The Elusive National Vote

I had assumed it would take a minor miracle for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to get the 180 seats needed to put together a ruling coalition. I couldn’t see how the numbers, state by state, could add up. But a recent Hindu-CSDS poll apparently shows that domestic Indian politics is not my real expertise: the polls give the BJP about 150 seats, and that’s before campaigning has even started.

Modi strategists believe, roughly, that their real push will come from a “national vote” of about 50 seats. It was this swing vote that gave Manmohan Singh a second term in 2009. With voters bitterly disappointed with Singh’s government, the hope is that Modi will benefit from the national vote 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 recently at the book launch of Rajasthan BJP parliamentarian Manvendra Singh’s Campaign Diary, a collection of his experiences during the last election. One of the panelists noted how national issues, the kind of stuff that excites Delhi’s chatterati, did not intercede at all in the campaign. Another panelist noted that electoral turnout in India decreased quite rapidly the higher up the geographical ladder one went – i.e., turnout was lowest at national elections, highest for village panchayats.

A year ago, I asked a pollster how much the freebies given out by the parties influenced the vote. The pollster explained to me that 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 considered each election a chance to make a bit of money. Today, in some southern states, some 40 percent of the vote is materially influenced, he said. That sounds terrible, but it’s a marked improvement on the past, he told me. And now, with every party giving out cash or kind, it generally events 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 urbanization, education and working in a factory 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”. Urbanization and industrialization 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. A fragmented aggregation of local elections is slowly becoming a more coherent and holistic political entity. It will be a long 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-localized population, largely educated and urban, who consider big picture issues when making their ballot box choice.

If Modi wins, it will be further evidence that a national vote does exist, and that it 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.

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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