One indicator of the competitiveness of an election is the ability of incumbent candidates to secure their re-election, or individual incumbency. It is usually understood that contrary to most democracies, incumbent candidates in India face a disadvantage towards their challengers when they seek re-election. Individual incumbency data also allows to map turncoat candidates and their performance.
In this article, we use an original dataset, derived from Election Commission of India (ECI) data and the results of the 2021 state elections, to explore the performance of incumbent candidates and turncoats.
A high re-running incumbents’ ratio
Except for Puducherry, most sitting members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) got a chance to re-run and win a consecutive term. 83% of all sitting MLAs in Kerala and 73% of all sitting MLAs in Assam re-ran, which is unusually high.
In West Bengal, multiple defections and changes of strategy have led parties to let 65% of all sitting MLAs re-run. Less than half of Tamil Nadu legislators re-contested, the consequence of the churning occasioned by the new leadership in both main parties. These remain high numbers considering that most parties across India usually discard about half of their sitting MLAs, usually to prevent anti-incumbency.
What is also noteworthy is the high strike rate — or success ratio — of these re-running incumbents. Except for Puducherry again, a large majority of sitting MLAs who re-ran won their race, which again is unusual. Parties across these states have been able to retain large numbers of the seats they won in 2016, a sign of electoral stability.
Of course, one needs to break down those figures by party. In West Bengal, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) fielded 139 of its 211 sitting MLAs (66%), 114 of whom won (82%). The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) fielded only 12 of its 26 sitting MLAs and all of them lost. The Congress did not fare much better with the few sitting MLAs who re-ran (19 out of 44).
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which only held three seats in Bengal, fielded 16 incumbents, drawn from other parties. Only six of them won, including Manoj Tigga, the only BJP MLA to have been re-elected in Bengal.
In Tamil Nadu, 56 of the 89 Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MLAs elected in 2016 re-ran (63%). 42 were successful. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) tried to beat anti-incumbency by fielding many new candidates (only 46 of its 134 MLAs re-ran) and little more than a third of its re-running incumbents have been re-elected.
In Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) fielded 23 of its 58 sitting MLAs. All but two won. In an unusual move, the party decided not to field any candidate who had served two terms or more. The other three major parties – Communist Party of India, the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League – share similar numbers, a sign of the great territorial stability of political representation in Kerala. Most parties kept the seats they won in 2016. Only 27 seats changed hands in this election.
In Assam, the BJP fielded 44 of its 60 MLAs. 37 of them won. The Congress and the Asom Gana Parishad also re-ran most of their sitting MLAs, with high strike rates. All six re-running incumbents from AUDF won their race.
Most turncoat candidates are going home
Turncoat candidates got a lot of attention in this election cycle. The BJP in West Bengal made it its strategy to cannibalise its opponents’ organisation by drawing as many MLAs and cadres as it could. In this piece, we consider turncoat candidates who previously ran, successfully or not, on a different party ticket than in 2021. It therefore excludes the party workers who were poached, lured with the opportunity to contest for the first time.
By that measure, we find that most turncoat candidates end up losing. In Assam, only seven of the 49 contesting turncoats won their race. In Kerala, only five turncoats out of 14 succeeded. Puducherry saw a higher success rate (10 out of 20, in a much smaller house), while 39 of the 46 contesting turncoats in Tamil Nadu lost. In West Bengal, only 26 out of the 87 turncoat candidates won their race, only eight of them on BJP tickets.
It is quite ironic that most successful turncoats in West Bengal ended up winning on party tickets other than the BJP. Unbeknownst to most, the TMC ran 28 turncoat candidates, out of which 18 were elected (nine from the Congress, five from the CPI(M), and four from smaller communist formations). Of the eight elected BJP turncoat candidates, only four come from the TMC. The turncoat phenomenon makes for appealing headlines but ends up concerning a fragment of the contestants, most of which ending up losing.
What this data tells us about the five elections that have just occurred is that despite some spectacular outcomes, there remains much underlying stability. Most re-running MLAs ended up keeping their seat, which shows that individual anti-incumbency in these states is not as strong as it is thought to be. It also tells us that many voters decide to reward the MLAs they elected in the previous election, which may indicate that the bonds that tie MLAs to their constituencies may still have some meaning after all.
Basim U Nissa and Ananay Agarwal are affiliate researchers at TCPD. Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University. Co-Director of TCPD and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Ayaan Sagar, Jenish Raj Bajracharya, Mayank Sharma, Niharika Mehrotra, ParaviSapra, Prashasti Agarwal, Priavi Joshi, Pulari Bhaskar, Rashmi Guha Ray, Shreya, and Shreyashree Nayak have contributed to code the data, with the TCPD team.
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