Indian voters are not dumb-driven cattle
Ashok Tankasala Assessing voting behavior of people needs careful consideration, particularly so in a hugely populated and vastly diverse country...
Assessing voting behavior of people needs careful consideration, particularly so in a hugely populated and vastly diverse country like India with all its complex issues. When Justice Markandey Katju, the Press Council Chairman, recently remarked that 90 percent of Indians "vote like cattle and vote blindly" for their caste, religion and region, it provoked some angry criticism. Still he repeated those remarks with all the vehemence he is known for. The critics generally took objection to his choice of words but did not look at the substantive validity or otherwise of what he had said. Indians may vote like "cattle", but if one scrutinizes their voting behaviour over the last 60 years, one can easily discount the conclusion. Between 1952 and 2009 they voted 15 times for the Lok Sabha. If all State Assembly elections are also taken into account, it will be several hundred elections in all. Analysis will show that voting has never been a blind one, despite high levels of illiteracy. It has always been a conscious vote based on issues. The first General Election in 1952 attracted over 60 percent of the electorate to polling booths, in spite of a mere 12 percent literacy. That was because of their high expectations of emancipation in a free India, after a prolonged freedom movement. But the very next polls in 1957 saw a decline in the Congress vote in major States like UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Kerala. If it lost majority in Orissa requiring negotiations with others, in Kerala power passed into the hands of a Left party. This, in spite of Jawaharlal Nehru, a socialist Prime Minister, doing everything he could to meet the aspirations of the people. He could feel their pulse. He did not attribute it to the people voting for their caste, religion and all that. He told his party leaders: "If the social forces unleashed by democracy and universal franchise are not taken care of, they will push us aside and march ahead". And that happened two more elections later. In the General Elections of 1967 the Congress lost majorities in eight State Assemblies, including northern and southern States. In the Lok Sabha, its strength fell below the 300 mark for the first time. By then caste and regional parties had come into existence as a big force. But the question is how we interpret that change: Call it a "cattle" voting or a "marching ahead of social forces unleashed by democracy and universal franchise"? In fact, a study of voting behaviour from the first election (1952) till the 15th (2009) one is quite instructive. Various sections of society sought to create their own alternatives to it either separately or collectively, depending on the situation, from time to time, over the subsequent decades. It has been so both at the Centre and in States. This does not mean that there has been no voting on lines of caste, religion, region, etc, in what may be called a 'vertical social voting' (voting on caste lines) as opposed to 'horizontal social voting' (voting across caste lines). The latter cuts across caste, religion and other such factors. But terming it "cattle like" only betrays one's lack of understanding why an electorate that is conscious enough to vote horizontally, tends to do that vertically at times. The answer is two-fold. One is that when political parties (both ruling and Opposition) fail to meet the collective and horizontal aspirations of people, and do not inspire confidence, the vacuum created thus drives people to primordial thinking. Even otherwise, in a society where centuries of traditional cultures and feudal socio-economic relations are yet to disappear completely, vertical social behaviour cannot easily be wished away. Added to that, when governments and Opposition parties fail in their democratic professions, age-old social bonds get reinforced. This is not to talk of deliberate attempts by parties to cultivate vote banks on bases of caste and religion. But who do we blame for it? In any case, while the people disappointed with the failure of the political class sometimes look for solutions by voting vertically, some others consider such vertical bonding as a long-term solution for their emancipation. In our society, so deeply divided by castes and other factors, when mainstream parties do not succeed in blurring those lines and developing a horizontal consciousness, sectional assertions inevitably come into play. If we revisit what Nehru said after 1957 election reverses for his party and what happened by 1967 elections, these possibilities become quite clear. And that is what has been happening since 1960s onwards. From the days of peasant middle castes of the North led by Charan Singh walking out of the Congress fold to form their parties to thoroughly disappointed to newly assertive Dalit castes unsettling all the others with their own parties, one can see a connecting thread. There is a clear political, social and economic message in it. It has been so with the regional imbalances and regional politics too.A The voting of these sections is only reflective of these situations, whether they vote vertically or horizontally at different times. Either way it has always conveyed some meaning, and never been a "blind" one. To put it in the words of Nehru, the social forces unleashed by democracy but not taken care of by the political class in these six decades, are only marching ahead in their chosen ways.