The Pulse

India’s Smart New Electorate

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The Pulse

India’s Smart New Electorate

Recent electoral turnarounds show a steep learning curve for populist politicians.

India’s Smart New Electorate
Credit: India election via arindambanerjee /

Indians have strong views on everything, including politics, and as such every Indian is a political pundit. A well-known academic predicted before this year’s Lok Sabha election results were due that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its own would garner no more than 170 seats in Parliament. Once results started to come in, it soon became clear that he was well short of the mark. The BJP won 282* out of 543 Parliamentary seats, the strongest mandate in decades. In the winter of 2013, a foreign policy analyst at a prominent think-tank opined to me that the Indian National Congress would pull off a surprise victory in Delhi’s state elections. No sooner had the results come in announcing the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) conquest of the capital, than I was convinced he should stick to foreign policy analysis. Predicting and forecasting the direction of Indian politics is a difficult business (or art) in today’s climate. The Indian electorate is throwing strange surprises at the political elite, constantly reminding them of the capriciousness of a chaotic democracy like India.

A Dynamic Democracy

The world’s largest democracy, India is also incredibly complex. The pressures that are exerted on this democracy are multifaceted, with a range of factors coming into play in elections. For good or ill, identity politics are an integral part of India: caste, religion, ethnicity and language are factors that are written off at some peril. Of equal importance, there are issues of development, leadership, aesthetics and even rhetoric. In short, unless you strike a chord with the electorate, you are likely to be unsuccessful. Wining the hearts of Indian voters has turned out to be a fairly difficult task in the last few years. Since the dawn of the 21st century, just when coalition politics came to be seen as a given, India has witnessed the emergence of personality cults, single-party waves and mini-waves in politics.

Three such waves in recent times are readily identifiable. These are, in reverse chronological order: The Narendra Modi-led BJP victory in the 2014 General Elections, the AAP sweep of Delhi in the 2013 state assembly elections, and the decimation of a 34-year-old Left Front government by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the 2011 state elections of West Bengal. All these victories had their own dynamics and explanations. All have been thoroughly dissected by political analysts.

Taken all together, these astonishing political outcomes suggest that there is something about the electorate that has fundamentally shifted in recent times. Three distinctive and related changes are notable: (a) greater awareness, (b) increasing restiveness, and (c) higher expectations. Once a 75-year-old Anna Hazare took to Delhi’s streets, corruption and complacency became rallying points for politicians sitting on opposition benches. Inexplicably, the Indian public felt like a tipping point had arrived. Although the country seems stuck on that point, in the process the electorate has become unforgiving. This is partly because some leaders, while seeking to exploit the public’s outrage at the apathy and complacence of the political elite, ended up promising too much to voters. Mamata’s TMC, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP, and Modi’s BJP led the Indian electorate to dream of “change.” The discourse became so steadfastly focused on change that without even manifesting itself in any specific form, the word caught the fancy of voters.

“Change,” partly because of its vagueness, embodies limitless possibilities and varied connotations. Importantly, it carries the message that the status-quo will face the axe, and an explicit promise of something fundamentally different and better: for example, the promise of acche din (better days). However because the voter is (a) aware, due to both mainstream and social media, (b) restless, because the “tipping point” has seemingly been reached, and (c) expectant, because indeed grand promises have been made, the Indian electorate has become hard to please, and can quickly turn on an incumbent. Recent examples offer some insight.

Lessons in Results

After promising “better days” and running a positive electoral campaign focused on inclusive development, the BJP won a strong mandate this summer and soon started to look invincible. The stock market surged, and with it the mood of ordinary citizens. Yet within weeks of assuming office, the far right seemed to get the better of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and across India, as its MPs made one stray remark after another, seeking to divide the electorate along religious lines. The language of development was soon hijacked by a divisive lobby. The party’s by-election strategy targeted a negative emotion: hate, which did not impress voters. Within months of its historic mandate, the BJP was jolted in a series of assembly by-elections as it ceded ground to the Samajwadi Party in UP, along with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which the BJP had only recently reduced to ashes. The important lesson here for political parties is that there is no such thing as a “stronghold” or unimpeded loyalties anymore. It is not as if Indian voters have suddenly rejected the politics of caste and religion. What they have rejected is dishonesty and insincerity. No longer does a political party in India have the luxury of making promises and then wilfully reneging on them.

When the AAP won the Delhi assembly elections in its poll debut almost a year ago, no one would have thought that five months later with the return of the Lok Sabha elections results, the party would fail to win even one Parliamentary seat. Yet this is exactly what happened. AAP’s 49-day government in Delhi didn’t just have an absurdly short life, its performance was abysmal. In a bid to usher in “genuine” democracy, the AAP flouted India’s democratic norms. It quickly fell out of favor with voters. Arvind Kejriwal has been put in his place, but the phenomenon goes beyond him: The Indian electorate has awakened, and political parties can no longer treat them as vote-banks that can be manipulated. The journey from the winning side to the losing side in Indian electoral politics today can be remarkably short, if a party takes its voters and constituencies for granted. It looks increasingly likely that the fear of a quick, impending collapse will be the real check on political promises.

Abhirup Bhunia is with the New Delhi-based Institute of Economic Growth.  

*Corrected from the original. Thanks to our reader for pointing that out.