Rise of the sophisticated voter

Voters are directly demanding economic development, rather than using identity politics as a proxy for these things.

May 23, 2016 02:33 am | Updated September 12, 2016 07:58 pm IST

Informed: “Now voters know a lot more about their candidates and parties by just turning on the television.” A first-time voter in Guwahati. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Informed: “Now voters know a lot more about their candidates and parties by just turning on the television.” A first-time voter in Guwahati. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

We are fond of defining ‘political eras’ in India. There was the era of Congress dominance after Independence, when the Congress was broadly unchallenged in its rule. There was also the era of Mandal politics in the early 1990s, when the Other Backward Communities (OBCs) rose as a political force in the country. The current political era has often been clumsily called the ‘post-Mandal’ era, which is more a description of what it has come after rather than what it is .

Bhanu Joshi
Ashish Ranjan

When we look at our work in this election in the States of Assam and West Bengal, coupled with our previous work on Bihar and on the rise of Narendra Modi in 2014, we discern some regularities that define this era. The kinds of appeals made to voters have changed. So have the methods of communication. Voters are responding to a greater extent to the ‘development agenda’ and parties are finding new ways to use the media to reach them. More than anything, we are starting to see generational shifts in the way parties function, and this has become a fundamental part of understanding election results.

A look at the numbers Both elections provided decisive victories for the winning party/coalition, much more than many predicted. In Assam, the National Democratic Alliance, comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), won a total of >86 of Assam’s 126 Assembly constituencies (ACs). A party’s strike rate — the percentage of seats won by a party in which it contested — is a useful metric to assess the performance of that party. The BPF was extremely efficient, winning all of the 12 seats in which it contested, for a strike rate of 100 per cent unlike in 2014 where it only led in one AC. The AGP won 14 of the 25 seats it contested (under the NDA banner) for a strike rate of 56 per cent, an obviously better performance than 2014 where it led in no AC. The BJP won 60 out of the 89 seats in which it contested, improving its strike rate in ACs to 67 per cent from 54 per cent in 2014. In short, the strong coordination between the NDA’s parties in Assam, unlike Bihar, improved the strike rates of all component parties.

The Congress was decimated in Assam in this election, with a dismal strike rate of 21 per cent, only a little better than the 18 per cent it garnered in 2014. Notably, voters punished those entrenched in the Congress. In Barak Valley, a former Congress stronghold, Bithika Dev, wife of seven-time Member of Parliament Santosh Mohan Dev, lost the election, and Gautam Roy, who had been representing Katlichera since 1985, also lost. This isn’t a regular defeat; it is a removal of those who fundamentally represent the way Congress operates on the ground.

In West Bengal, the >Trinamool Congress (Trinamool) juggernaut, buoyed by Mamata Banerjee’s charisma, won 211 out of 294 ACs, for an incredible strike rate of 72 per cent. She showed that the alliance between Congress and the Left Front in this election made little difference to the outcome; in 2014, when the Congress and Left Front fought the election separately, the Trinamool led in 214 ACs. The Congress actually had a respectable strike rate of 48 per cent in this election, winning 44 out of the 92 seats it contested under the alliance, but the Left Front fell apart, winning only 32 seats in the remaining 202 ACs for a strike rate of 16 per cent.

The key to understanding these results is the regional concentration of support for the alliance. In the 77 ACs that comprise North Bengal, the alliance won 42 seats, but in the rest of the 217 ACs in Bengal, it only won 34 seats. The Congress’s base is particularly strong in the North, whereas the Left’s is more dispersed. Thus, the Congress was able to win more seats with just 12 per cent vote share than the Left Front with 20 per cent vote share in this election. Without a natural regional base left in the State, and the inability to find a neta who connects with voters, the Left is on shaky ground for the foreseeable future.

Return to the basics The motto of >“bijli, sadak, paani” (electricity, road, water), which has served Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan so well, remains a powerful appeal to voters. Roads in particular are a visible manifestation of delivering development to voters. From Madhya Pradesh to Bihar, both Mr. Chouhan and Nitish Kumar have developed a reputation of successfully delivering good roads in their tenure. Building a road demonstrates a certain political power of a leader or party. From contractors to land owners, to coordination amongst your own departments, road-building in India is about control. At that level of abstraction, if a leader can build a road, it arguably does demonstrate a certain control over the system. At a more practical level, we cannot underestimate the power that a pucca road can have on the electorate. The road becomes their access to markets, better wages, and better social security, among other things.

The argument is not to suggest a direct relationship between roads and electoral outcomes, but it is to point towards a framework that returning to the basics of bijli, sadak, paani saw two governments — one in Bihar and the other in West Bengal — come back. In Assam, as we previously argued, it was the BJP which focussed on development, while Congress and the >AIUDF decided to appeal on a more divisive level.

Information asymmetry In our field work in Assam and West Bengal, we noticed the reduction of informational asymmetries all across the population, but especially among the poorest, most disadvantaged parts. No matter which tea shop or home we visited, the great proliferation of information sources constantly updated the voters on current political events. Outside Kaziranga, we met a young Muslim man who had voted for Congress in the Assembly elections, an office-bearer for the AIUDF, but this time had cut a deal with the AGP. All of this was done to make sure that his unauthorised village in a national park would not be removed. “We have to be on the winning side,” he told us. This is the evolution of the ‘sophisticated’ voter, who can gather sufficient information from available sources to make a judgement before he or she casts his or her vote. Sure enough, as we later saw, the AGP candidate won in this constituency. Mr. Modi’s victory in 2014 and the BJP’s ascent in Assam are excellent examples of why we see electors voting for coalitions hitherto considered impossible. This also speaks volumes about how and why the traditional framework to understand a voter only through his or her caste or religious identity is gradually becoming obsolete.

In Laharighat, a 45-minute cavalcade of the Congress’ candidate, with young boys and men, passed in front of our eyes; the voters didn’t seem that impressed. This kind of a campaign tactic was common in the pre-1990s, when voters had to be “visually awed” by the candidate. Now, voters know a lot more about their candidates and parties by just turning on the television. These types of tactics don’t work like they used to. Voters are becoming more ‘sophisticated’ as a result of greater information in the system. They are directly demanding economic development and infrastructure, rather than using identity politics as a proxy for these things. This is no random electoral defeat. In this election, the Congress and the Left Front in Assam and Bengal showed themselves to be old, sputtering machines that have yet to fully grasp the realities of the modern Indian electorate.

Ashish Ranjan and Bhanu Joshi are based at the Centre for Policy Research. Neelanjan Sircar of CPR contributed to the story.

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