How the Indian voter has changed in recent years
In the aftermath of the election results, much of the analysis has focused on trying to understand the nature of the verdict in five states and its implications for the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The big question on everyone’s mind is: Which way will the Indian voter swing and what will drive their choices? In recent years, the Indian voter has flummoxed pollsters, journalists, and even the most seasoned political observers. Gone are simple tropes and stereotypes about voters who only care about their ascriptive identities (read caste, region and religion) and exchanged their votes for some cash and alcohol. This election affirmed that the voter exhibits carefully reasoned political preferences, weighing complex issues of jobs, inflation, and agriculture. Thus, it would be prudent to assess what we have learned about the Indian voter after this latest round of elections and what this means for the future of Indian politics.
First and foremost, Indian voters are turning out to vote in larger numbers than ever before. Not only has the gender gap in turnout declined, there is enough evidence to suggest that most social groups are turning out in equal proportions. The turnout gap between reserved and unreserved constituencies has become virtually non-existent. Lower turnout in metropolitan areas still remains a concern, but compared to most democracies around the world, voter turnout in India remains fairly high. The concerted effort of the Election Commission of India in this regard through various voter awareness programmes must be duly acknowledged.
Second, it is now becoming increasingly evident that voters are holding their leaders accountable for economic performance. Despite a popular narrative that paints the Indian voter as largely driven by identity issues, field reports consistently showed that voters were most concerned about agricultural prices, delivery of public goods, jobs, and corruption — all issues that can be associated with incumbent government performance. Emerging research in this area has not only demonstrated a positive relationship between the incumbent government’s electoral outcomes and economic growth at the state level, but also a positive correlation between voters’ assessment of their own economic condition (pocket-book voting) as well as the health of the national economy. This trend is likely to become more apparent as the size of urban and middle-class population increases further.
Third, the Indian voter is more informed than ever before. As campaigns are becoming increasingly sophisticated in reaching the voter — through WhatsApp and Facebook for instance — so too has the Indian voter diversified her sources of political information. When there is a political misstep, be it the Mandsaur firing in Madhya Pradesh or an incendiary remark, the voter is sure to find out. This diversity of political information also allows voters to make sense of their personal situations. For instance, a citizen concerned about local corruption or poor job creation in her village will understand it to be a more general phenomenon upon which to hold the incumbent accountable if similar reports stream in from across the state.
Fourth, emerging research suggests that women voters are displaying independent political preferences that defy basic stereotypes and may shift electoral outcomes. Politicians across the board are making great efforts to court the female constituency. For example, the Modi government has aggressively advertised its performance on certain central schemes, like the Ujjwala scheme guaranteeing LPG cylinders to homes, specifically targeting the women voters. Analysis of the time-series survey data also shows that women voters are increasingly making independent preferences at the polling booth and are more likely to participate in the electoral process as canvassers.
While identity issues are important predictors of whom an individual will support politically, this relationship is not axiomatic. In the past few decades, both India and its voters have undergone profound changes. The rapid changes in India’s political economy and informational environment is being manifested through significant electoral consequences and thus necessitating an examination of the “changing” Indian voter. The scale of the BJP’s victory in the 2014 election came as a surprise to many observers of Indian politics. As the campaign for the 2019 election gains momentum, researchers and observers of Indian politics face the formidable task of interpreting and analysing the verdict of 2019 elections. Understanding India’s changing voter is key to understanding the country’s democratic trajectory in the long term.
Neelanjan Sircar is assistant professor, Ashoka University and visiting senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research. Rahul Verma is a fellow, CPR. This is the third in a series of articles for the CPR Dialogues starting shortly in New Delhi. Hindustan Times is the print partner for the event.
For more: www.cprdialogues.org.
The views expressed are personal