When the Delhi’s Chief Ministerial Candidate, Arvind Kejriwal commented on the exchange of money for votes, I was reminded of a story from my ancestral town. A few years ago, Panchayat elections were held in West Bengal. A week before the election a message cryptically spread through the town that the pricing for votes had been finalized. The sitting Panchayat leader was willing to give either Rs. 500 for each vote or 1 kg of mutton from the local meat shop. The transaction was process was simple: all one needed to do was go to the pre-identified store mention where one lived and your transaction of preference (cash or meat).
It took twenty-four hours for the store to run out of meat. All interested parties were then given cash. The candidate ended up over spending on cash handouts as well. He was certain he would win the election. He lost by a significant margin. The decades old strategy of buying votes seemed to not only have defeated him but also set him back financially.
His defeat at the poll is symptomatic of a larger trend in Indian voting. An exploratory study conducted on women’s voting behavior in the 2014 general election found that female voters (particularly in rural India) were unexpectedly independent minded. In several closed door interviews they reported that they often pretended to listen to their male family members but cast the vote for those they believed were strong candidates.
One can’t help but wonder what is bringing this change? Why is it that voters are acting differently now? What is making Indian voters so fiercely independent in their decision-making?
Three things have redefined how people vote: a faith in democratic principles (we believe in better things), increased exposure and knowledge (we know of better things), and the relative ease in removal of hindrances (we can do better things).
1.We Believe in Better Things: The auto rickshaw in front of me had written in bold “Vote Do” (Vote). As I stared at his multi-colored message flashing in front of me, I wondered if the auto driver’s appeal was an implicit endorsement for the Aam Aadmi Party. As my vehicle pulled up next to his, I noticed from the corner of my eye a picture of PM Modi stuck on his front glass window. My assumption was proven wrong.
We live in an incredible time: very rarely in history have so many people, regardless of their socio-economic background, gender, caste or creed been able to embrace the right to express their opinion on governance. Historically, voting has been reserved only for a select few (in even fewer democracies). Our increasing zeal to practice our democratic right is evident in our voter participation. In the last four elections itself, our voting population has grown by half a billion but our voter turnout has remained consistent at around 60 percent. In fact Indians are so committed to their vote that in the last election 60 lakh people went to the polling booths to vote for “None of the above” rather than not voting at all. The belief that our vote is precious and matters is leading to a more informed and intelligent electorate.
Now, as we see a Prime Minister emerge from humble backgrounds, the belief that our democracy is choosing one of us is firmed.
1. We know of better things: In November 2012, I was speaking to a bicycle shop owner in Indore. We were having a debate about the corruption-ridden politics of the Congress party. He was seething with anger as he complained about the bribes he paid to get permission to expand his store by a few feet. Right in the middle of our discussion his cell phone rang. He answered the phone. Within seconds he was jumping. “Obama has won. He has won,” he announced as if President Obama was his own relative. It was evident that he felt like he was a part of the American electoral system.
The availability of a basic cell phone, television and radio in almost every household has revolutionized democratic processes. Technology has opened up an unknown world of information. Suddenly most of us have a sneak-peek into the pro-democracy protests in the Arab world or the Anna Hazare movement in Delhi. Inevitably the information affects our perception toward politicians. A more informed voter is also an independent thinker. He/she realizes the options he/she has and is empowered to take independent decisions. There is no longer such a thing as ‘uninformed’ voter.
2. We can do better things: A political leader had once shared with me that when the Communist Party was at the peak of their power in Bengal it was difficult to contest against them because they would brutally beat up the party workers from the opposition. Subsequently when this leader recruited young boys to work for him, he ensured that after the election they would have a place to go hide for a few months till the tension cooled down. Today, the politician proudly sits in Parliament having won the last two elections.
The advent of innovations like the electronic voting machines, 24-hour news channels and smart phones with cameras has made it easier to not just have a more transparent political process but also an accountable one. Though issues around electoral spending still remain a contentious issue, India today is a much more flat nation in that we can expect to ‘do better things’ with in the governance system. Programs like the Jaago re and the Power of 49 have increasingly empowered citizens to become change agents themselves. Thus the voter is no longer a victim to external pressure and has the capacity to think independently.
With the voter mindset changing and becoming more independent it is also imperative for the political leadership to also alter their outreach strategies. My assumption is that they have already begun to understand this thought process, why else have most political parties increasingly moved their discourse toward governance and development?