Bihar Elections: Why Nitish Kumar Needs A Low Voter Turnout To Win

Anti-incumbency trend is back and how. And a lower voter turnout is seen as being good for incumbent governments.

4 min read
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. Image used for representational purposes.

The second phase of the Bihar elections for 94 seats has been completed. The turnout recorded was 53.51 percent, a tad lower than the 2015 figure, and on the same lines – similar to the Phase 1 elections. With just one-third seats remaining, the suspense is increasing, and the exit polls are eagerly awaited on 7 November.

In their book, The Verdict, Prannoy Roy and Dorab R Sopariwala had categorised the state elections phase from 1952-2019 into three phases:

  • the pro-incumbency era (1952-1977)
  • the anti-incumbency era (1977-2002)
  • the fifty-fifty era (2002-2019)

Anti-Incumbency Wave Is Back With A Bang

  1. The first phase (1952-77) was one of the ‘optimist voter’, with 82 percent of governments being voted back to power.
  2. The second phase (1977-2002) was dominated by the ‘angry voter’, with only 29 percent of governments retaining power after polls.
  3. The third phase (2002-2019) has seen the ‘wiser voter’, neutralising the role of incumbency with calmer scrutiny, as 48 percent of governments have been voted back to power.

My research tells me that the anti-incumbency era is back with a bang. A study of 35 state elections (including UT of Pondicherry) after the 2014 general elections, shows that only 8 state governments could make a comeback / retain power. 27 state governments failed to win elections. The people threw out these governments for non-performance and other reasons.


How Lower Voter Turnout Proves Beneficial For Incumbent Govts

2002-14 was a pro-incumbency vote era, where governments in MP, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat, to name a few, returned successive governments.

Out of the 8 state governments which managed to remain in power, 6 of them witnessed a lower overall turnout:

Gujarat (2017), West Bengal (2016), Tamil Nadu (2016), Odisha (2019), Delhi (2020), Maharashtra (2019).

Only 2 states – Telangana (2018) and Bihar (2015) – recorded a higher turnout.

In Bihar as well, the composition of alliances had changed: Nitish won with NDA in 2010 and with MGB (Mahagathbandhan) in 2015. Hence, it wasn’t strictly a victory of the same alliance.

Power changed hands, the chief minister remained the same. (It is considered as an incumbent which won the elections in the analysis).

In Maharashtra, the pre-poll alliance won the elections, but Devendra Fadnavis couldn’t retain the CM chair due to differences with partner Shiv Sena. (It is considered as an incumbent which won the elections in the analysis).

In Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress won and formed the government in 2014. Midway during the term, a coup happened, and finally, the BJP installed its CM. In 2019, the BJP government won the state elections. (It is not considered as an incumbent which won the elections in the analysis).

In effect, reiterating my point that generally lower voter turnout is good for incumbent governments, and a higher voter turnout is detrimental to its cause.

Nitish Kumar Can Only Hope For A Low Voter Turnout To Save Him

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

– Mark Twain

The above trend shows that it is getting extremely difficult for an incumbent to get elected; only a 23 percent chance.

Add to this the turnout element, it shows that an incumbent can win mostly in cases of low turnout.

In Phase 1, the turnout recorded in Bihar was a tad higher at 55.7 percent versus 54.9 percent in 2015 on these seats. In Phase 2, the turnout recorded in Bihar was a tad lower at 54.15 percent versus 55.35 percent in 2015 on these seats.

This shows that the turnout is more or less the same in Bihar.

With an increased turnout and the voters’ propensity to throw out the incumbent government, there is only a 6 percent chance mathematically that Nitish could make a comeback as CM. A low turnout is his only sahara (safety net) now.

Nitish is fighting a big battle against history, with his back to the wall. The majority of incumbent governments have lost post-2014, as voters have become unforgiving. To win, one requires a low poll percentage, which does not seem to be happening in Bihar despite COVID-19 fear.

How Difficult Is It For A Sitting Chief Minister To Win A Fourth Term?

Additionally, very few chief ministers have enjoyed power for 3 successive terms. Among them only a few have managed to win a fourth term – Mohan Lal Sukhadia, Naveen Patnaik, Jyoti Basu, to name a few. PM Modi did win a fourth term, but he was installed midway in his first term as CM.

In this piece, I have shown how the 15 year jinx has tripped many state governments including the ‘jungle raj’ of Lalu-Rabri from 1990-2015.

A word of caution here though: we have to break the increase in turnout into two components – natural / normal and anti-incumbency.

Natural / normal increase in turnout is on account of awareness programs carried out by the Election Commission (EC) and NGOs. The increase in turnout in Bihar is not very high, so is it on account of efforts of EC or is it because of anti-incumbency – difficult to say.

History and trends are weighing high on Nitish Kumar’s fourth bid.

(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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