Posts Tagged ‘Bihar’

Reading the Elections in Bihar

November 13, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Could the 2015 state election in Bihar signify anything about the future of politics in India? It could, and I want to draw out that possibility by linking this analysis to a previous one related to the equally surprising outcome in Delhi earlier in the year (Electoral Choices). Very briefly, the point made was that while the BJPs share of the vote between the elections of 2014 and 2015 in Delhi remained the same, about a third, its share of the seats dropped sharply from 52 percent to 4 percent. This, it was argued, was a vagary of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) method of election in vogue in a very few countries in which the candidate with a simple plurality of the votes in a constituency is declared the winner.

Now look at the parallels in Bihar between the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2015 state elections. For the BJP, the share of votes dropped from 29 percent to 24 percent while its share of seats dropped from 55 percent to 22 percent. For the RJD, the share of votes dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent but the share of seats increased from 20 percent to 33 percent. For the JD-U, the share of votes increased from 16 percent to 17 percent while the share of seats increased from 10 percent to 29 percent.

It is clear that while the vote shares remained relatively stable, the share of seats was much more volatile. Once again, the outcome was dependent on the idiosyncrasy of the FPTP system. The simple explanation is that in 2014 the RJD and JD-U votes were divided while in 2015 they were pooled.

This highlights very starkly the ugly underside of the FPTP system in a country like India and the almost exclusive focus it directs towards the making and breaking of electoral coalitions by foul means or fair. This was clear even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections where the BJP engineered communal tensions in the swing states of UP and Bihar to break opposing coalitions. It became even clearer in the 2015 state elections in Bihar. As soon as the BJP felt its development plank failing to resonate with voters it fell back on the tactic of attempting to split the opposition by lighting communal fires. First, the task was outsourced to the second-tier leadership which came up with some truly bizarre scenarios but when the margin continued to shrink the sab ka saath Prime Minister himself weighed in with references to the appeasement of some communities at the expense of others. In doing so, he became a fellow traveler, very ironically, of none other than Bibi Netanyahu with the latter’s fear mongering of the other community voting in droves and even being responsible for the Holocaust itself.

Be that as it may, our emphasis here is less on the collateral damage and more on the likely implication of the Bihar outcome for the future of electoral politics in India. Now that it has become obvious beyond doubt that the way to best the BJP is by putting together strong coalitions, one is quite likely to see a repeat of the same in elections to come. Here, one must note that the stability of the winning coalition in Bihar required that personal egos be set aside – the RJD agreed up front to yield the leadership to the JD-U and the once-mighty INC was content with being a junior partner.

While this could set the pattern in the state elections to come, there is no straightforward extrapolation to elections to the Lok Sabha where one might be faced with the incongruous situation of not having a single party with a significant national following. The INC has already been decimated and there are no signs of its early revival. The Left parties are also on the ropes. If the BJP loses popularity by virtue of faltering on its development promise, which is quite likely given the mismatch between the urgency of expectations and the time it takes to turn around a country of the size of India, there will be not a single party remaining with a national mandate. Even if there is partial success on the development front, the model the BJP has adopted of economic growth delinked from social welfare does not augur well for its popularity. This could well be a repeat of the ‘Shining India’ debacle.

If this scenario of the absence of any party with a national mandate does transpire one could foresee an India of stable regional parties attempting some very unwieldy coalitions at the center. It is difficult to say at this time whether that would work or not. Quite intriguingly, it could take India back to its norm of being a landmass governed by many quasi-independent rulers tied together in shifting arrangements. After all, in its very long history, India has only really been united for brief interludes under Ashoka, Akbar, and Victoria. The Victorian legacy has now had a seventy-year hangover. Has the pendulum begun to swing the other way?

We will find out sooner rather than later. One thing to watch would be the strategy of the BJP from here on. From a rational perspective one might think it would read the tea leaves and adjust towards a more inclusive and welfare-oriented stance. But politics is rarely ever rational. It is more than likely that the BJP would harden its stance while simultaneously becoming unable to control the fringe elements it has unleashed as part of its tactics. If that happens, not only might there be a regression to the mean, it could be accompanied by a lot of unpleasant tremors.

