The maturing voter?
PRATAP BHANU MEHTA
THE year two thousand and three ended with elections to four state assemblies that are being presented as landmark elections in more ways than one could list. The fact that three out of the four states now have women chief ministers is, in itself, quite remarkable, though whether the fact that these campaigns were led by women actually had an independent impact on women voters is still disputed. This election also supposedly brought out the newly consolidated moderation of the BJP, now campaigning on issues of governance and performance rather than Hindutva. For many observers this suggested that the BJP is capable of outgrowing its core ideology and can free itself from the nefarious influence of the parivar organizations like the RSS and the VHP.
But most importantly the election seems to have generated a considerable commentary on the supposed maturing of the Indian voter. This new Indian voter cannot be taken for granted, is less susceptible to the emotive appeals of identity politics, is demanding performance and judging governments by their capacity to deliver, and is growing more sophisticated in its demands. In some ways the moderation of the BJP and the maturity of the Indian voter are seen as two sides of the same coin: the BJP has recognized the Indian voter for what she is becoming and in turn has tried to position itself to exploit these new expectations. Like with the economy, specifically who wins or loses matters less; what is important is the feel good factor. We are showing signs of transcending the scourge of identity politics (the political analogue of the Hindu rate of growth). A new Indian voter is being born.
That these elections were, on the whole, a wholesome affair is not in doubt. What is a little more debatable is whether they in fact represent as significant a break with the past as we would like to think. Part of the aim of this essay is to question the implicit dichotomies on which this narrative of the maturing voter rests: governance versus identity politics, emotive versus rational voting, a gullible versus informed voter. All these dichotomies are grossly overstated, as if to imply that identity politics could not be a rational strategy, that govern ance issues are not conjoined to identity concerns, or that we are beginning to see the light of reason clearing the fog of emotion. So Mandal, Mandir, Masjid have been replaced by Sadak, Bijli, Pani: the modern citizen has finally appeared.
It is important to question this narrative of the maturing voter for two reasons. What I do not wish to contest is the ‘maturity’ of the Indian voter, a presumptuous topic to discuss anyway. What I hope to cast some doubt upon is the claim that we are seeing some significant change in this respect. The first is simply academic: this is not a very plausible story about the history of Indian voting patterns, and possibly grossly underestimates how ‘rational’ and governance-oriented the Indian voter always was given the structure of choices they faced. The second is that this narrative might lead to a false prognostication about the future of identity politics, in particular the continued political salience of Hindutva.
What really drives the Indian voter? If we are honest we have to begin by admitting that we are not quite sure and the usual questions asked in the context of voting behaviour are empirically often hard to disentangle. Does the Indian voter vote prospectively or retrospectively? Do we vote to punish incumbents to choose the best possible alternative? The astonishing rate of incumbent turnover, as high as fifty per cent for state assemblies, has created a sense that, barring occasional exceptions, anti-incumbency has become close to an iron law of Indian politics.
On one view we want to express what we are dissatisfied with, we are punitive in a knee jerk manner, but are not clear what we want in its place. But the distinction between prospective and retrospective voting, voting that looks to the future as opposed to the past is a very murky one indeed, and it is not clear what would count as evidence in favour of one rather than the other. Is anti-incumbency an emotive expression of anger against those in power, more a sign of our angst, or is it a rational, strategic response to the choices facing the electorate? It would be very difficult to characterize it as one or the other.
Second, take our buzzword: governance. Is it the case that we are increasingly more governance sensitive as voters than we used to be? How would we argue this case? What dimensions of governance do we take seriously? Why roads and electricity, not health and education? One strategy would be to look at the content of election campaigns like the one recently concluded. It could then be argued that the issues that dominated the election, be it clean air in Delhi, or power in Madhya Pradesh, are governance related issues. This emphasis is in stark contrast to Gujarati pride related issues that we witnessed in Gujarat just over a year ago, or caste identity politics that has been driving so many of our elections recently. But this construal of what happened in the current overlooks some salient features of past elections and ignores some of the undercurrents of this one.
First, we seem to have quickly forgotten the old cliché of Indian politics that the price of onions had a significant impact on elections. This was really a way of acknowledging that inflation, especially of food commodities, was always very important to Indian elections. It defies logic to think that inflation is not a central governance indicator. Whatever their other faults, governments in India were terrified of inflation and this is one of the reasons why we have consistently chosen inflation averse policies (compared to most developing countries) and no political party has been able to ignore macroeconomic stability without risking a political price. We are currently witnessing impressive growth, low inflation and a reasonably optimistic economic scenario, so the demands of the voters are changing. But this hardly suggests that we were not governance oriented in the past.
