Uttar Pradesh shows why MLAs do not matter in politics in states
An analysis of incumbency level datasets prepared by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data suggests that becoming an MLA does not bestow much power, at least beyond the current term, to a person in the politics of states.
What does it take to win a state election in India? Charismatic chief ministerial candidates or a committed, yet grounded set of MLAs? Logically, the answer should tilt towards the latter. After all, legislative majorities are gained or lost at the level of assembly constituencies.
However, an analysis of incumbency level datasets prepared by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data suggests that becoming an MLA does not bestow much power, at least beyond the current term, to a person in the politics of states. This also means that state legislatures are structurally weak when it comes to keeping a check on the executive, the central doctrine of separation of powers in the Indian constitution.
Part of the explanation lies in a political culture that favours the concentration of power in the hands of chief ministers. But there are aspects of electoral politics and features of the political class that contribute to weakening political representation.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state, which goes to polls in early 2022, is a good case in point.
Why has Yogi Adityanath dwarfed everyone else in UP BJP?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured a massive victory in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections, winning 312 out of the 403 assembly constituencies (ACs). The current chief minister Yogi Adityanath was only named after the elections; he did not even contest on an MLA ticket. However, Adityanath has been winning as a Lok Sabha MP from Gorakhpur continuously since 1998. His long stint as an MP is in sharp contrast to the profile of the average MLA, both within and outside the BJP, in the state.
Out of 403 elected MLAs, a staggering 314 were elected for the first time. 59 MLAs were elected for a second time and only thirty MLAs, across parties, were elected for a third time or more. The Assembly counts only 7 four-time MLAs, 2 five- and six-term MLAs and so on. This pegs Uttar Pradesh’s stable political class (defined as all politicians who have been elected more than twice) at barely 7.4% of all MLAs.
Of the 312 BJP MLAs who won their seat in the 2017 assembly election, only 19 had won twice or more times previously. Of these 19 MLAs, 9 come from other parties, including Biharilal Arya, a five-time Congress MLA from Mauranipur, Mayankeshwar Sharan Singh, from Tiloi(previously elected on an SP ticket,and a BJP one before that), and Fateh Bahadur, from Caimpiyarganj, who has been party-hopping between the Congress, BJP and BSP since 1989.
The situation is not different with other parties. Only five of the current 47 SP MLAs have been elected more than twice, a score also held by 3 of the 19 BSP MLAs, and Raghuraj Pratap Singh, aka ‘Raja Bhaiya’, who won from Kunda as an Independent candidate.
The current UP assembly is not an aberration
It can be argued that the lack of experience in the current Uttar Pradesh assembly is a result of the massive BJP victory, which led to a loss of the more experienced MLAs from other parties. Historical data shows that this is not the case.
Since 1977, the share of first-time MLAs has never been lower than 65%, and the share of experienced politicians (elected more than twice) has never been more than 15% of the assembly. Since 1977, 444 of the 4577 seats won were occupied by MLAs serving a third term of more. These 444 MLAs boil down to 274 unique individuals, scattered across parties and time: 73 with the BJP, 61 with Congress, 21 with the BSP and 105 with the SP and its previous socialist incarnations.
What explains the un-experienced MLA syndrome?
Both parties are voters are responsible for this. At the party level, most sitting MLAs do not even get a chance to keep their seat. In 2017, only 40% of all 403 sitting MLAs re-ran. And only 30% of those who re-ran got re-elected. This is what the voter-induced effect refers to. Once again, 2017 was not an exception on this count. Here again, historical data shows that this is another longstanding trend of UP politics. From 1977 to 2017, an average of 38% of all sitting MLAs get to re-run, and an average of 41% of these re-running incumbents manage to keep their seat.
Upper caste men have a disproportionate presence in the rank of stable political class
The profile of this political class is also quite elitist. 45.3% of them belong to upper castes, against 22% of SCs and OBCs. Muslims make up only 9% of UP’s professional class, that is to say 24 individuals. Over the period, only four Jat politicians have made it to this list. This is also a male-dominated list, as only 9 women figure among these 274 professional politicians.
Does a high political turnover in assembly help democracy?
The high turnover of UP’s political class has implications for democratic processes. First, the UP assembly is and has for long been an assembly of newcomers. Such a large turnover of political elites translates into a loss of cumulative experience in the assembly. MLAs who come in with the knowledge that they will not be occupying their seat for long have little incentive to learn the ropes of the legislative aspect of their job. This weakens the legislative check on the executive. The extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of a small class of politicians, which includes of course party leaders, faction leaders, local dynasts and strongmen, who succeed in lasting in politics by dint of their grit and talent, but also at times through the control they exert over their constituency.
Uttar Pradesh is not the only state when it comes to a high turnover of MLAs. In most states, this turnover hovers around fifty percent.
This analysis helps put in perspective the phenomenon of concentration of power that we see in states across India. It reveals that the rise of strong, populist, chief ministers is not the sole factor behind the presidentialisation of state politics. There are factors that are structural to electoral competition that are also at play, across political parties. The high probability of defeat for re-running incumbents also reveals the difficulty of meeting voters’ expectations.
The author is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Views are personal. Data used in this article is available at https://lokdhaba.ashoka.edu.in/pct/?e=VS