While most analysis focus on overall party or alliance performance, there is much to learn from an examination of individual candidates’ performance. How many MLAs re-ran and have been re-elected? How many lost? In Bihar, between 2015 and 2020, the two alliances (different alliances) obtained the same number of seats – 110 for the Mahagatbandhan and 125 for the National Democratic Alliance. However, the stability of those numbers hides a lot of volatility, which can be measured by individual candidates’ performance – what we call an incumbency analysis.
Individual incumbency refers to the ability of a sitting MLA (or MP) to win a consecutive term. The measure of individual incumbency provides a good depiction of how competitive and volatile an election was. We are able to do that through the coding of individual career paths of candidates to Indian elections, thanks to Surf, a software developed at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Here is our analysis of the 2020 Bihar election.
A total of 3,733 candidates contested the elections from 213 parties or as independents. Of them, 3,033 candidates (81%) contested for the first time; 10.68% of all candidates are running for a second time, 3.85% for the third time, 1.04% for the fourth time and 3.16% beyond four. Over time, the ratio of first-time contestants oscillates around 80%.
Most candidates belong to small parties or run as independents and most of these candidates lose and disappear. The only exception is the October election of 2005, held just after the February 2005 election that did not produce a majority.
In 2020, among major parties, the Mahagatbandhan ran 113 first-time candidates, against 83 for the National Democratic Alliance. Forty nine Mahagatbandhan first-time candidates won, against 36 for the National Democratic Alliance. One National Democratic Alliance candidate out of four was contesting for the fourth time or more, against 15% for the Mahagatbandhan.
Rerunning incumbents and strike rate
The first explanation for the low rate or successful incumbent is the fact that not all MLAs re-run in the first place. In 2020, 74.5% of all 243 sitting MLAs sought another term, which is a high figure when compared to other North Indian states. This is also a higher figure than in 2015, when only 66.7% of all sitting MLAs re-ran.
Over time, however, slightly more than half of all sitting MLAs have been re-running in Bihar. The number was the highest in the second election of 2005. That year, 92.2% sitting MLAs re-ran. In the following election, it declined to 49.2% and has been on a steady increase since.
Among parties, the Janata Dal (United) re-ran most of its sitting MLAs (56), followed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who gave tickets to only 44 of its 80 incumbent MLAs. The Bharatiya Janata Party also re-ran a sizable number of its MLAs (43 out of 73 elected in 2015).
Even as the number of incumbents contesting elections has seen a steady increase since 2010, their success rate has been largely stable since 1969. An average of 50.2% incumbent candidates have been reelected across assemblies.
However, this number dropped to 37.5% after the Emergency, which was marked by two important swing elections. In 1977, the Congress was trounced. It lost 110 MLAs in the Bihar state assembly, down from 167 seats. At the same time, the Janata Party swept the election with 214 seats.
In the following election in 1980, Indira Gandhi’s faction of Congress won 174 seats and replaced the Janata Party. The percentage of successful incumbents in the 1977 election was 37.5%, while in the 1980s election it was 31%. After 1980, the ratio of successful incumbent candidates stabilised around 50%. The only exception, again, was the October 2005 election, which as we mentioned earlier saw a lot of the same candidates re-contesting.
In the 2020 elections, 48% incumbents who contested the elections secured the seat again. From the BJP, 72.1% of incumbents were successful while the figure for the Rashtriya Janata Dal was 52.4%. The lower strike rate of incumbents from the Janata Dal (United) indicates that even their veteran candidates had great difficulties to hold to their seats.
This churning leaves quite a lot of space for newcomers to get elected. In the 2020 election, 89 (36.6%) out of the 243 MLAs elected to the 2020 assembly are first-time MLAs. This is slightly higher than 86 (35.4%) in 2015. In 2010, more than 52% of the assembly members were elected for the first time.
Of these first-time MLAs this time, 34 are from the Rashtriya Janata Dal while the National Democratic Alliance partners, the BJP and the Janata Dal United, have 18 and 16 fresh faces in this assembly. The Congress party has eight new MLAs and the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (Liberation) has six.
Across states, these are a fairly low ratio. Most states have a much higher turnover rate, which may indicate that MLAs in Bihar are better anchored to their constituencies than in other states. This points towards the importance of local factors in getting candidates elected.
Turncoats are candidates who shift party affiliation between the previous and the current election. They are often seen as a signal of strength for the parties who attract them, therefore logically as a signal of weakness for the party who lose their cadre.
In 2020, we have identified 205 turncoats contesting, out of which 21 won (10.2%). The number of turncoats who win is at the lowest if we look across assemblies. Among the 21 turncoat winners, eight won on a Rashtriya Janata Dal ticket (three of whom previously contested on a ticket by the Congress, one from BJP, one from Janata Dal [United], one from the Samajwadi Party and two from other parties); two won on a BJP ticket (one previously contested from the Janata Dal [United] and one from the Samajwadi Party); three won on a Janata Dal (United) tickets (onepreviously contested on a BJP ticket, one from Congress and one from another party); two won on a Congress ticket (one previously contested on a Janata Dal (United) ticket and one on Samajwadi Party); two won for the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, two won on Hindustani Awam Morcha tickets and three won on a Vikassheel Insaan Party ticket.
Turncoats get a lot of publicity because stories of betrayal make for good headlines. But the longitudinal data shows that over time, it pays off less and less to switch party affiliation, as most of them end up losing. After 2005, less than one turncoat out of five succeed to get elected.
The overall picture that this data draws is that of a state where electoral competition for candidates is intense but also that a significant number of politicians manage to hold onto their position as well. This indicates that local factors of dominance remain salient and important in politics, and that the identity of candidates matters, alongside party appeal. In most seats however, voters still get to decide who will represent them for the next five years.
All the authors work at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Basim-u-Nissa is a Research Fellow, Mohit Kumar is a Data Scientist and GIS Engineer, Neelesh Agrawal is a Research Engineer and Priyamvada Trivedi is the Associate Director.
The data is drawn from TCPD-IID: TCPD Individual Incumbency Dataset, 1969-current.