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Choosing gets easier

india Updated: Mar 10, 2012 23:36 IST
Chanakya
Chanakya
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Sheena Iyengar, a professor at the Columbia Business School's department of psychology points to something very interesting in her book, The Art of Choosing. "We can spend inordinate amounts of time deciding between things with exactly the same purpose: If there's such a vast assortment laid out before us, doesn't it feel as if we should give it some consideration? One wonders, though, just how many types of shampoo or cat litter a supermarket can support before the options become redundant." What Iyengar is really asking is whether "there might be such a thing as too much choice".

For those of us still gawking at the results of the 2012 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, there is a feeling that the Samajwadi Party's sweep with 224 seats - following a 206-seat thumping victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the 2007 assembly polls - marks a new phase in state elections. No longer is there a platter of parties to choose alliances from to cobble up the numbers. No longer is there a need of a master broker of the likes of Amar Singh to rope in to make it to the magic mark. The old 'horse trading' business - for which Rashtriya Lok Dal chief and UPA ally Ajit Singh were quietly waiting for in the initial hours of election results coming out of Lucknow - seems to be put in the cold storage. UP's electorate may have figured out that too much choice is indeed a bad thing.

UP's voters may have figured out that a choice of two - a party and its alternative - may just be what is required to get what it demands. So while it may seem that UP is now set to go through a constricting revolving-door situation involving two UP parties - where the two 'national' wannabes won't get much help in opening their branches - in a way what the voters in UP have shown is that they are tired of scattering their votes and diffusing their mandate. If the SP doesn't perform up to the mark in its five-year term, then they will have a viable alternative to choose from: the BSP.

This isn't a theoretical antipathy against too many players. This is the result of distilling the many choices - too many choices? - that they had before in the aforementioned parties as well as the BJP and the Congress. The operative word, of course, is viable alternative. One can presume that if the Akhilesh Yadav government in Lucknow doesn't meet up to expectations, there will be a sobered (read: distilled) Mayawati government that voters can turn to five years from now. And if the BSP doesn't have its act together in 2017, as the Punjab polls showcased, there will be no qualms in going against the 'traditional' anti-incumbency factor to give the SP another shot to prove itself. States like Tamil Nadu have been doing the either AIADMK or DMK routine with enviable results (for the people of the state, that is, not necessarily the two parties).

This, of course, is the state of affairs at the state level. With Lok Sabha elections being a different kettle of fish, it will be the regional parties that will continue to form alliances with the two main national parties at the Centre. I can see the Lok Sabha landscape as one in which two trains on two parallel tracks will be chugging along for some time - the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA. A different, more intimate two-track railway system will be working in India's states echoing the stronger federal character of the Union.

What about the legendary Third Front, you might say? The numbers don't show that happening. If on the national level the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor has helped the incumbent UPA immensely, on the state level the TIFAL (There Is Finally An Alternative) has kicked in for all to see. Saying that the Indian electorate has finally 'matured' would be to personify masses in order to make it sound like an individual's growth curve would be naive. But I would prefer to see it as the 'market forces' of Indian politics, of an increasingly aspirational Indian electorate finding it easier to make its choices at the regional and most immediate level by sticking to two broad contestants.

Conducting a study in a jam store - the intimacy and 'local-ness' of such a store matching that of voting for a state government - Iyengar found that 30% of customers who were given a smaller assortment of six jams to choose from bought a jam; while only 3% of customers bought a jam after seeing the larger assortment of 24 flavours. So until there's a radically new flavour on offer - which tastes good and has the virtues of being 'local produce' - it seems that India's voters at the state level will stick to less choice that's easier to endorse or reject. Which is something that should be more than comforting to Mayawati, the leader of the Opposition in Lucknow.