Critical Elections – Pressure builds up and off goes the whistle

In 1955, noted political scientist Professor Valdimer Orlando Key, Jr. published an article in the Journal of Politics titled “A Theory of Critical Elections”. The article argues that every few elections there is a “critical” election which sees dramatic sweeps – these could be anything such as new parties coming up or new ideologies taking root or new leadership emerging within existing parties or new issues becoming significant. It is widely believed that a critical election takes place roughly every ’36 years’ or so in USA. Barrack Obama’s election in 2008 can definitely be labelled as a critical election where for the first time an African-American was elected President of USA. Roughly ’36 years’ ago in 1980 Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter by bagging 51% of the popular vote and 90% of the electoral vote.

In India we see critical or realigning elections every 10-20 years.

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1. Fall, Split, Victory

The Indian National Congress (INC) had majorities across India from 1950-1967. The realignment began here (it could be argued it began in 1962 with India’s handling of China as well as a slow growth rate). In 1967, for the first time since independence INC’s tally in the Lok Sabha came below 360 (only 283). The critical election came in 1971 when Indira Gandhi led the INC to a resounding victory bagging 352 seats. The focus of the campaign had been “Garibi Hatao” (reduction of poverty) being the dominant message. The poor had spoken and Indira was their choice. The realignment was complete.

2. Love. Hate. Love?

In 1971, India had chosen Indira. In fact, it was quite common to hear “India is Indira, Indira is India”. In 1975 after the invalidation of Indira Gandhi’s election by the Allahabad High Court, Emergency was imposed in India. The Emergency fast-forwarded realignment. So swift was the realignment of voters that in 1977 – only 6 years after the Indira Gandhi-led INC had bagged 352 seats in the Lok Sabha, the INC could only win 153 seats across India (Indira Gandhi’s own constituency Rae Bareilly was not one of them). But the critical election came in 1980 where the INC alone won 351 seats. Once again the voters of India had swung decisively.

3. Sympathy is a fickle mistress

In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own body guards as retribution for Operation Blue Star. This led to her son Rajiv Gandhi being pushed into politics. What happened then has never happened in Indian electoral history since (and it is extremely unlikely it will ever happen again considering the fractured coalition era of politics we live in) – the INC alone won 401 seats in the Lok Sabha. An achievement that Rajiv Gandhi’s grandfather and mother had failed to achieve despite their charisma. However, sympathy is a fickle mistress. Within 5 years, Rajiv’s tally was down to 197. The INC was the largest political party in the Lok Sabha, yet in the Opposition. The realignment had ushered in the era of coalitions. Indian politics would never be the same again.

4. Relying on the kindness of strangers

Between 1989 and 1999, India went to polls four times and had six different PM’s. It seems the nation had had enough by 1999. Plus the Kargil War had just ended and the nation was still in a galvanised state. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power with 270 seats. However, the single-largest party in the coalition was BJP with only 180 seats.

5. The Doctor of Liberalisation

Even though the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won the elections in 2004, the real moment of realignment or criticality came after and closer to and in 2009. The INC-led UPA’s work led to significant gains across India in various state assemblies as well as the Lok Sabha. For the first time since 1984, a single party was able to get more than 200 seats in the Lok Sabha. Dr. Manmohan Singh, who is widely credited for his role in liberalising India’s economy in 1991, had done well in his first term as Prime Minister with both the rural poor as well as the urban elite enjoying gains in the first term of UPA. Growth had been good globally.


6. Channelizing Anger via Internet

To be clear, when I say internet, I don’t just mean online and social media. It is also a reference to the use of technology generally in elections. Elections are presently ongoing across India with six phases of voting already complete. For the first time we have seen an such an upsurge in political activity on social media – Facebook, Twitter, what have you. We are seeing 3D rallies. Candidates having Google Hangouts. It seems criticality has come earlier than usual.

While 2004-2009 had seen growth rates of 9% or so, 2011-12 the growth rate was only 7%. It worsened in the next two years and declined to 5%. The global recession had pushed the world to the brink. USA was reeling. As was Europe. In fact many countries had their critical elections – Obama came to power in USA by heavily beating the Republicans on bad fiscal and monetary management and David Cameron came to power on a similar plank against the Labour Party in UK.

In India, however, the news of scams surfacing one after the other combined with poorer than previous growth, to ring the death knell for the UPA. The UPA had fallen by its own sword (the confirmation will come on May 16) – expectations that had been raised with growth came back to haunt it. It became hard to explain to the Indian electorate – a dangerous mix of impatient and illiterate – that global macroeconomic problems had their effect on India too. That fiscal deficit was not a phenomenon limited to India. Of course this is not to say that UPA-II did not have failing. Inflation was a major problem. Whether global rise in prices of commodities impacted it? Sure. Could it have been handled better? I think so.


Come May 16, it is likely that Narendra Modi-led NDA will form the government. Whether Modi himself gets to be PM or not is a question for another day. Will it be Modi’s win? Yes. But is it ‘because’ of Modi? I don’t think so. Good evidence to support this position is found in the results of the recent elections for the Vidhan Sabha in Delhi. Modi has been around for a while. Nothing has majorly changed in 6 months as far his campaign and views are concerned. We have heard talks of a Modi-wave/tsunami/earthquake for a while now. But better mobilisation in Delhi led to an Aam Aadmi Party win.

Criticality in this case is not because of an individual. In 1971, it had been the voter who had decided to believe in Indira Gandhi when she said Garibi Hatao. In 1980, it had been the serious inability of the Janata government to deliver on any of its promises that led to Indira Gandhi storming back to power. In 1989, once again the voter made its resentment well known. The unemployed youth did not want to live in a slow-to-grow India. In 1999, the victory was of the idea of stable leadership – a phenomenon missing from Central politics for almost 10 years then. In 2008, the victory was of certain economic and welfare policies. In 2014, the victory will be of anger, desperation, and a need for change.

Pressure builds up. Off goes the whistle.


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