In the recently concluded Assembly elections, 116 million Indians spanning 690 electoral constituencies in five States exercised their voting rights. There were nearly 7,000 candidates belonging to 350 different political parties and 1,700 independent candidates in the fray across these five States. The sheer scale and plurality of Indian elections is often hailed as the most shining testament to the idea of a liberal democracy.
It is undeniable that India gets its rulers in accordance with the people’s wishes, the very tenet of a democratic ideal. The foundational premise of such a democratic exercise, as espoused by ancient philosophers, is the ‘free will’ of the people — that is, people must have the moral, social, intellectual and political freedom to choose their elected representative. Does India’s much vaunted electoral democracy truly represent the ‘free will’ of the people?
Killings and votes
On October 3, 2021, in Tikonia village in the electoral Assembly constituency of Nighasan in Lakhimpur Kheri district of India’s largest State Uttar Pradesh, a convoy of three cars rammed into protesting farmers, resulting in the death of eight people and injuring several others. Two of the three cars were linked to the Minister of State (Home) from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is also the Member of Parliament of this constituency. The Minister’s son was allegedly spotted in one of these cars and was arrested along with other suspects. The U.P. Police filed a charge sheet in January 2022 naming the son of the Minister as the prime accused in this incident, which it termed as a “pre-planned conspiracy”. In essence, the son of the BJP Union Minister of State for Home was arrested and chargesheeted by the police of a BJP-ruled State for allegedly orchestrating the murder of innocent farmers in Nighasan.
There was an election held in Nighasan just a month after this charge sheet. Compared to the 2017 Assembly election, 19,000 more people voted for the BJP candidate during this election. The BJP candidate won a thumping victory with a 53% vote share. In the specific area of Tikonia, more than 60% of the roughly 3,000 voters voted for the BJP candidate. In other words, just three months after a BJP Minister’s son allegedly mowed down people, voters of the same constituency rewarded the BJP with more votes in this election than in the previous one and chose the BJP candidate to be their representative once again.
It is important to recall that it is not just the media that claimed the involvement of the BJP leader’s son in this violent incident; the police of the BJP-ruled State themselves named him as the prime suspect and pressed murder charges. It surely cannot be the case that voters in Nighasan or Tikonia approve of the killings.
Outpouring of electoral support
Media reports suggest that there was widespread awareness of the incident among villagers in Nighasan since there were protests and other mobilisation activities post the incident. Reports said that a majority of the villagers condemned the BJP leader’s involvement and even castigated the Chief Minister for not visiting their village. So, it is unlikely that voters in Nighasan were either unaware of the BJP leader’s connection with this incident or pardoned him for it. So, what can explain the outpouring of electoral support for the BJP in Nighasan?
This is not to even remotely suggest that voting machines were manipulated in these elections. People in Nighasan legitimately chose the BJP candidate to be their representative. This is also not a judgment on voters’ rationality. People voted in their best self-interests and with maturity, as they should. It cannot even be argued that prosperity levels improved dramatically in the past five years that may have prompted voters to pardon the killings in return for enhanced living conditions. Lakhimpur Kheri ranks 611 out of the 715 districts in India in household tap water connections under the government’s Jal Jeevan Mission. Economic misery was so high in Nighasan that only 15% of the families in in the constituency, which pleaded for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, received the promised 100 days of guaranteed employment in 2021-22.
Free will or coerced will?
What then can explain this ‘Nighasan enigma’? As is the norm, pundits, commentators and scholars will engage in analysis of the recent State elections to explain the outcomes. Broad-brushed generalisations will be imputed as causes for victories and defeats in the elections. But an intellectually honest analysis should attempt to explain the larger ‘Nighasan’ phenomenon in Indian elections.
Could a climate of fear have induced people to vote for the BJP candidate in Nighasan? Just a day after the election results, the Supreme Court was informed that some key witnesses of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence were attacked and asked to withdraw their case against the son of the BJP leader. The costs of not voting for a winner and seen as being against a winner are very high for the average voter in a small, poor village in India. This is because of what political scientists refer to as ‘clientilism’, where the citizen is heavily dependent on their local leader in order to avail of government services and welfare. This puts them at the mercy of their local leader. This is rampant in a poor democracy. For this reason, there is a ‘bandwagon’ effect in Indian elections where people tend to coalesce around a likely winner. This is known as the ‘hawa’ factor in Indian politics.
After all, if some of the rich elite in the corporate, media and entertainment sectors are unable to act under ‘free will’ in today’s India because they have much to lose, why will the average rural voter in a poor village not be influenced by fear in their voting decision when their entire livelihood is dependent on the local elected representative? Fear is a perfectly rational emotion, as India’s elite have shown in the last seven years. It is also well established that rural voters do not believe that their vote is truly a secret and that local leaders of a political party know which family in the village voted for which party.
If the ‘fear’ hypothesis is true, was the choice of the people of Nighasan exercised under ‘free will’ or was it implicit ‘coerced will’? The ‘Nighasan enigma’ is not unique to Nighasan but widely prevalent in many constituencies. Previous academic research about popular support for criminal politicians is too simplistic. The larger question that begs more research is the role of fear and free will in India’s electoral democracy.
If the average Indian voter does not believe that their vote is a secret and their costs of not voting for the likely winner are very high, is India’s electoral democracy a reflection of a politics of ‘fear’ and not just ‘faith’?
Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman of Data Analytics of the Congress