Rotterdam and Calgary: The election of a candidate from a regional party leads to a 7.2 percentage point rise in the level of violence in his or her home constituency, according to a new study.

Violent events rise by 9.9% and violent deaths by 13.4% when a regional party comes to power, says our analysis. We, associate professors of economics, studied the relationship between the election of a regional-party representative and political violence. We defined regional parties as those that are officially recognised by the Election Commission of India as "state parties" and have experienced electoral success in a geographically concentrated area.

There were 74 regional parties active during the period of our study. Some of these are the Asom Gana Parishad, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Bodoland People’s Front, Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, Naga People’s Front and Telugu Desam Party.

The study looked at constituency-level assembly election data between 1988 and 2011 and events of political violence between 1989 and 2015.

Regional political parties are a defining feature of Indian democracy. There are several states where the presence of national parties such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress is marginal or where they depend heavily on alliances with dominant regional parties. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the BJP and the Congress play a secondary role in alliances led by regional stalwarts AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) that have been in power since 1967.

Regional parties may, in principle, be better equipped to bring the government to the people, at least relative to national parties. They typically contest elections on a platform that appeals specifically to a geographically concentrated population that commonly identifies along some dimension, such as language, ethnicity, or “nationality”.

But regionalism can come at a price, we found.

Many regional parties are borne out of regional movements that demand greater autonomy, for local populations. They are siblings of the extreme and violent organisations that were borne out of the same regional movements. So, regional parties often retain a complicated and potentially symbiotic relationship with the more extreme segments of the broader movement and may facilitate or overlook the violent activities of extremists in exchange for political support come election time.

The figure 1 (a & b) plots the average number of violent events against the percentage of seats won by national parties [1 (a)] and by regional parties [1(b)]. Figure 1 (a) implies that a 10 percentage point rise in the win percentage of national parties is associated with an 11.94% fall in political violence. The bottom figure implies that a 10 percentage point increase in the win percentage of regional parties is associated with a 14.26% increase in political violence.

Figure 1(a) : The Number Of Violent Events And The Win Percentage For National Parties

Figure 1(b) : The Number Of Violent Events And The Win Percentage Of Regional Parties

Figure 2 plots the average occurrence of violence against the margin of victory or defeat for a regional political party candidate. To the right of the vertical line at 0 are cases where a regional party candidate won the assembly seat. To the left, those where a regional party candidate lost. The figure shows that average occurrence of a violent event increases when the local MLA belongs to a regional political party.

Figure 2: Causal Effect Of Electing A Regional MLA On Political Violence

Secessionist roots are a factor

One explanation for the rise in this political violence could be the secessionist origins of many regional parties.

The study divided data into states that did and did not report any active secessionist movement during our sample period. The first category included states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, and Tripura. Then there were states like Gujarat, which primarily experienced Hindu-Muslim conflicts, and those like Andhra Pradesh that dealt with mostly insurgent Naxalite violence.

We found that the increase in violence associated with local regional party rule was driven entirely by states with a history of secessionism. This suggested that the election of a regional party increases secessionist violence in particular.

However, many of these states also experienced communal (nativist) violence. To determine whether the increased violence was due to secessionism or nativism, we further divided the data according to the protagonists involved in the violence. The idea was that secessionist violence would involve insurgents and central or state government forces, while nativist violence would involve groups of insurgents and civilians.

We found that only violence between insurgents and government forces increased when a regional representative was elected, further confirming that the election of these candidates cause secessionist violence in particular.

We also investigated if the level of violence depended on whether the regional party was solely responsible for governing the state or was only a member of a coalition. The violence, we found, was driven entirely by instances where regional parties were part of a governing coalition. This suggested that greater access to executive power may be a means of appeasing the violent groups associated with these regional political parties.

Should regional parties be curbed?

The results do not imply that regional parties should be banned from participation in elections in India. For one, the study estimated the causal effect of individual representatives who belong to regional parties. To curb their electoral role would also need an estimate of the causal effect of banning them.

Also, regional political parties can, in principle, confer significant benefits on the voters they represent. These and other hard-to-measure benefits need to be taken into account before drawing extreme conclusions about limiting the role of regional political parties.

(Magesan is an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, Canada, and Kapoor is associate professor of economics at the Erasmus University, the Netherlands.)

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