Voters need a good enemy

Contrary to what rational choice theorists hold, voters rarely, if ever, grade political candidates on the basis of past performance and programmes. The positive ‘will-do’ aspects of a party manifesto are not nearly as compelling to the voter as the scent of negativity

Updated - May 23, 2016 06:49 pm IST

Published - February 09, 2015 01:25 am IST

What chance does anybody have in getting normal citizens to come out in praise of a dam well built, or a road perfectly laid? Next to nothing! Good work, up front transparency and no swindles add up to a political ho-hum; it puts collective action to sleep. Now change the setting: factor in a botched up dam and a potholed highway and watch activism swell. No doubt about it: anger fills political sails like nothing else; not contentment, never endorsement.

While there is little evidence of collective goodwill yanking up politics, negativity is the stuff protests are made of. The greater this sentiment, the more knuckles it waves in your face, the quicker it charges up political batteries. Likewise, our ballots are aimed at keeping somebody out rather than getting somebody in. We vote against those we dislike the most and not for those whose past and present we think well of.

Just because voters are queuing up patiently, do not mistake them for pacific individuals. Their gradual progress to the ballot box hides the fact that nearly all of them are actually in a mission mode. It is the inability to accept this truth that forces rational choice theory to make its first big misstep in tracking voting behaviour. Barring card-carrying political cadres, ordinary people are hardly influenced by either a candidate’s individual merit or by a party’s good looks. What gets them going, if they ever get going, is to make sure that somebody in that line-up is thoroughly trounced, perhaps even disgraced. It is this rumble that makes for an imagined movement though there is no flag or banner to signal its presence. Voters get their high not because their candidate has won, but because somebody else has lost.

Contrary to what rational choice theorists hold, voters rarely, if ever, grade candidates on the basis of past performance and programmes. The positive “will-do” aspects of a party manifesto are not nearly as compelling to the voter as the scent of negativity. For example, nothing had changed in Delhi since >Narendra Modi swept the polls in 2014 . In fact, reports suggest, he boosted foreign direct investment, charmed Barack Obama and even unleashed a host of public projects. Yet, by February 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party made a sudden and spirited comeback. Was this because after >long months in the BJP sun , there were some who longed for a little shade?

Electoral history What elements conspire to create this sort of negativity is hard to imagine in advance, which is why there is always an element of the box office in election outcomes. In 2014, Mr. Modi profited because public perception was against the Congress. Dr. Manmohan Singh was inert and expressionless, and the mother and son duo reeked of privilege. They just had to go. As this mood gathered momentum, so also did Mr. Modi’s prospects. His past record and future promises were cast aside; what mattered most was that the Congress had to lose; it had become such a big turn-off!

It was only much later when Modi supporters untied the victory package that, to their disbelief, >Sakshi Maharaj and >Yogi Adityanath also tumbled out. By then it was much too late; the delivery boy had already left. On account of voter concentration on pure negatives our electoral history records many instances of unwelcome surprises. V.P. Singh won because Rajiv Gandhi was the most not-wanted person. Only later did his supporters realise that the man they successfully pumped for was besotted by OBC reservations. When Rajiv Gandhi came in, the country had had enough of violence in Punjab, but he soon brought upon the Babri Masjid fiasco. Or, when Indira Gandhi was defeated in 1977, voters had no idea what the Janata Party stood for; in fact, even the Janata Party did not have a clue.

Much later, well after election fever subsides, the futility of ideologies and track records becomes evident. Only then analysts begin to wonder why the losing party got such a raw deal. After all, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), with all its flaws, had brought in the Right to Information Act, challenged colonial land acquisition laws, even initiated the women’s reservation bill. Much of that counted for nothing because the negativity concentrate built around corruption in high quarters and an unattractive leadership simply took over. Nitish Kumar did a remarkable job in building infrastructure in Bihar, but his association with the UPA stained him with that same negativity, as it did the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

For most voters, whether they support the incumbent or not, they do not finely position the candidates on offer in terms of an approval ranking. Rational choice theory may think otherwise, but as far as the electorate is concerned, it is really between two opponents, most of the time. There is, in one corner, the person they want defeated, and in the other corner stands a candidate that the voter thinks can best do the job. The voter is indifferent towards all other aspirants and they barely get a nod.

Rational choice theorists cannot face up to this fact as it makes a mockery of their construct of the cold calculating individual. For them, rational voters obey the principle of transitivity whereby if ‘A’ is preferred to ‘B’ and ‘B’ to ‘C’, then ‘A’ will always be chosen above ‘C’. This obviously demands a finely graded preferential ladder. In a real election, however, the contest is essentially between two gladiators where the principle of negativity trumps that of transitivity.

For the bulk of the electorate, what matters is that if a certain candidate has to be kept out, who then, from among the rest of the aspirants, can accomplish this end best? If a voter wants ‘A’ to be defeated, and if for this job ‘B’ is seen as the most suitable candidate, then the voter will choose ‘B’. This will happen irrespective of whether or not the same voters may consider ‘C’ and ‘D’ to be better people, or parties, in isolation. In the given context, however, they count for nothing; just a wasted vote.

Political versus economic decisions What puzzles most rational choice theorists is why an individual even takes the trouble to vote in the first place. As a single ballot will hardly change an electoral outcome, is it worth the effort to tie one’s laces and trudge to the voting booth? If rational choice theorists put stock by this argument it is simply because they believe that political decisions mimic economic ones. Those who play the market must effectively value and rank all possible investment alternatives along the transitivity principle. To do otherwise would be unwise and foolhardy. But elections are a different matter altogether, and this is for two main reasons.

First, mobilisation, as we noticed at the start, works best on the principle of negativity, which is not how economic decisions take place. Second, and more importantly, elections are a public event where one is given a bounded time horizon within which votes must be cast and an electoral decision made. This opportunity will not come tomorrow; in fact, it may not come for the next five years. In contrast, the stock market rings in a new beginning every morning and also allows economic choices to be made and unmade in a single working day.

In addition, elections take place in the open. There is a marquee, a designated voting counter, polling agents and a buzz that grows as the line of waiting voters gets longer. In many ways, this scene resembles a mobilisation, a political crowd but without a visible leader. What motivates the electorate then is about the same as what galvanises a procession. Substitute the anger against a dodgy dam or a leaky pipeline with that against actual politicians and parties, and the drive to come out and vote becomes so much clearer.

For politics and politicians, a good enemy is a joy forever.

(Dipankar Gupta is Distinguished Professor and Director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University. The views expressed are personal.)

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