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Should We Be Surprised by the Results of the Indian Elections?

- May 18, 2009

Results are in from the most recent national parliamentary elections in the world’s largest democracy and, according to the NY Times, they represent a “stunning political coup”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/18/world/asia/18india.html. The incumbent Indian National Congress party significantly improved on its previous election showing, to the point where it now holds 205 of 543 seats in parliament on its own, and, with its coalition partners, is only 12 seats from a majority, which it should be able to pick up with relative ease by working with small parties and/or independents.

While this will undoubtedly have an important influence on Indian domestic politics, my question for the readers of the Monkey Cage is whether we ought to be surprised by these results. One would think that in the midst of a global economic downturn, incumbent parties that had been in power for years would be struggling to hold on to their current seats, not picking up large numbers of seats from the opposition. Plus, the Times notes that there has been a strong “anti-incumbency tradition”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/18/world/asia/18india.html in India in recent national elections.

So why the success of the Congress Party? Was it something idiosyncratic to Indian politics, or are we perhaps witnessing the beginning of a trend where incumbent parties fair better than expected during this global economic crisis? Is the “Powell and Whitten (1993)”:http://www.jstor.org/stable/2111378 argument about the necessity for “clarity of responsibility” in economic voting about to bite in a global way, with voters perhaps being more willing to give a pass to leaders for global events beyond their control? (Although, if this was the case, wouldn’t we expect voters to assign less responsibility in a small country like Iceland, where the incumbent government was both forced to resign and “voted out of office”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_parliamentary_election,_2009, than a large country like India? Or, perhaps, will we witness a new harbinger of “responsibility” in coming elections, with something like willingness to regulate banks playing a role now?

As always, comments are invited. I would be especially interested in hearing from specialists in Indian politics (which I most certainly am not!) as well as from those following other elections that have taken place/will take place shortly in the shadow of the global economic crisis.