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Mainstream, VOL LX No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2022

Understanding Vote Swings and Implications for Efficient Electoral Strategy | Indranil De

Friday 18 March 2022


by Indranil De *

The landslide victory of AAP in Punjab and failure of SP in Uttar Pradesh (UP) are two diametrically opposite cases of political swings. Disproving many speculations of hung assembly, especially in UP, the BJP has come out with flying colours, in spite of political swing in favour of SP. On the contrary, the swing in favour of AAP gave them the historic victory in Punjab against incumbent Congress.

Voting for a political party in any election can be viewed as people’s effort to establish a stable government. If they act collectively to a large extent, then they would be able to establish a stable majority government. If they fail to act collectively then they may end up in hung assembly, and coalition government, which are prone to defection, horse trading and instability. No sane voter would want such a pathetic outcome.

The election results demonstrate that in UP, there has been a 13% rise in vote share for SP and a similar 13% fall in vote share for BSP [1]. In Punjab, AAP registered a 19% rise in vote share, while Congress’s vote share fell by 15%. What is important to note is that AAP’s rise in Punjab is at the cost of its arch-rival and incumbent Congress, but SP’s rise in UP is at the expense of BSP, a political party which is also opposing the incumbent BJP. In fact, BJP, SP’s closest rival and incumbent, gained a 3% vote share in the state.

It is not only important to collectively select a political party but also to collectively deselect the incumbent or the arch-rival. If these two collective actions happen simultaneously then political swings would lead to a landslide victory and formation of a stable government. In Punjab these two happened simultaneously, but in UP they did not.

The collective action theory has an interesting dimension to add in this context. Pamela Oliver, Gerald Marwell, and Ruy Teixeira in their 1985 article in the American Journal of Sociology [2] posited the necessity of a critical mass for snowballing large scale collective action. This critical mass is required to generate initial contribution in favour of the action with a hope that sometime later others would also contribute. After garnering the critical mass, individuals would influence one another sequentially. This sequential process would lead to snowballing of people’s contribution and make the collective action successful.

In case of winning election, the contributions are political support through votes. If a change is envisaged, the initial contributors may find it difficult to convince others, but after the critical mass is reached, the opinion in favour of political party would snowball in a landslide victory. A credible narrative would be generated through critical mass, which would drive people to take actions later. The wave in favour of the party would be palpable.

It seems that both in Punjab and UP a critical mass was generated in favour of major rivals of incumbent governments. But similar crucial mass against the incumbent government was not generated in UP, while the same clearly emerged in Punjab. In other words, collective voting norms against the Congress government was established in Punjab but not against BJP in UP.

Now applying the same lenses in Goa and Manipur, we find BJP’s vote share has increased by 2% in each state, while Congress’s vote share went down by 6% and 19 % respectively. Hence, the trends were against forming a critical mass to overthrow the incumbent government. In Uttrakhand, the trends were in right direction to overthrow incumbent BJP. BJP lost its vote share, while opposition Congress and AAP gained. But all the gains and loss are within 5%, indicating falling short in generation of critical mass.

The results of State Assembly election are not surprising given if we consider Mood of Nation Survey by India Today a few months back. The survey shows an upsurge of support for NDA and Narendra Modi. More the half of the country’s population found NDA’s handling of economy as ‘good’. Furthermore, more than 80% are satisfied with central government’s covid vaccination drive. Narratives of good handling of economy and undertaking vaccination drive may also help BJP in State Assembly election as Modi is an important face in election campaign, if not the most important one. This upsurge for NDA and Mr. Modi have contributed to the snowballing in State Assembly elections.

A similar upsurge of support was observed in the run up to 2019 Lok Sabha election for Modi. The survey by Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, revealed that preference for Rahul Gandhi as next PM soared from 9 percent in May 2017 to 24 percent in May 2018. It was at this juncture that the preferences for Modi and Gandhi were closest with only 10% difference. Alas, after May 2018, the difference started widening with Modi’s support snowballed, while Gandhi’s support plateaued. The swing in support was possible due to narrative created by Balakot strike and government initiatives like reservation for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) and cash distribution to the farmers. It created the critical mass, widened support gap between Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi and finally led Mr. Modi’s landslide victory.

The significance of snowballing is that after the critical mass is developed, upsurge of support or snowballing of participation would happen with minimal cost or efforts as one person would influence the other sequentially. The second person would find participation more beneficial (say voting in favour of a party) than the previous one. The second would find that goal would be more likely to be achieved than the previous one. Political parties which have understood this science of collective participation better than others would be far ahead of opposition.

It is any efficient election engineering method. The larger implications are that along with own narrative of good governance and development, it is also important to develop a narrative of bad governance and ineptitude of the incumbent or opposition. Two types of collective actions are required simultaneously: one in favour of own party and another against the opposition. In other words, two types of crucial mass need to be developed simultaneously: one in favour of own party and the other against the opposition. A slight swing in votes or even huge vote shifting from another opposition party may not be helpful in unseating the incumbent.

* (Author: Indranil De is Associate Professor, Institute of Rural Management Anand)

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