The Pulse

Governance at the Grassroots in India’s Northeast

What drives India’s voters?

Governance at the Grassroots in India’s Northeast
Credit: OgreBot via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a few months since I moved to India’s northeast for a reporting assignment. One of the things I will be looking at under this project is how governance functions at the grassroots level. Governance is the follow up process of an election. Hence, veteran Indian journalist Prannoy Roy and market researcher and pollster Dorab R. Sopariwala’s new book The Verdict was of certain interest to me. Apart from the interesting/uninteresting things that the book has to offer, I especially wanted to see if the wider predictions and trends of the Indian election pointed out in the book resound for the small electorate in the northeast as well.

The most important thing about the book is the fact that it’s written by two people who have actually been around for some time and have a sense of history regarding this nation. The book is a contemporary work that puts the series of events and older models of electioneering out there and is important. A top political reporter from 80s and 90s New Delhi once made an interesting observation. He said, “Narendra Modi (now the current prime minister of India) and Amit Shah (his right hand man) – from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – function in exactly the same manner as the Congress party (the grand old party of India and the one that has spent most years in power at the center) used to.” I put this observation in context of this interesting section in the book, which talks about money for power as a tool used by politicians, and misuse of government institutions by the party in power. The book makes these observations from the India of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, when the Congress party was in power, or when smaller regional parties followed this path, imitating the trends set by the Congress party at a wider scale.

The Verdict also, very interestingly, indicates how wars with Pakistan have been used for electoral victories in India. In this context, the flippant war talk during this year’s election canvassing by none other than Modi shows his desperation by reviving an old idea, without any subtlety either, and is reflective of a definitely tougher election landscape for the BJP than in 2014. Whether it will have the same outcome for the BJP that it had for the Congress party in the past is yet to be seen, but it is a tried and tested trick, which may as well give Modi some marginal success. These electoral appeals have been part of his speeches in mainland India – most of the northeast doesn’t care about going to war with Pakistan or Indian nationalistic pride. Things could change if you replace Pakistan with China, which is closer to the region, though.

Even more interesting is the voter behavior that the book tried to look at. Has it been the same all these years, or has it changed? If it has, what are the reasons behind it? This was especially relevant in a northeast Indian context. From zero seats in the past to actually holding power in some of the states here, while the BJP has obviously made inroads in recent years, it also shows how voting patterns have changed. This section is a must-read to understand how voters change preferences.

Along the same lines, The Verdict looks at the behavior of women voters, who tend to be overlooked. It is a common belief in India that women vote where the men of the house tell them to. During a reporting assignment in Barmer district of Rajasthan state in India, I met a young woman who was the elected representative (Sarpanch) from her husband’s village. She told me that she did not go to the village for canvassing even once, and that her election materials bore the face of her father-in-law, a well-known strong man in the village. It is a seat reserved for women, so she had to become the face (even if nominally) in the election. This is the story in almost all of northern India, where women from powerful families run for election on behalf of the men for reserved seats to consolidate power. How is it then possible to think that they vote as they wish?

Yet, they do. The book quotes from a survey the authors had done. The modern assertive woman, even if she may not verbalize it, votes exactly for who she wishes to. Given their numbers, women can swing an election in favor of a candidate or against them while at the same time forcing candidates to change their agenda in favor of the neglected gender. In the northeast, especially in Meghalaya where I am posted currently, people generally do not care about the general election. However, women are extremely assertive and active when it comes to voting for local autonomous bodies or even state assemblies. Meghalaya traditionally has had a matrilineal society and women are a little more outspoken than their mainland sisters. Hence, it is common to hear of fights between couples over the question of voting when local women make their choices clear.

At the core of all this is the issue of grassroots democracy. The destiny of politicians depends on these indicators. They cannot dream of winning an election if they don’t perform and don’t attend to local issues. The authors reinforce this point by quoting a seasoned speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local.” Electoral trends follow a similar approach all over the world. Geography, at times, makes little difference.

Although northeast India fails to make a mark in swinging the polls at the central level, it works almost similarly. While it’s difficult to predict on the basis of the northeast Indian voters what will be a trend for the rest of the nation, it does vote, in its own way, just like the rest of India – and probably, rest of the world.

Parul Abrol is roving correspondent with Firstpost, reporting on northeast India. Views are personal.