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The clarity the secret ballot enables

A strategic decision: Many voters decide on who to vote for only within the last 24 to 48 hours before voting day. Pictures show voters in Mirzapur, Firozabad, Varanasi and Muzaffarnagar.

A strategic decision: Many voters decide on who to vote for only within the last 24 to 48 hours before voting day. Pictures show voters in Mirzapur, Firozabad, Varanasi and Muzaffarnagar.   | Photo Credit: PTI

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To reduce the Uttar Pradesh voter’s complex choice of candidate to an uncritical identity-based decision-making is facile

Travelling back from Mirzapur, we work our way through Marihan Assembly constituency at dusk. There aren’t any villages for miles; the landscape here is dry and rocky, and spectacularly beautiful. We chance upon a stand-alone granary and meet a young man from the Kurmi community. The young man explains, “I have always voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but this time I will vote for the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance. Akhilesh Yadav has done exemplary work and deserves another chance. The candidate here, from the Congress, responds to his constituents’ problems immediately.”

The Kurmis are the numerically dominant community here. The BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have both given tickets to members of the Kurmi community, while the Congress candidate is a Brahmin. Yet, we hear many Kurmis will vote for the Congress this time. Earlier in Marihan, we talk to a farmer, from the Other Backward Class (OBC) Maurya community harvesting, matar (peas).

“None of that caste stuff works here in Marihan. Look, I don’t like any of the parties, but I will vote for Congress because the incumbent candidate has been very effective,” he tells us. We ask him why the recent selection of Maurya leader Keshav Prasad Maurya as the State president of the BJP hasn’t made him a BJP supporter. He seems annoyed at the question, replying, “And if the BJP decides to drop Mr. Maurya tomorrow? What the heck are we supposed to do?”

Firozabad : Burqa-clad voters wait in queues at a polling station to cast votes during the first phase of Assembly polls for Uttar Pradesh, in Firozabad on Saturday. PTI Photo (PTI2_11_2017_000065B)

Firozabad : Burqa-clad voters wait in queues at a polling station to cast votes during the first phase of Assembly polls for Uttar Pradesh, in Firozabad on Saturday. PTI Photo (PTI2_11_2017_000065B)   | Photo Credit: PTI

There is an undercurrent of frustration here with the way most journalists and academics characterise the politics of Uttar Pradesh as driven by blind allegiance to caste and religion. There are perfectly legitimate rationales for identity-based voting, from dignity, to social justice, to economic benefit, but none of that nuance really ever makes it into the popular coverage of U.P.

There is also a lot more than caste or religion that enters into an individual’s vote choice calculation, such as candidate quality and the ability to deliver economic benefits. To reduce this complex choice to uncritical identity-based decision-making is disrespectful to the voters of U.P.

The case for SP-Congress alliance

The decision of whom to support on voting day is extraordinarily complex. It involves strategic calculation (as we chronicled in our article, “Waiting for the silent voters of Uttar Pradesh to speak,” The Hindu, March 7) as to the competitive candidates/parties in the constituency, as well as beliefs about the candidate/party that is most able to deliver safety and benefits to the household, village, and constituency. The reality is that, for many voters, this is only a decision that is taken within the last 24 to 48 hours before voting day, as it is only in this period that much of this information can be ascertained.

When political analysts are travelling around the State, often days before the vote, the voters tell us what they are supposed to say. When they are in the polling booth, however, they vote for the person or party whom they genuinely believe will do the best job.

The secret ballot has a way empowering all individuals, even those who are highly vulnerable in daily life. It ensures that a voter can express her preferences without intimidation. The fundamental question is: what do voters think about the most just before they cast their votes?

An Indian security personnel stands guard as voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Muzaffernagar in Uttar Pradesh on February 11, 2017. India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls February 11 in a contest seen as a key test for Narendra Modi halfway into his first term as prime minister.Uttar Pradesh is home to over 200 million people -- more than the entire population of Brazil -- and polls there are a bellwether of national politics. / AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH

An Indian security personnel stands guard as voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Muzaffernagar in Uttar Pradesh on February 11, 2017. India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls February 11 in a contest seen as a key test for Narendra Modi halfway into his first term as prime minister.Uttar Pradesh is home to over 200 million people -- more than the entire population of Brazil -- and polls there are a bellwether of national politics. / AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH   | Photo Credit: PRAKASH SINGH

 

As we discussed in an earlier piece, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, from the SP, had attempted to build a larger electoral narrative around broad-based economic delivery, consistent with his own popular image, in a bid to sway a large swathe of voters. But this a narrative that was largely undercut in the first several phases of the U.P. election, as the SP party machinery is associated with the dominance of the Yadav community. But, as we move eastward in U.P., for the final few phases, frustrations with the Yadav community are less apparent, and the Mr. Yadav’s economic narrative seems to gain more traction. It is a convenient state of affairs for the SP-Congress alliance, where the broader narrative seems to be more effective precisely in areas where the core base of the SP is not numerically dominant.

