In what may prove to a stern warning to those in the Congress party who have come to believe following the recent debacle in the Lok Sabha polls that stressing too much fighting against communal violence may erode their majority Hindu voter base, a recent Yale University research of Indian electoral data, titled “Do parties matter for ethnic violence? Evidence from India”, has reached the drastic conclusion that rise in religious violence in India is a sure sign of the country’s shift away from democracy. Authored by Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver and Steven Rosenzweig, the scholars base their analysis of assembly election outcomes spread over several decades in 16 major Indian states.
The scholars say, the outbreak of internal religious or ethnic strife in any country is associated with a corresponding 8.5 per cent point decline in a country’s Polity IV Score – a data analysis method used in political science to assess a country’s level of democracy based on evaluation of elections, competitiveness and openness, the nature of political participation in general, and the extent of checks on executive authority. Strife also leads to five per cent point rise in the likelihood of a coup d’etat, the scholars add, indicating, this is what may be happening in India, too.
Insisting that “ethnic-group conflict is among the most serious threats facing young democracies”, the scholars, citing the instance of the Congress and other secular parties, however, say, “A politician hailing from a party relying on a large base of minority support and having a distinctive reputation for curbing ethnic conflict might devote extra effort and resources toward stemming ethnic disorder when in office.” Conversely, they add, “In settings where bureaucratic and police institutions are weak, party systems are volatile, clientelist strategies of voter mobilization predominate over programmatic appeals.”
Emphasising that “Hindu-Muslim violence tends to polarize the electorate along religious lines, bolstering support for majoritarian Hindu candidates and diminishing support for Congress ones”, the scholars seek to prove this on the basis of analysis of electoral outcomes of Congress candidates who won or lost by less than one per cent votes against a non-Congress candidate. They underline, “A full increase in Congress seat share (from zero to 100 per cent) in a district produces an 87 per cent reduction in the number of riots occurring in that election cycle and a 40 percentage point decrease in the probability of that district experiencing any riot at all.”
The scholars say, the impact of Congress incumbency on riots is “strikingly large”, adding, by way of example, “Between 1962 and 2000, the 315 districts witnessed a total of 998 riots. Our estimates suggest that had Congress won every close election that occurred in this sample, India would have seen 106 (10 percent) fewer riots.” Conversely, had Congress lost all close elections, “we predict that India would have seen 120, or 10 percent, more riots. This exercise illustrates the substantial role that Congress MLAs have played in stemming local Hindu-Muslim conflict in India.”
In fact, the scholars say, while “incumbency by Congress MLAs reduced Hindu-Muslim riots in Indian districts”, Muslims, who have been historically core Congress supporters, suffered “disproportionately from communal violence.” They add, “For a Congress MLA, disappointing local Muslim voters by failing to be proactive on this issue could therefore hinder her chances of re-election.” Hence, “having a greater concentration of Muslims in a district encouraged Congress MLAs to do more to inhibit rioting…” In fact, “Congress’ strong links to Muslim voters led the party’s MLAs to expend extra effort in reducing riots when in office.”
Comparing this with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its predecessor Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJP/BJS), the scholars say, “The BJS/BJP saw a 0.8 per cent point increase in their vote share following a riot in the year prior to an election. This suggests that the electoral costs to Congress may indeed be due to polarization. Meanwhile, if Congress is held more accountable for riots because it owns the issue of preserving communal harmony, we should expect to see Congress punished more for riots that break out when its MLAs hold office in a district.”
The scholars conclude, “According to our most conservative estimates, the election of a single Congress MLA in a district brought about a 32 percent reduction in the probability of a riot breaking out prior to the next election. Simulations reveal that had Congress candidates lost all close elections in our dataset, India would have witnessed 10 percent more riots and thousands more riot casualties. The pacifying effect of Congress incumbency appears to be driven by local electoral considerations, in particular the party’s exceptionally strong linkages to Muslim voters”.
The states analyzed are Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.
The research use secondary historical sources to compile a list of all parties that formed state governments in India between 1961 and 2008. This list included the party of the Chief Minister as well as any other parties in coalition governments. It uses the Wilkinson-Varshney database of Hindu- Muslim riots (1950-95), updated by in 2014 by Anirban Mitra and Debraj Ray.