Millennium Post

Lessons from the past

These words from an old song by Simon and Garfunkel best describes the feeling of many Indians as they turn on the television or read the daily news. Every survey in the past has shown that the least trusted set of public servants  is the political class. Yet, come elections and one, perforce, votes for one or the other candidate while viewing the whole exercise as the unavoidable costs of any democracy. This rather depressing state of affairs probably describes why, in general, voting per centages in the past have been low.

Yet, in the last few years the mood seems to have changed. For one, in the four states that went to the polls in 2013, the increase in voting per centage (relative to 2008) has been phenomenal: 10 per cent for Delhi, seven per cent for Rajasthan and so on. These are remarkable by historic assembly election standards.Voters faith in democracy seems to have been restored. Second, voters seem to vote decisively. Thus in all the four states that went to the polls in 2013, the vote per centage of  ‘others’ has declined by eight to 10 per centage (with the one exception of Chattisgarh). This has made ‘horse trading’ after elections unnecessary as one or the other party seems to get a clear mandate everywhere.

A third feature of the 2013 election has been noted by many commentators: the decimation of the Congress almost everywhere. The evidence for this is the dramatic decline in the number of seats won by the party everywhere (except Chattisgarh). However, a closer study of the voting pattern yields new insights. Thus, the decline in vote per centage for the Congress has been relatively small (three per cent) in Rajasthan while its vote per centage increased marginally in Chattisgarh and increased by four per cent in Madhya Pradesh. Then why was the Congress decimated? The real story is that, where the Congress is in a straight fight with the BJP,  the undecided (others’) votes seem to go more to the BJP than the Congress. Where the ‘others’ category is small (as in Chattisgarh) the Congress has actually gained seats at the expense of the BJP but not enough to form the government. So the Congress seems to retain its core votes but is losing out on the ‘swing’ voters.

The results of the Delhi election shows that the Congress seems to lose more than the BJP when a third alterative emerges. Thus, the largest single party in terms of seats was the BJP, yet it actually lost almost two per cent of vote share. The real story here (now well known) is the emergence of the AAP party which obtained about 29 per cent of votes mainly from the Congress and the ‘others’. Notable here was the surprising disappearance of the BSP from the preference of even its committed voters.

Fifth, there is a clear break from the past in terms of  the ‘anti incumbency’ factor: voters tended (particularly in the South) to vote out incumbent governments every five years or so. Yet, in the last five years or so, incumbent governments have been regularly voted back to power in a number of states like Gujarat, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh etc. probably because the metric of economic development now provides a measurable yardstick to voters.

Finally, in 2014, about 20-25 per cent of voters lie in the age group 18-25. While this per centage is not much higher than in the past, it must be remembered that many of these voters belong to the post liberalisation era, have seen high economic growth and are well networked. The phenomenal spreads of the new communication media and spread of the mobile phone network has also brought the rural and urban youth together particularly in their perspectives on development. So what are the lessons for parties in the upcoming elections? For one, the UPA and the NDA will remain the two poles around which alliances will build. Yet, large regional parties are unlikely to join in pre-poll alliances as each has its own national agenda. This explains why the Left sponsored Third Front has already collapsed and the Federal Front put forward by parties like the TMC, the AIADMK and Naveen Pattanaik’s BJD will never formalise. Any alliance is what economists call a ‘cartel’. It is a well known proposition in economics that the only stable alliance is one with a dominant core. The UPA has the Congress and the NDA, the BJP. No such core exists for the Federal Front.

Second, in the ‘first past the post’ system, even regional alliances are crucial as a split among ideologically similar parties can imply that a party with a minority vote share forms the government. This happened in Delhi where the BJP emerged as the single largest party even though its vote share declined. This also explains why the  BJP move to ask the MNS in Maharashtra to abstain from the parliamentary polls was quite a smart move. If the MNS wants to emerge as a serious political party it might want to seriously consider this. The disappearance of the independent candidate ( the ‘others’) makes post election deals less important.

Finally, the ‘young ‘voter is not new in number but in thinking. For many belong to the post 1991 generation and have not seen the caste and religious divides that split parties in the 1980s. So caste and religion calculations are no longer sufficient to win elections.

These are important lessons? Are parties taking account of  these changes? Is the AAP party a new phenomena or simply a flash in the pan? I will address these issues in my next column.

The author is professor of Economics at JNU
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