Decrypting today’s psephology and anti-incumbency

Election analysis is now entertainment feeding hyper-nationalism, and where critical debate and reflection are missing

December 12, 2023 12:20 am | Updated 09:50 am IST

‘All these electoral battles become converted into a war zone and a zero-sum game’

‘All these electoral battles become converted into a war zone and a zero-sum game’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari had said that the algorithm is the most important word of the 21st century. But another word that is giving it a run for its money during the electoral season is ‘anti-incumbency’. Psephologists are now fond of explaining (without understanding?) a lot of things that happen as a part of anti-incumbency. They almost speak of it the way cricket commentators speak of averages. Even in cricket, it often makes no sense to say that a team won at a venue for ‘n’ number of times, which often has no correlation or causation with the result in the next game. In cricket, this could add to the entertainment quotient, but to reduce elections to a law of averages is to completely miss the thrust that needs to be there in foregrounding the key issues that matter to people, and why they turn out to vote in such large numbers.

A displacement of the focus

What such anodyne language of anti-incumbency does is to shift the attention from the issues that matter and reduces it to averages and the business of prediction (like Nostradamus). Even more dismaying is that such language tends to normalise discontent. For example, the Congress lost in the Rajasthan Assembly election because that has been the trend for the last 30 years, which displaces the question why are people perennially unhappy with their governments and what are the issues that have been going unheard for 30 years. Had the Congress won in Rajasthan, the debate would be about the Congress having beaten anti-incumbency, and in terms of how the trend was broken. Or, it could then be argued that there is a trend of pro-incumbency, as seen in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

But the question is not about pro-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh but, instead, how a government does win a large number of seats with a not-so-good-looking governance track record. Why did issues of mis-governance not matter? Or, how were they made not to matter? This displacement of focus on social development contributes handsomely to ‘electoral autocracy’.

The language of anti-incumbency is a technocratic one that works as a neo-liberal assemblage. It flattens out complex processes to feed the electronic media and digital images. The language of averages and quantifying electoral outcomes turns the electoral process into an algorithmic equation. Part of the problem is that policy preferences and differences between political parties have become so marginal to the process that quantification is the only method left to make sense of differences between the parties. The meaninglessness of ‘choicelessness’ for the electorate is converted into a meaningful-looking language of ‘averages’, ‘patterns’ and ‘pro- and anti-incumbency’.

The power of a certain party

Further, the corollary of such a language that empties out the process of issues is the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as an electoral machine. It is the sheer ‘speed and scale’ that brings forth the language of efficiency and last mile and minute electoral calculations that become the focus of analysis by psephologists. The BJP is today able to address issues through its sheer capacity to generate a great amount of last minute mobilisation. Earlier, we would argue that the electorate suffers from short-term memory that allows political parties to get away with murder. Now it is about last minute campaigning. This again makes ‘organisation’, ‘money’ and ‘a high-decibel campaign’ a part and parcel of a great strategy and electoral engineering. It again displaces the fact of why or how organisational power allows the BJP to subvert social power dynamics. Of how a great degree of social fragmentation is forged to divide social groups. Of what it does to weaken the ability to raise discontent. At one level, the process is about normalising discontent. And at another, about criminalising dissent and the intermediary space which is filled by organisational heft and meticulous planning. All of these processes are later analysed as either pro or anti-incumbency!

Finally, electoral mobilisation has normalised elections into becoming a spectacle. The spectre of drama is a part of electoral communication, but the impact on social ethics and the fabric of collective trust becomes sidelined. It has become a new normal for election analysts and psephologists to gloat over and expect the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to perform some last minute magic that will tilt votes in the BJP’s favour even if the BJP has performed miserably in terms of governance. In Karnataka, for example, the BJP faced a great degree of discontent because of massive corruption and other related issues of social apathy. But Mr. Modi, in last minute attempts, tried to convert it into a debate on Bajrang Bali, misinterpreting it as Bajrang Dal, or the other way round. Mr. Modi further claimed that the Congress was interested in seceding Karnataka from India. In Gujarat, in earlier elections, it was about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and a former Vice-President taking ‘supari’ from across the border against Mr. Modi. What does such baseless discourse do to trust that is necessary for any functional democracy in the long run? Deliberation is being gradually displaced by ‘conspiracy’, and social issues get converted into a discourse on securitisation.

All these electoral battles become converted into a war zone and a zero-sum game. The last minute pressure — like the last over in a cricket match — brings tension and drama, and is like the climax of a crime thriller. It shifts from deliberating on issues to, instead, what is most entertaining. And that in turn becomes, or is attempted to be pushed as, the criteria of electoral choice. When Mr. Modi succeeds it is often typified as ‘Modi Magic’ and attributed to Mr. Modi’s great oratory skills. But what is happening is a stuffing down the throats of people of high-decibel and extremely dystopian images meant to create cognitive and emotional dissonance. Elections are moving away from issues to that of speed, scale and organisational efficiency replacing or off-setting electoral choices made on the basis of issues.

Psephology and electoral analysis are already a willing part of this shift. They are more techniques and technologies of power dynamics rather than analysis meant for reflection and deliberation. What such technocratic psephology does is to easily convert it and make it a part of the campaign of the ruling dispensation. Why so many exit polls go so dramatically wrong is never a point of discussion. But each time there are elections, we are back to this language of anti-incumbency and averages, where critical debate and reflection are swept under the carpet.

Disappearance of issues

Over a period, there has been near-complete invisibilisation of a lot of issues that were considered a part of public discourse in India. What are the levels of poverty in India? And, Below Poverty Line (BPL)? What percentage of the population is BPL, which was part of public debate not so long ago, and which has been replaced now by the language of GDP growth rates — again the language of numbers and averages? What are the working conditions of migrants in the informal sector that had become invisible till migrants began to walk back home during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown? It is a different matter that death itself became invisible during the pandemic. It is this technocratic invisibilisation that has become the root and source of hyper-nationalism and the freshly minted fantasy of becoming a vishwaguru.

Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His recent book is “Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’”

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