Indian elections make for a fascinating story. Remember how the veteran Congressman C P Joshi who was the front-runner for the CM’s post lost it by a single vote? It emerged later that Joshi’s wife had not cast her vote in that election as she had gone to the temple. The moral of the story: each vote counts.
Even for a single vote, the Election Commission of India sets up a polling booth in Gir forest in Gujarat and for just two votes in Arunachal Pradesh on the India-China border.
The voters are expected to make a choice between six national and 50 regional political parties and 2000 small parties.
It is only expected that we as voters are always interested to know how people end up voting for one specific party and why? What is anti-incumbency, and how does it work?
To analyze the pattern of voting and the way Indians choose their leaders is what the noted psephologist Pradeep Gupta tries answering in his just released book WHO GETS ELECTED. Going by the diversity of India, the author admits that poll forecasting is ‘a bit like cricket- there is no room for complacency and each ball is a new one.’
Pradeep says voters make choices, that is, whom to vote for, based on their ‘needs and aspirations and who they think are best placed to fulfill those needs.’ Politicians act in ways that help them meet their own needs and desires.
This tenuous linkage of the economy with election results has also been demonstrated in state poll results. Pradeep cites the case of Chandrababu Naidu, under whose tenure Andhra Pradesh saw decent development particularly in the IT sector, and also major reforms in governance. And yet his TDP party lost the 2004 elections securing just 47 out of 294 seats. It was said that Naidu lost because he had neglected the rural sector while focusing his attention on the cities.
Conversely, the Left Front ruled West Bengal for 34 years despite its neglect of industries only because of its focus on the rural economy. Similarly, the streamlining of the Public Distribution System has endeared Naveen Patnaik to the voters, who continue to have trust in him even after being at the helm for over 20 years.
In 2014, the Modi government launched the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, which offers direct benefit transfers of Rs.6000 annually to small and marginal farmers with less than two acres of land.
The author does not adequately explain the recent phenomenon of voters making a distinction between an assembly election and national election when exercising their preference.
On demonetization, Pradeep believes that it was an image correction effort as much as it was to convey to the people that Modi had always been serious about brining black money back. This is why it resonated with most of the people- particularly the middle income and poorer sections of the society.
The author unravels this conundrum by stating that the voters have different economic parameters in mind, distinct from the parameters that economists and economic experts have when evaluating the economy. High GDP growth, Sensex zooming, FDI inflows increasing etc… have little meaning for an average voter. ‘For voters, the economic health of a country is often what they see around them as “development”, be it infrastructure- better roads, smoother power supply, better health and educational facilities, job opportunities etc. They relate to government welfare schemes and don’t understand the jargon that is disconnected from their lives.’
The author provides an interesting insight into dynastic politicians: “Political dynasts can be complacent about their voter needs while in power because they know that their identity as political dynasts will exist and sustain even if they cannot perform….It is possible that the voters give a longer rope to the dynasts and are willing to wait longer for delivery. While this may have been case in the earlier decades, it is no longer valid today, with the baggage of family legacy having little to no impression over the voters.”
The book covers various topics related to winning elections, including campaign strategies, voter behavior, and the role of the media and technology in elections. It also delves into the challenges of maintaining power after winning an election and the importance of delivering on campaign promises.
He attributes the increase in voting figures from hovering at 57-58 per cent in the 1990s to 67.4 per cent in 2019 to social media.
Add to this the gradual demographic shift to a larger younger population that is impacted by social media and technology advancement. If in 2001 there were 21 crore eligible voters in the age group of eighteen to twenty-nine years, in 2019 this figure went up to 30 crore.
He dwells on infighting among the political parties and its impact on the final outcome. Citing the example of the 2017 Punjab elections, AAP which appeared poised to get 100 out of the 117 seats, ended up with just 20 due to the bitter internal tussle in the party that played out in front of a national audience. The Congress made unexpected gains in the four months leading to the polls.
In Uttar Pradesh, the infighting in the Samajwadi Party cost them heavily, while the BJP that was trailing in second position in all pre-poll surveys, leapt ahead at the last minute, grabbing over 80 per cent of the seats in the assembly. Both these elections gave clear, sweeping verdicts.
Who says village Panchayats don’t matter during elections? For instance, khaps in Haryana have a very strong network. They consult among themselves and issue a diktat right before the polls.
Also, in addition to minority appeasement, pro-poor and caste politics, politicians are discovering a brand new vote bank that is helping them sail through elections-the female voter. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have all wooed this voter to good effect.
Talking about the forthcoming state assembly elections, Pradeep predicts that it is Shivraj Singh Chouhan who is emerging as the preferred choice of the people even when he has been running the government for almost 15 years, except the 15-month tenure of Congress’ Kamal Nath, when the grand old party formed the government, but ended up losing it.
In the case of Rajasthan, he says that the state has mostly thrown incumbent governments out of power. As of now, the BJP has not projected a credible chief ministerial face, and neither has the Congress, where there’s a conflict between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. “Face is very important in elections. It actually gives people the opportunity to see who will work better for the state.”
The author is somewhat ambivalent in offering his prediction of what will happen in Telengana where Chief Minister Chandrashekhar Rao has been ruling for two consecutive terms. However, he admits that the Congress has made an impact in southern India thanks to Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra.
With regard to the 2024 elections, he writes that two things are important in an election – brand equity and converting that into votes.
“The opposition is trying to build a perception with a grand alliance. The important thing is to see who is better placed on the ground to convert the perception into votes. Also, it needs to be a partnership among equals. “It’s a problem if the alliance partners are not equal. We will have to see who’s strong on the ground, who can get the votes and win elections. I can’t see any other state where an opposition front can play a role. So in a nutshell, until there’s a credible alliance, it’s very difficult to stop the BJP.”
Pradeep Gupta, India’s top psephologist and the founder of Axis My India, enjoys enviable reputation for predicting the outcome of elections- both parliamentary and state – with a fair degree of accuracy.
However, he would have been wise to avoid sweeping generalizations. How does one explain scant reference to religion as a factor in influencing the average Indian voter? To simply state that ‘individual and community needs, therefore, drive the choices that people, or voters, make’ doesn’t really say much.
One also wonders why he limited himself to just 150 pages when dealing with such a broad subject and identifying factors that influence Indian voters.
That is why his conclusions come across a bit tentative. And yet the data that Pradeep provides impress the reader at every step.
(The author works for the reputed Apeejay Education, Delhi)