Elections 2018-19

Do public protests decide election results?

Research gives a mixed verdict but given India’s socio-economic reality, protests do impact election results

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Wednesday 21 November 2018
Indian politics
A protest in Delhi. Credit: Flickr A protest in Delhi. Credit: Flickr

A massive protest rally by farmers from the across the country is expected to hit Delhi on November 28-29. On October 2, around 30,000 farmers, who had been walking to the national capital for 10 days, were welcomed with lathis, water cannons and tear gas shells. In April this year, over 5,000 people, comprising farmers and their family members in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat, sought the right to die as they alleged that their agricultural lands were being forcibly taken away by the state government and Gujarat Power Corporation Limited (GPCL)—the state power utility. They have written letters to the President of India, the Prime Minister and the chief minister of Gujarat.

Going by the media reports of the last two months, some 125 protests have been registered across the country. Dominantly, these protests revolve around agrarian issues and demands for reservations in government jobs. This indicates two pressing concerns: rising agrarian distress and unemployment.

According to the State of India’s Environment In Figures 2018, “Farmer protests continue to be at the centre stage with farmers in at least 15 states taking to the streets. There are three broad reasons for this growing discontent: government's failure to safeguard farmers against crop loss, fair price for their produce and forceful farmland acquisitions for developmental projects.”

In the middle of an election season—five states are going to vote for new governments—these protests expectedly assume political hues. But it also raises a pertinent question: do these protests influence election results?

Protests, whether mass or individual, have been an electoral issue. This got a judicial approval in 2013. This is the year when the Supreme Court ordered what is now popularly known as the NOTA (none of the above) option in all elections. “Democracy is all about choice. This choice can be better expressed by giving the voters an opportunity to verbalise themselves unreservedly… [This policy] will accelerate the effective political participation….,” the apex court ruled. In a way, the order recognised the “protest” of an individual voter, indicating the wider role of dissent or disapproval in the electoral system.

After five years of this verdict, in a paper published in International Growth Centre, researchers from the University of Houston analysed Indian elections between 2006 and 2014 to gauge the impacts of NOTA. They found that “NOTA increased voter turnout by approximately 1-2 per cent of the eligible voting population. This turns out to be close to the actual number of NOTA voters in the data. Indeed, we estimate that most voters choosing NOTA are new voters who showed up at the polls specifically to choose this option and would have abstained otherwise.” That is the first sign of individual protest showing some electoral impact however inconsequential it might be.

“In our sample, the vote share of NOTA was larger than the vote margin of the winner in about 8 per cent of the constituencies. Despite this, our findings indicate that the introduction of NOTA changed the electoral outcome in less than 0.5 per cent of the constituencies. We estimate that in the absence of NOTA, NOTA voters who still turned out scattered their votes across many candidates rather than coordinating on any one in particular. As a result, in most constituencies, their choices had no impact on the election,” they found. This precisely raises the importance of mass-scale public protests.

In 2014, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power with a thumping majority led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the preceding years witnessed massive public protests. Rallies against corruption and the iconic protest on the gang rape and killing of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi are often credited for Modi’s election victory. These protests added to the perception of the incumbent government not in charge. Similarly, farmers’ protests in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are already being talked in term of potential negative electoral impacts for respective ruling parties.  

India doesn’t have many research studies to gauge the impacts of protests on elections. But similar studies elsewhere do point out both direct and indirect impacts. A Harvard University study on public protests like Tea Party on various elections in the US shows that these help in building a perception as well as increasing voters’ turnover. Their research shows that “protests get people politically activated”.

Though not comparable to Indian electoral nuances, does this mean rising protests with wider supports lead to more people coming out to vote?

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