Second, the opposition between identity issues and governance issues is much too sharply drawn in our political discourse. It is often argued that both Congress and post-Congress politics were in their own different ways identity based. In this narrative the Congress relied upon Dalit and Muslim vote blocs and nurtured vote bank politics (a euphemism for identity politics if ever there was one). During the eighties and nineties what changed was not so much vote bank politics, but the fact that these voting blocs, Dalits and OBCs in particular, were now giving their allegiance to their own political parties, based on demands of recognition and a politics of self-esteem. In this view, what we are now witnessing is a replacement of identity with governance issues.
This narrative has always struck me as being too simple minded about how Dalits or Muslims or other backward castes voted. There is very little evidence that these groups voted unthinkingly in blocs. Rather what the Congress relied on in the early days after independence was a tripartite appeal in the case of Dalits: the possibility of mild land reform, direct poverty alleviation strategies and the rhetoric of affirmative action in government. Even Indira Gandhi’s central slogan during the seventies, ‘Garibi Hatao’, was premised on promising tangible benefits to sections of the population. From the vantage point of view of these sections, these were the crucial governance issues and they predominantly went along with the party that seemed to be in the best position to deliver these goods.
In our current enthusiasm for governance discourse, we implicitly smuggle in another opposition: governance discourse is a demand for universal goods compared to particularistic identity claims. But it can also be asked of governance goods: governance goods for whom? From the vantage point of many voters, access to state jobs and poverty alleviation schemes were governance goods – a measure along which they judged whether government had done something for them. These deserted the Congress in large part because it did not come good on these promises: reservations remained symbolic, the plight of the landless dire and poverty reduction a cruel joke. But it is difficult to argue that governance mattered less.
It is the case that the nineties saw the resurgence of two forms of identity politics: caste based political parties, especially in North India and Hindutva more generally. Caste politics seemed to be centred on the claims of particular identities; it placed greater emphasis on the politics of self esteem (Ambedkar statues as opposed to health and education), and seemed to demand – what from a middle class point of view is the ultimate non-governance approach – reservations. But in a sense even this caste politics was governance centred in its own way. It was premised upon the hypothesis that governance cannot be altered, at least in ways that matter, to large sections of the population, unless these sections gained access to state power and the entire structure of political representation was altered.
What many caste groups were doing was judging government by the quality of interactions they had with the state, and they came to the conclusion that their interests could not be protected unless they had significant representation in the structures of the state. The demand for reservations was not a blind expression of identity, but a rational demand that emerged from particular social experiences. It is easy to slight Mayawati and company for, as one commentator put it, ‘making sure that their only achievement was that Ambedkar’s name will not be forgotten. It will be etched around every corner in the name of an institution, a statute or a colony.’ But even this aspiration stems from a concern with governance. Many deprived sections of society were judging governance by its ability to produce a public sphere that did not slight them, marginalize them or alienate them, and they went along with parties that seemed committed to such a sphere.
It is true that this politics had to speak the language of self-esteem of particular groups rather than the language of universal entitlement; it judged governance along some dimensions rather than others. But to describe that politics as unconcerned about governance is failing to give this politics its historical due. Voters were being rational, given their concrete social experiences, in the strategic choices they made; this was not a politics of blind emotion.
There is no doubt that caste categories were and will continue to remain salient to Indian politics. It is difficult to argue that the outcome in Rajasthan in the recent elections had little to do with caste and more to do with governance issues. The reasons for the continued salience of caste are complex and will require a separate discussion. But as I have been suggesting the opposition between governance and caste related issues is a little too quick.
Caste can be a rational consideration to vote upon if you conclude that there is not much difference in the governance capacities of the parties you have to choose between, or that the individual abilities of your legislator will not make any difference to your lives. At least access to state power might make a difference to your life in a way in which general promises made by parties might or might not.
Voters have always made strategic choices on dimensions of governance that affect them and it is difficult to argue that this election represents a qualitative break on this score. Many would argue with some plausibility that even in this election it was striking that the delivery of two crucial social entitlements along which governance ought to be measured, health and education, were not issues at all, and it would be premature to conclude that we are seeing a fundamental change in demand patterns of the electorate.
The two things that did possibly change in this election are the following. First, if anything is disappearing from Indian politics it is populism rather than identity politics. Most voters understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch (at least not for very long) and there is more sense amongst all political parties that populism is not sustainable. Free electricity does not mean much when you don’t have electricity to distribute and voters would rather contribute and get an assured supply than fall for the promise of free and not get anything.
