. An answer we have always got when asking the voters the question ‘who would you vote for’ we have always received a smile, a big disarming smile a smile worth a thousand thoughts.

With the lower house(State assemblies) and the centre(Lok Sabha) being the chambers that have have direct elections, opinion polls are only conducted for Lower House elections. From the first elections in 1952 to the latest elections in December 2018, India has had 392 in all,16 in Lok Sabha and 376 to the state assemblies.

While India as a republic is nearly seven decades old ,a vigorous opinion polling for elections is of much more recent vintage only four decades ago.

By Tanmaya Kothari

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