In Azamgarh, we speak to a rural schoolteacher from the upper-caste Thakur community. In a wide-ranging conversation, he details the successes of Mr. Yadav, stating, “I am a Thakur, and, like much of my caste, a traditional supporter of the BJP. But Akhilesh Yadav’s work cannot be overlooked. I am hopeful he will continue to do work in the future, and he deserves another chance. I will vote for the SP this time.” Azamgarh, which had been viewed as an SP stronghold for some time, is getting an unexpected challenge from the BSP due to frustrations with the family feud within the SP and the induction of locally popular Mukhtar Ansari into the BSP. If the SP is able to pull off victories in places such as Azamgarh, it will be due to its renewed ability to attract unlikely supporters like the Thakur schoolteacher.

One of the extraordinary features of talking to voters across U.P. is the difference between how they view themselves and those around them. Voters would typically offer a nuanced explanation for their own (likely) vote choice and indecision among members of their own caste or religious community. But these same voters would often attribute hollow identity-based motivations for the vote choice of those in other communities.

An Indian elderly woman displays an indelible ink mark on her finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Varanasi on March 8, 2017, during the last phase of the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections. / AFP PHOTO / SANJAY KANOJIA

An Indian elderly woman displays an indelible ink mark on her finger after casting her vote at a polling station in Varanasi on March 8, 2017, during the last phase of the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections. / AFP PHOTO / SANJAY KANOJIA   | Photo Credit: SANJAY KANOJIA

 

Uncertainty in the results

 

Yet, the motivations of voters can only be understood by paying attention to the nuances. Voters often expressed that both the BJP and BSP selected candidates according to cynical identity-based calculations. Most voters, like the Thakur schoolteacher described, want to vote for a party or candidate that offers hope for the future. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Yadav’s broad-based appeal was able to achieve this objective.

This is an extraordinarily difficult election to call, and we will make no prediction here. The exit polls will be out soon, and hopefully they will shed some light on the likely outcome. Our last few pieces have been geared towards making the case for each of the three major parties/alliance in this election, the BJP, the BSP, and SP-Congress alliance. In our personal discussions about how to analyse this election, we keep on coming back to the same character.

A divided lot

Outside Pratapgarh, the day before the vote, we meet an engaging young man from the Kurmi community in his early 20s. It is a village with a Kurmi neighbourhood and a Muslim neighbourhood, but the pradhan (village chief), a Muslim, is always comfortably elected because he does good work in all neighbourhoods. In this constituency, the BJP has allied with the Apna Dal, a party that caters to the interests of the Kurmi population. But the Kurmis are a divided lot, and many important local Kurmi leaders had initially refused to endorse Apna Dal’s candidate.

Varanasi: An aged wheelchair-bound man arrives at a polling booth in Varanasi during the seventh and final phase of polls in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday. PTI Photo(PTI3_8_2017_000166A)

Varanasi: An aged wheelchair-bound man arrives at a polling booth in Varanasi during the seventh and final phase of polls in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday. PTI Photo(PTI3_8_2017_000166A)   | Photo Credit: PTI

 

The young man is a civil service aspirant and extraordinarily balanced and eloquent in his analysis, and he is proud of his Kurmi identity. Until recently, most of the Kurmis had thought to strategically vote for the BSP because the seat was viewed as a battle between the BSP and SP, and the young man praised former Chief Minister Mayawati for her performance on law and order. However, recently some important Kurmi leaders had finally endorsed the Apna Dal candidate, and many Kurmis would switch their vote to the Apna Dal-BJP candidate. In 2014, the young Kurmi man had been an enthusiastic supporter of Narendra Modi, but not any more. He tell us, “Mr. Modi only gives jobs to wealthy private people. Akhilesh Yadav is the only man who can create jobs for U.P.”

His mind is swimming with strategic calculations, and the issues of identity, safety, and economy. Our young man is genuinely conflicted as to his vote choice. He will decide just before he goes to the polling booth.

How did this young man vote? We will never ask, and we will never know. But when the results are announced on March 11, we will be thinking about the choices he made.

Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 10:49:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-clarity-the-secret-ballot-enables/article17430112.ece

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