The elusive national vote

I had assumed it would take a minor miracle for Narendra Modi to take the Bharatiya Janata Party to what even his supporters saw as a minimal 180 seat to put together a ruling coalition. I couldn’t see how the numbers, state by state, could get to that point. But the recent Hindu-CSDS poll would seem to show that domestic Indian politics is not my real expertise. The polls give the BJP about 150 seats – and that is before campaigning has even started.

Roughly, what Modi strategists believe, is that their real push will come from a “national vote” of about 50 seats. This swing vote gave Manmohan Singh his second term in 2009. Bitterly disappointed with what Singh’s government did with their support, the hope is Modi will be the recipient this time around.

What is the national vote? Indian voters take the dictum “all politics is local” to an extreme. For most voters, their concerns barely go beyond a few kilometers from their residence or place of work. This is only accentuated by a Westminster system where the chief executive is not directly elected.

This was underlined at the recent launch of Rajasthan BJP parliamentarian Manvendra Singh of his experiences during the last elections in his book Campaign Diary where one of the panelists noted how national issues, the kind of stuff that excites Delhi’s chatterati, interceded not at all in the campaign. Another panelist noted that electoral turnout in India decreased quite rapidly the higher up the geographical ladder one went — ie turnout was lowest at national elections, highest for village panchayats.

A pollster explained to me a year or so back, when I wondered how much the freebies given out by parties influenced the vote, that for years poor voters (who have the highest turnout in Indian elections, the reverse of the West) assumed the people in power could do little about their lot. So they assumed each election was a chance to make a bit of money. This had been decreasing over the years. Today, in some southern states, 40 per cent of the vote is materially influenced, he said. That sounds terrible, but it’s a marked improvement on the past he told me. Also, every party now gives out cash or kind so it generally evens itself out.

A “national voter” would cast a ballot for primarily national reasons – all-India issues, if you wish, are the primary factor in deciding who he plumps for. These are far and few in between. They grow slowly but surely from a complex social process that includes urbanisation, education and working in a factor or office environment. And exposure to media.

This is not unusual. The United States was exactly like this in the first 100 years of its existence. Politics was, at best, about the states. As historians like to note, Americans called their country “these United States of America” before the civil war. Afterwards, they began to use the singular “the United States.” Urbanisation and industrialisation added a new nationalist character to what was, like India, a political aggregation of regional states with a weak central government.

India has begun walking down a similar path as the US. A fragmented aggregation of local elections is slowly becoming a more coherent and holistic political entity. It will be a longer and hard process given the diversity of India and the sheer size of the population. But when you talk of “new India” much of it is about a new non-localised population, largely educated and urban, who put big picture issues into their ballot box choice.

If Modi wins, it will be further evidence that a national vote does exists. And that is growing with each election cycle. Not enough to be the only thing that matters, but one that factors in national issues increasingly along with caste, ideology and the other traditional reasons a voter does what he or she does.

In foreign policy nothing could be more fulfilling than a genuine national vote. So much easier if Lanka’s Tamils and the waters of the Teesta were handled by state parties cognizant that their actions could be electorally damaging at the central level.

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