What happens in marathon multi-phase polls? A look at scenarios
The election commission’s decision to hold an eight-phase assembly election in West Bengal has been criticised by the Mamata Banerjee government in the state. The TMC and opposition parties other than the BJP have questioned the need to spread over the polling process between March 27 and April 29; while elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry are being held in a single phase on April 6. In Assam the election will be held in three phases from March 27 to April 6.
“If elections can be held in Bihar and Assam in three phases, then why are they being held in eight phases here? Who will be benefited? The ECI should be more rational,” Banerjee said.
The Election Commission for its part said the polling has been spread over a month taking into cognizance law and order considerations in the state.
This is not the first-time questions have been raised over the staggered polling exercise.
In October 2019 elections were held for the 288-seat Maharashtra assembly and the 90-member Haryana assembly in a single day while as Jharkhand that has 81 assembly constituencies went to polls in five phases from November 30 to December 20. The opposition had questioned the need for a staggered election in a state with population and area smaller than Maharashtra.
A former EC official said though the poll panel, which is mandated to carry out elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies, does take into consideration the suggestions on the polling schedule made by the political parties, the final decision rests on inputs from the state election commission and law enforcement agencies.
“At the time of Jharkhand elections many people had questioned the ECs decision to hold election in five phases. The commission had to take into cognizance the security paraphernalia that would be required to hold elections in the state where more than half of the constituencies are affected by Maoist violence.” If elections are being held in a clutch of states, staggered elections allow for the deployment of central forces, the official added.
How do parties benefit from a multiphase election
A BJP functionary, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a staggered election allows the parties to recalibrate strategy. “There are times when the mood on the ground shifts, or public perception about a party change. During such times, the parties get enough time to go back to the drawing board and makes quick amends or changes to its strategy,” the functionary said.
Sometimes, a phased election allows the party to address the concerns such as in-fighting in the cadre. “There have been elections where the voter turnout has been dismal or not up to the expectations of a party. In such a scenario, the party command can galvanise the cadre to push for better turn out,” the functionary said.
Political scientist Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies said the parties benefit from the wave on the ground more than the phases. A staggered election in some cases allows parties to benefit from the prevalent mood.
“We do not have any empirical evidence to prove how challengers benefit from a multiphase election. But if there is no wave or the mood is against a party, the number of phases will not matter,” he said.
Kumar said though exit and opinion polls are banned during an election, there are unofficial communication channels that relay the voter sentiment. “These unofficial communication channels can have an impact on the undecided voters [during the subsequent phases]. If the mood is in favour of a particular party, there is a small percentage of voters, who prefer voting for the winning side."
A second BJP functionary said while the party had suggested a multiphase election in West Bengal, a study of previous assembly elections suggests that the incumbents do not seem to benefit from a prolonged polling exercise. “There is no data to suggest how the challengers benefit from prolonged elections. But in the past, we have seen a trend,” the second functionary, who oversaw elections in a clutch of states, said.
The functionary cited the West Bengal elections spread over six phases in 2011 when Banerjee stormed to power. “She made the most of the anti-incumbency against the Left government that was in power for over three decades. She also benefited from the sentiment prevalent at that time against land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur and against criminalisation of politics.”
A similar trend was seen in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, when the Samajwadi Party defeated the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party in an election spread over seven phases. “Incidentally, in Uttar Pradesh, too, land acquisition was a major poll issue,” the second BJP functionary said.
Ahead of the 2012 election, the Congress initiated a campaign against the Mayawati government’s land acquisition for a highway project in Bhatta Parsaul village.
A ruling Janata Dal (United) leader from Bihar said a campaign spread over several phases costs money and in the long run, a party that can sustain canvassing for long can also hope to benefit from it. “Sustained messaging, rallies and outreach programmes can retain the voters’ interest in elections and allow a party to benefit."