Friday, May 08, 2009

The age of the discerning voter

On NDTV's discussions on Mandate 2009, Prannoy Roy once made this point that this is the age of the discerning Indian voter. The Indian voter in the 1950s and 1960s was a passive voter, voting the same party back to power again and again. From the 1970s to 1980s he suggested, we had the angry Indian voter, who voted out or elected parties on the basis of emotions and perceptions. Since the 1990s, he said, we have the discerning voter, who exercises his or her franchise after considerable reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of parties and candidates. His neat categorisation of the Indian voter since Independence is compelling, but there have been a few exceptions to this general trend, which makes such categorisation vulnerable. But that need not detract us from our attempt to understand the character of the contemporary voter.

Implicit in this categorisation is the assumption that the arrival of the coalition governments at the Centre since 1996 itself is a pointer to the presence of the discerning Indian voter, who distrusts a particular party or a pre-poll coalition with the ability or competence to govern a vast and plural country like ours. The result is that whichever parties that come to power are always on tenterhooks, having to sustain the support of parties, which are not part of the government, or seek the support of the fence-sitters. The discerning Indian voter here, I would like to infer, is a median voter, who is in a substantial minority, and does not belong to either of the extreme poles in the political spectrum. For this median or the discerning voter, who comes to power or who forms the Government is of little consequence, as long as the policies pursued by the new Government reflect the median position. The parties representing this median voter are the median parties, which may be in a minority, but could decide who form the Government, by extending or refusing support to parties which are not within the reach of majority strength in the Lok Sabha. These median parties may seemingly exercise disproportionate influence, but they give content and meaning to the mandate, which is otherwise very confusing.

How does a discerning voter decide whom to vote? A discerning voter is also an average voter, with limited memory or access to knowledge about omissions and commissions of a party or a candidate. Or the voter may suffer from too much exposure (as happens in the case of live TV coverage of campaigns)to such information, which leaves him or her really confused about the choices. In other words, what is the clinching factor which weighs or ought to weigh in the minds of this voter? Conventionally,in a normal election characterised by absence of dominant issue, a voter tends to vote for a party or candidate, who according to him or her, is likely to win. Bulk of the electorate have this tendency; that is why the winner and the runner-up (and in some constituencies the third and fourth candidates who also gather substantial number of votes, because their voters thought they might win) generally gather a huge chunk of votes polled. Those who vote for a party or a candidate which they know will most likely to lose, do so under emotional influence,or on principles, and are not discerning voters. Discerning voters choose their parties or candidates on various considerations.

India's median parties played a crucial role during the NDA rule, and restrained the BJP's communal agenda significantly, though they were not completely successful in that. During the UPA regime, some of these median parties gravitated towards the Congress, with the Left supporting from outside. Once the Left withdrew support, the role of these median parties became crucial to sustain the Government. But that phase was not long enough to draw enough conclusions about what restraining role they could have played on the Government. In this piece, Siddharth Varadarajan makes the point that after the current general elections, these median parties (he calls them regional parties) could gravitate towards the Left and the Third Front, if they muster sufficient strength. Research on how these regional parties play median role to ensure governmental and policy stability in times of extreme incompatibility between two ideologically-driven political poles is required. The increasing number of regional parties in Parliament has caused anxiety to some, including the Prime Minister. But they may indeed be playing constructive role, if their recent contribution collectively is taken into consideration.

Bhaskar Dutta in this article in recent EPW (The Fragmented Lok Sabha: A case for electoral engineering, April 25, 2009)is pessimistic about increasing fragmentation, saying it has led to corruption, instability, and inability to agree on hard policy choices. He is also led to believe that increasing fragmentation in our legislative chambers simply reflects the growing divisiveness in our society. He, therefore, suggests a legal threshold that only parties obtaining a minimum of 2.5 per cent of the aggregate national vote are entitled to secure a seat in Parliament. But, according to me, the correlation between growing fragmentation and bad governance is not very convincing.
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