The shifting calculus on Indian electoral politics

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gsr-voteThe latest opinion polls suggest that there will be a massive ten percentage point swing of vote share away from the Congress and towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the coming election. The latter seems set to reverse at one stroke the decline in its vote share since 1998. A swing of this magnitude is in sharp contrast to the glacial changes in vote share in recent elections.

The vote swing predicted by the polls suggests that the coming ballot will be quite unlike the ones held over the past three decades. Some political analysts argue that the election this year will have elements of a national referendum, as was the case in 1977 (even though the Janata Party wave left South India untouched). Issues such as economic growth, inflation, corruption and governance will dominate rather than the traditional politics based on caste loyalties.

The hypothesis fits in well with the emerging narrative that India is now a changed country. Voters in a young, aspirational, mobile and urbanizing nation will abandon their old love for identity politics to embrace a new politics of development. Such hopes have been reinforced by the grandstanding by the two national parties on issues such as economic progress, corruption and a new nationalism in the months leading to the actual voting. But as the campaign race enters its final round, what has been happening on the ground (or rather in the closed rooms where political deals are struck) shows that the actual players in the political game are far more sceptical than assorted pundits about the inevitability of a new politics liberated from the bonds of identity, political dynasty, criminality and corruption.

Both the national political parties have been busy doing deals with political leaders who carry a particular caste with them. Politicians tainted by charges of corruption have made a comeback. People with criminal records continue to get party tickets. Dynasties are flourishing. And there is almost a Brownian motion of new alignments between various political parties. The ability of a politician to win a constituency continues to matter more than anything else, as is perhaps inevitable in any rational political calculus. The gap between the emerging narrative of a new politics and the actual behaviour of political parties suggests that the actual situation is thus far more nuanced than many assume.

Take the issue of caste, which was once a category that only drew the attention of anthropologists but later became very important to Indian politics following the insights of Ram Manohar Lohiaabout the centrality of caste in Indian life. The popular quip is that Indians do not cast their vote but vote their caste. Though the caste-based Lohiate parties of the Hindi heartland may be losing ground, there is enough evidence that caste and other forms of identity continue to matter in voting decisions, though in a more complex manner than commonly assumed.

A case in point is a recent survey by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. It shows that there are clear caste-based preferences at the national level. The BJP will make huge gains in 2014 among upper caste, middle caste and scheduled caste voters while the Congress will continue to have strong support from scheduled tribes and Muslims. It is possible to argue that such a division of votes could lead to a new class politics to the extent that these social categories also reflect economic disparities, but for now it seems that caste has a certain power even at the macro level. Remember that even the US vote in 2012 was split, with white voters strongly Republican while a melting pot of various ethnic minorities swung the decision for Barack Obama.

The study does show that economic issues dominate the concerns of voters. It also suggests that the hold of caste could be weakening though it still continues to play a part in voter behaviour. But the actual bets that the major political parties have taken in recent weeks suggest that the old assumptions are not about to be swept away from the field of Indian politics.