Policy Roundup: India has a new government

  • Blog Post Date 18 June, 2024
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Nalini Gulati

Editorial Advisor, I4I


In the aftermath of the 2024 Lok Sabha election results, this post presents a curation of developments in the Indian policy landscape – highlighting I4I content on how coalition governments have historically brought about policy reforms, and varied evidence on the effects of a constituency having an elected representation from the ruling party. It also touches upon the representation of independent candidates, and the share of women in ministerial positions.

Over six weeks of the Indian summer, citizens across the country cast their votes in the general election, before the verdict was revealed on 4 June, 2024. For the first time since 2014, India will have a coalition government at the Centre. This is expected to mark a significant shift in the way the country is run, with a single party having had a position of dominance for the past decade. 

Back to coalition

At this critical juncture in the world’s largest democracy, commentators are looking back on past coalitions – the first of which was formed in 1977 – and deliberating on how the incoming one might perform. While coalitions have been traditionally considered unstable, several experts are taking a positive view of what the current political developments mean for the future of India. According to Chief Economic Advisor V Anantha Nageswaran, difficult reforms will incrementally become more feasible as space for dialogue opens up. Udit Misra of the Indian Express contends that India’s economic history since 1991 demonstrates that coalition governments have undertaken some of the boldest and most visionary reforms. Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer hails the divided power structure, as it would bring in checks and balances and necessitate consensus-building – with the dependence on allies ensuring that economic reforms remain on track. On the other hand, global rating agency Fitch expresses concern around reforms becoming more contentious to advance, as a result of which “upsides to medium-term growth prospects are likely to be more modest”. 

Writing for I4I in January 2024, based on his recent book ‘History of Economic Policy in India’, Rahul De argues that coalitions are among the three circumstances – the others being crisis and contingency – that precipitate policy change. He discusses how the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government during 2003-2008 successfully introduced a number of welfare policies in a short period of time (for instance, Right to Information Act, 2005), despite being a complex coalition with little common ideology among the parties. Perhaps this was attributable to the setting up of institutional mechanisms, namely the ‘Common Minimum Programme’ and ‘National Advisory Committee’: while the former provided a framework for building consensus on broad policy direction, the latter acted as a forum for bringing in non-political actors into policymaking processes. 

Alignment between elected leaders and ruling parties

A regime change may also alter the dynamics between particular constituencies and the Centre, within a federal structure. For instance, a constituency that previously had a Member of Parliament (MP) whose political party held majority in the Lok Sabha, may now be led by an MP affiliated to the opposition – or vice versa. Does such alignment – or the lack of it – matter for developmental outcomes? Researchers have sought to explore this question at the state level, which may throw up some clues. Analysing data for the period 1990-2005 for constituencies with closely contested elections (implying that the assignment of the winner is nearly random) Asher and Novosad (2015) find that constituencies with Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) that belong to the state’s ruling parties experienced faster growth in non-farm employment. Focusing on firms headquartered in these constituencies, they observe that stock prices go up by 10-15% when the ruling party/coalition-aligned candidate wins. Delving into the mechanisms, the researchers uncover that these MLAs make it easier for firms to do business in their constituencies by relaxing bureaucratic constraints. However, they have no effect on the provision of public goods. Further, it seems that mining permits in such constituencies are granted largely on the basis of political connections, which is concerning. 

Using a similar empirical strategy but different data, Sarkar (2019) examines close elections for seats in states legislative assemblies during 2008-2018. He observes that the difference between ‘aligned’ and ‘non-aligned’ constituencies in terms of receipts and implementation of government schemes such as MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) is not statistically significant. However, aligned constituencies demonstrate lower growth of long-term investment goods like educational institutes. The author posits that, in non-aligned constituencies, the state government substitutes policies attributed more to MLAs by those that are attributed primarily to the state government. 

These differing findings suggest that it cannot be unambiguously claimed that political alignment between elected leaders and ruling parties is better for development at the constituency level – the long-run developmental outcomes of this election result remain to be seen. 

The independents

Of the 8,360 candidates in this general election, close to 47% contested independently (that is, they were not fielded by a party). This is an average of over 7 per constituency, compared to a figure of almost 6 in the previous general elections in 2019.  Seven independents have emerged victorious in constituencies across Maharashtra, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Bihar, and Daman and Diu. While largely considered as mere ‘vote slicers’, some of the independents – both winners and losers – have caught public attention by proving to be formidable challengers to veterans from prominent parties. 

In their 2018 study, Kapoor and Magesan ask: Are independent candidates unimportant for political representation? Leveraging a sharp decline in the number of (typically self-financed) independent candidates following a steep hike in election entry fee in 1996, the researchers seek to understand their causal effect on electoral outcomes. They find that when there are independents in the fray, voter turnout increases and some voters are induced to switch to voting for these candidates. Consequently, the winner can win with fewer votes, and the constituency is less likely to elect an MP of the party/coalition that forms the national government. 

The authors conclude that having independents contest has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, voters appear to have a better chance to express their preferences. Also, independents are not bound by party lines and have more flexibility to represent local preferences. On the other hand, MPs affiliated with the opposition at the Centre may be less able to channel resources into their constituency. 

Women and politics

In the recently released Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum (2024), India has slipped two places to the 129th position in the rankings. One of the two parameters pulling the country down is political empowerment, in terms of women’s representation in ministerial positions and the Parliament. This was the first general election since the passing of the Women’s Reservation Act, 2023, which guarantees one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies – although implementation will not take place until 2029 given the need to complete the Census and delimitation exercise. While the share of women in election candidates rose marginally from 9% in 2019 to 9.5% this year, only 73 have been elected to the Parliament – down from 78 last time. A strand of the economics literature has looked at the impact of women holding political office. For instance, in a study of the International Growth Centre (IGC), Sonia Bhalotra and co-authors (2018) find that constituencies that elect female MLAs experience significantly higher growth in economic activity through the electoral term than similar constituencies that elect men. 

On the voting end of the spectrum, the polling percentage among women was almost equivalent to that of men at the national level – at 65.7% and 65.8%, respectively. The election season also saw political parties across states courting the female vote, mostly via promises of direct benefit transfers to women in disadvantaged households or increase in amounts where such schemes already exist. 

In their I4I article in May 2019, Iyer and Mani contend that research and policy efforts towards greater female political participation tend to concentrate on women’s representation as elected leaders and their voting behaviour. They argue that there are several other ways for women to engage with political and civic processes such as attending rallies, speaking up in public forums, and so on. Based on their survey in Uttar Pradesh, they document that gender gaps in non-electoral participation are greater than that in electoral participation. Women’s political engagement is constrained by factors such as their lower knowledge of political institutions and electoral rules, lack of voice in household decisions, and restrictions on their mobility. 

However, in a recent column, Tanushree Goyal suggests that the current ground realities are a lot more positive in this respect. Noting the “rise of grassroots women party workers”, she highlights the contribution of women in door-to-door campaigns and booth management during elections, and their participation in public activities such as the farmers’ protests outside of electoral cycles.

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