Let us hope better sense prevails. India’s strength is its civil society and its remarkable response to the unraveling of the social fabric gives hope that some corrective action, whose exact nature is unclear at this time, would right the situation before it swings too far out of control.

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Democracy in India – 10: Message from Bihar

October 23, 2015

Democracy in Bihar

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy.

Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows:

  • Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest)
  • Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family)
  • Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless)
  • Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family)

What should one conclude?

This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country.

Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as a dhoti/sari pair and a color TV. And this offer to purchase votes is being advertised in public without any seeming consciousness of its contradiction with the premise of representative governance. A sense of irony seems very faraway indeed.

In this series of posts we have covered this ground a number of times without coming across evidence that speaks as categorically as this billboard.

The normative premise of representative governance is that citizens vote for the party that most closely accords with their political, economic, cultural, and social preferences. The unstated assumption underlying this premise is that voters are either not open to or in need of a bribe in exchange for their votes.

Clearly, this assumption is being violated in India and, for that matter, in most countries as poor as India. This violation triggers at least two dynamics. First, political parties enter into a competition to offer the highest price for a vote either in real terms (cash or cash equivalent) or in virtual terms (promises for the future). Since nothing can prevent this competition from spiraling out of control there is no limit to the scale of future promises – Gharibi Hatao being one example – that cannot but remain unfulfilled.

Second, voters having learnt from experience that electoral promises hold little credibility, arrive at the rational decision to maximize their gains from what seems largely a meaningless exercise as far as their future prospects are concerned. Of course, not all voters think in this manner but enough do to give rise to the kind of billboard that triggered this reflection.  So, for a significant number of voters, elections become an opportunity to extract what they can as a price of the one asset conferred on them by the system of electoral governance (on which they were not consulted, not to forget), id est, their vote. Elections assume the character of a mela or festival at which a free meal might be obtained.

This is a cynical and sad conclusion but our billboard tells us that it is real and it should force us to examine the contextual nature of our institutions and reflect on what might be done to overcome these damaging dynamics.

The argument here is not that democracy anywhere else is pristine and perfect. To take the example of the USA, the power of money and media, especially in combination, is becoming ever more evident in shaping the outcome of elections. And the influencing of elected representatives by governments and corporate capital is also not quite a secret – the allocation of public and private money to individual representatives in return for casting their votes in a particular way is well documented. The size of the lobbying industry is a testament to how entrenched is this distortion of governance in advanced democracies.

An illustration of the above phenomenon can be inferred in the Indian case as well. Refer to the slogan at the top of the billboard:

  • Vikaas ki hogi tez raftaar, jab kendr-rajya men ek sarkaar (Development will speed up when the centre and the state are ruled by the same party)

Why should this be the case in a democracy? The implication is that if voters elect a party in the state different from the one at the centre, they would pay a price in terms of impediments in the allocation of funds. This is worse than a bribe because it also implies a threat. If the government at the centre is the government of all Indians, it ought not to act in a discriminatory fashion by obstructing development in states that choose different parties at the local levels.  Voters are being influenced by the exercise of power resulting from control of money.

Here we also see in effect the lingering traces of the monarchical ethos that we have commented on in this series of posts. This is how emperors used to interact with rival kingdoms in their domains. They tried first to overthrow them (The ‘regime change’ of modern times – look at the slogan at the bottom of the billboard: Badlaiye Sarkar, badaliye Bihar – Change the government, change Bihar). Failing that, the practice was to punish the latter by extracting tribute as the price for continued existence – the relationship was very clearly one of conflict and antagonism.

Notwithstanding the above, when the system unravels from the buying and selling of representatives or conflict at the level of governments down to the buying and selling of the individual votes of citizens, things assume a very different perspective. This is so because at that level all mechanisms of restoring accountability are lost. When a government or a representative acts, for whatever reason, in contradiction to the preferences of his or her constituents, one could reasonably expect the voters to express their displeasure in the next election. But when the voters themselves are up for sale no such exercise of accountability is possible.

Good governance, even in the best of circumstances, is a tall order given the power of international and local money in present times. At the level of poverty that exists in India it is doubly more difficult. Given that there are no real alternatives to representative governance, the challenge for concerned citizens is to find ways to resist the commodification of votes. One obvious measure would be for the election commission to disallow the type of blatant billboards under discussion and to vigorously prosecute any attempts to trade in votes.

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