Part of the constraint on populism may also be a simple recognition of fiscal realities. Most states, thanks to a combination of current expenditure on salaries and pensions of employees and interest payment of debts are broke, and there just is not that much to spend. It does not therefore help to fuel high expectations; most voters and politicians now understand the limits of populism.
The second change relates to the role of the media. Hindi television media in particular now has a depth of coverage – small villages, towns and bylanes of India – to an extent that is unprecedented. So instead of going round and round on the same tired issues as the English media often does, Hindi television has the capacity for giving detailed coverage of individual constituencies and local issues. Instead of asking every MLA the same general questions, you could actually confront them with the realities of their own constituency: point a camera to a pothole or a non-existent road, show broken electricity wires or dry canals. Perhaps because there was no single dramatic event, the media finally found some time for governance.
What about Hindutva? Did the BJP not insistently occupy the space of governance rather than Hindu nationalism in these elections? In a certain sense there is something to this claim, but again less than meets the eye. The contrast between this and previous elections can be overstated. First, as more sober analysis of even the Gujarat elections would show, governance issues were important to those elections. Modi for instance, made a lot of the fact that he had brought water to large parts of Gujarat.
Second, Modi and all that he stands for, was not an insignificant factor in this election in parts of Madhya Pradesh; the RSS has made inroads in tribal belts based on its ideology. I suspect that we have underestimated the possible fallout from the Rajasthan government’s banning of trishuls, if not the arrest of Togadia. That it has taken a quieter, less belligerent form is a sign of the growing sophistication of Hindutva politics, not evidence for the fact that the voters have given it up for governance.
In order to understand these points ask the question: under what circumstances does Hindutva manifest itself in a politically belligerent manner? It seems that there are at least two conditions required for this to happen. First, there has to be a framing context or a precipitating event that can fuel the politics of Hindu anxiety such as Shah Bano, Godhara, and terrorism. Second, the Sangh Parivar has to undertake a protracted mobilization: rath yatra’s, gaurav yatra’s that can capitalize on this politics of anxiety. In the recently concluded elections neither condition obtained. There was no framing context that fuelled a politics of anxiety, no immediate experience that could be tapped into. And the BJP was not in a position to undertake a protracted Hindutva mobilization for at least three reasons.
First, it was feeling confident that the NDA’s record would do it some good and Hindutva had the potential at this juncture of simply diverting attention from what it felt to be its own achievements. Second, what issue would Hindutva mobilize upon? Arguably Ayodhya. But to do that at this stage would backfire. Depending upon the form of mobilization, it could still rock the alliance whose partners are possibly more risk averse closer to an election. Raising the issue would also invite the uncomfortable question of why the BJP has not done much on Ayodhya in the last five years. It is in the BJP’s interest, at the moment, to throw cold water on the issue. So it has been prudently taking the line that the practical realities of Indian politics and the constraints of Indian institutions place limits on how fast it can proceed on Ayodhya. Now it will mobilize only when it either has nothing else going for it, or it is in a position to manage a decisive victory on this issue.
Finally on almost all other issues – the long term cultural transformation of the country, the reconfiguring of Indian education, cow slaughter ban in the states, anti-conversion legislation, marginalization of Muslim politics – it has steadily been gaining victory with the complicity of all other political parties. The simple fact is that on most of its issues it does not need to mobilize any more.
If the above analysis is plausible, then the BJP’s turn to governance should not be seen as a departure from its core ideology. It is rather a politically shrewd attempt to configure the progress on its core ideology in accordance with the practical realities of Indian politics. The BJP itself will be more secure if it manages what many think would be an oxymoron: Hindutva plus governance. But this is by no means a supplanting of Hindutva by governance as many observers claim. Hindutva is here for the long haul.
It is easy to dismiss Hindutva as irrational and emotive politics, contrasted with the civilities of governance issues, that in the final analysis its agenda, if successful has the potential of destroying much that is valuable about the experiment that we call modern India. But I fear that our simple-minded oppositions between governance and Hindutva, reason and emotion, identity and material goods, caste and citizenship, fail to adequately capture the complex forces operating in Indian elections and may give us a false sense of the future.
The Indian voter remains what she always has been: a complex creature, thinking through her anxieties and needs, making strategic choices and sometimes making mistakes, trying to be rational in what are often irrational circumstances. To give her as bland a title as ‘the governance voter’ will be to miss the tumult of Indian politics.