INDIA and the hurdle of convincing the voter

On paper, the INDIA front appears to have arithmetic on its side, but its chemistry remains questionable

Updated - March 29, 2024 04:45 pm IST

Published - August 30, 2023 12:08 am IST

Political representatives and floor leaders of INDIA at a meet in New Delhi to discuss the Manipur issues

Political representatives and floor leaders of INDIA at a meet in New Delhi to discuss the Manipur issues | Photo Credit: PTI

The formation of INDIA (the Indian National Developmental, Inclusive Alliance), the 26-member Opposition alliance, has again highlighted an oft-cited adage: elections and alliances are not only about arithmetic but chemistry too. Indeed, multiple elections in the past have shown that arithmetic alone is no guarantee of success. On paper, the INDIA front appears to have arithmetic on its side, but its chemistry is questionable. Without getting its chemistry right, INDIA would find it difficult to take on the might of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) formidable election machinery that derives its strength from Narendra Modi’s charisma and chemistry.

Decoding the chemistry

While the arithmetic versus chemistry debate has been the subject of much punditry, it is imperative to understand what chemistry implies and entails when it comes to alliance building and elections. In the case of alliances such as INDIA that are composed of diverse parties, there are two aspects of the chemistry of such alliances: chemistry between the alliance partners as well as the alliance’s appeal and perception among the voters. To get its chemistry right, INDIA would have to work on both these aspects.

INDIA has many parties which are engaged in direct political contests or have a history of hostilities. Leaders of these parties merely forging an alliance will not translate to electoral success as long as it is accepted by cadres or core voters of the party. The chemistry between the alliance partners depends on the level of animosity between the supporters and voters of these parties which is a product of their past rivalries. Higher animosity between two parties would mean poor chemistry between the parties, resulting in a lower vote transfer as supporters of these parties would be reluctant to vote for a former foe turned ally. For instance, one of the primary reasons for the failure (and lower vote transfer) of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance was the poor chemistry — a direct consequence of the higher level of animosity between the voters of these parties with a fraught history.

The second aspect is the chemistry with voters which is determined by the alliance’s pitch to the voters and its perception among them. Over the years, the Narendra Modi-led BJP has deepened its chemistry with voters through Mr. Modi’s personal charisma and a slew of welfare measures among other things. To ensure good chemistry with the voters, INDIA would have to successfully counter the BJP’s accusations of it being a ragtag coalition of overly ambitious individuals and parties with the single-point agenda of unseating Mr. Modi.

What INDIA must do

A joint, well-coordinated and sustained campaign against the ruling regime and its failures where different parties and leaders of INDIA speak in unison would help the alliance in channelising the grievance of their voters as well as the median voter to a specific action — of voting for the combined Opposition. It would improve the chemistry between different parties in the alliance by overcoming the reluctance of voters leaning towards one of the Opposition parties from voting for an ideologically distant alliance party candidate.

Research shows that such campaigns can boost cross-party strategic voting and vote transfer by 10 percentage points. INDIA’s strategy during the monsoon session of Parliament and the no-confidence motion had some evidence of such a campaign.

Given INDIA’s composition, i.e., former foes and parties with contrasting ideologies, it is important to ensure that no one party’s or group’s ideological or policy agendas are seen to be dominating over another’s. This calls for reasonable inter-party compromises which need to be highlighted to mute ideological differences, deepen chemistry between allies and facilitate vote transfer between parties with contrasting ideologies. The use of the word “inclusive” instead of “secular” could be seen as a step in that direction. It ensures that core voters of a party such as the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) are not alienated.

In 2019, the BJP had constantly warned voters against the possibility of a ‘khichdi’ coalition of Opposition parties providing a government that was weak, confused and visionless. INDIA’s challenge is to avoid a redux of 2019 and put to rest similar anxieties of voters. It cannot afford to be seen as a hodgepodge coalition driven by sheer anti-Modism with no concrete alternative vision to offer to the electorate. Previous results such as Indira Gandhi’s reelection in 1971 and Mr. Modi’s own reelection in 2019 have shown the limitations of negative campaigning. While INDIA has repeatedly emphasised that it is much more than an anti-Modi alliance and made “saving democracy” one of its central pitches, the average Indian voter does not vote on such abstract issues and is more concerned by more tangible bread-and-butter issues. To counter criticisms of being merely an anti-Modi alliance, dispel doubts regarding its vision and governance capabilities and to appeal to the average Indian voter by going beyond the abstract questions related to democracy and constitutionalism, INDIA needs to use the Karnataka template of guarantees at the national level.

Alliance blues in the INDIA Bloc

INDIA has 11 incumbent Chief Ministers including Chief Ministers who have been elected multiple times. Taking a cue from the Karnataka guarantees, INDIA should come up with 11 guarantees derived from successful and popular schemes or initiatives from these 11 States. These guarantees that could target different sections of the electorate such as women, the youth and rural-urban poor would have an air of credibility around them as they would be based on schemes that have been successfully implemented in States. A campaign revolving around these 11 guarantees would help INDIA get its chemistry right with the voters by convincing them of its vision and governance prowess and showing them that it has more to offer than sheer anti-Modism.

In a way, INDIA could do with these 11 promises what Mr. Modi did with his promises based on the Gujarat model in 2014. The significant difference being that instead of one, single model for the entire nation, INDIA would have multiple models to show for — reiterating and highlighting the spirit of federalism: one size does not suit all.

Omkar Poojari is a political researcher and columnist. His research interests and publications primarily revolve around contemporary Indian politics, elections and voting behaviour.

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