Two thousand and fourteen was a sweeping year for India and India politics. Eight of the nine State elections that were held last year had the winning party emerge with an overwhelming margin of at least twice as many seats (with the exception of Jammu & Kashmir). The general election indicated a similar pattern with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and his BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s resounding victory. In 2015, the Delhi Assembly election showed a more pronounced version of the same trend.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to believe that only a few years ago India was a politically divided country. Every region, every State, every pocket had its niche party, and no one individual or political party was getting the definitive mandate to lead. Today the situation has changed because a few political parties have been able to crack the grand narrative that voters seek. Consequently, they are now able to secure large mandates because they understand what the more educated and informed voter wants: An effective Government that can offer him/her the opportunity to live in a safe and economically promising country.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, the Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam Party and more recently, the Aam Aadmi Party, among others, have not only successfully understood the voter sentiment but also leveraged it quickly. Thus, they are repeatedly getting overwhelming mandates. Other political parties who are continuing to believe that the voter’s primary ‘voting’ identity is along religious, ethnic and caste lines are falling behind.
Encouragingly, in the last few elections there have been no religious or ethnic trends of voting. Instead, the party prioritising development and progress has triumphed. The key to winning mass majority has been a vision for development and a strong leadership to support that vision. The next question is: Who will retain the vote?
In the summer of 2014, this author was travelling with a MP candidate in rural West Bengal. The first day of the campaign started with a meet-and-greet as the politician walked through the constituency smiling at every passing man, bowing his head in front of every woman and patting the back of every child. He thought his approachability would get him traction. But the voters were not content with his superficiality.
On multiple occasions, men and women stopped the candidate to ask, “What will you do for me? How will you bring progress to our constituency?” The voters would keenly wait for an answer, only to hear a nebulous speech about “the importance of a prosperous community.” They would look visibly dissatisfied. Needless to say, the candidate lost the election.
Most voters today are strong negotiators. “If I give you my vote today, what will I get back in the future?” they directly ask the candidate.The voter recognises that alcohol or money is too cheap for his/her vote. Now the voters are bargaining for a better future. Recognising this change in sentiment, Mr Modi was able to win on a campaign on good governance. But it wasn’t his electoral victory that made him stand out.
Immediately after coming to office, the Prime Minister launched a series of campaigns that established his intent to bring progress to the country. Programmes such as Make in India, Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, Model Villages and Smart Cities resonated well with the public, and established his credibility as a pro-growth leader. The result was a clean victory for the BJP in the State elections that followed.
But in Delhi something had changed. The AAP from its early days had established itself as a pro-development organisation. It had not only canvassed on this cause in grassroots communities but within the short 49 days it was in office, also displayed its intent by beginning auditing processes, supplying water tanks and attempting to fix several broken systems. The BJP, in comparison, had not launched any new campaigns in recent months (or shown much progress on previous programmes). Thus, the AAP won the confidence of its voters as it had sold the narrative of development better.
More so than before, elections now have about a national or State leader. The local candidate has lost relevance and instead the conversation has moved to the capacity and credibility of the party leader. Recently, this author met a former Member of Parliament who had lost the Lok Sabha election despite having made every effort to appease his voters. After the election, when we went out to meet his voters, to understand the cause of his loss, we repeatedly heard the voters say, “We knew you were going to be a wonderful MP but we wanted Mr Modi in power. We want to see what he can do for us from Delhi. Maybe we can become like Gujarat…”
Grand narratives about development and progress can lure a voter. But they only make sense if they come with the credibility of a leader who can ensure the effective execution of the poll promises. Prime Minister Modi and now Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal certainly have the background to deliver. But it’s not just these two leaders. Looking across States, from Andhra Pradesh which is in the capable hands of Mr Chandrababu Naidu to Odisha which is being led by Mr Naveen Patnaik, there are leaders in office with a record of good performance. The people no longer accept a non-present or weak leader at the top.
The changing expectations of the Indian voters is impressive and heartening. However, with changed expectations will also come the burden of delivering on promises. If parties want to stay in power, they must deliver progress. Only time will tell which parties will be able to complete the next step successfully.
This piece originally appeared in the Pioneer. All views in this piece are that of the writer and do not represent Swaniti’s view.