The last untapped vote bank

In every election, it has become standard to observe that the quality of our political leadership and governance is suffering because the educated, urban middle class does not turn up to vote. Now that we have another election before us – the BBMP Council- it may be worth asking, why is this, and how can this be changed?

First, some clarification. While the overall voting percentage numbers certainly bear out the apathy of the middle class, there is still a section of this group that does turn out vote, in election after election.

The more pertinent question, therefore, may be: "why do some people vote and others don’t?" If we understood the answer to that, we may be able to reverse the tide of indifference to elections. (Narendra Modi’s compulsory voting law is another kind of attempt, but we’ll ignore that for the moment).

I think the answer lies within the question itself. Some people don’t vote for the same reasons that other people do! This seems counter-intuitive at first. But consider the quality of elected representatives in so many parts of India. Can we really say that citizenship, patriotism, duty, responsibility etc. are the qualities that motivate the voters who put so many criminals in public office? Of course not.

So, why do people vote? Broadly, there are three reasons. One, there is a direct benefit in it for them; they are either paid by political parties to cast their votes, or offered other goodies in the event of ‘their man’ (and it is usually a man) making it past the post.

Second, they vote to support ‘people like themselves’. In some way, be it caste, creed, conduct, etc. they see themselves in the candidates whom they endorse. So voting for the candidates is effectively a tick mark against their own name. Third, they vote to acquire power. Even non-voters can see that the main purpose of contesting elections is the chance to grab the reins of government and thereafter use or abuse it.

Urban middle class

Now let’s come back to those middle classes who don’t vote. What do they (we!) want? The answers lie in the same arenas. The urban middle class does not vote because it does not identify with most of the candidates, whom they regard somewhat disdainfully as lesser than themselves. They also don’t look to politics to derive benefits for themselves, since business and other arenas provide ample space to negotiate their goals.

But here’s the key to unraveling this – even the urban middle class wants power. It may see such power as a means to better ends, and therefore a little better than the kind of purpose that many politicians now pursue, but it is power nonetheless. And since this is at the heart of the matter, it would be good to understand how electoral power works.

All over India, and within states too there are political parties that do not command more than a few percentage points of the vote share. The national arena is replete with such examples – the ruling coalition is virtually a hodge-podge of parties that each represents only a minority of voters in one state of the Union. And yet, they wield enormous power, controlling some ministries outright and holding veto over some key decisions of the two national parties.

This is the first lesson for the urban middle class. Its goal need not be to win elections outright that will take considerable effort, for which the armchair habits are not well suited. Instead, the concerned non-voter needs to only focus on a simple goal – put 5 to 10 per cent of the vote in play, with specific demands linked to better governance and politics. When this 5 per cent becomes critical to the formation of a government, its voice will begin to be heard.

We see this at the state level too – ‘Captain’ Vijayakant in Tamilnadu, MNS in Maharashtra, Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh and perhaps even the JD(S) in Karnataka have all gone into recent elections with no real chance of forming a government on their own. Yet, their participation in the fray gives them the opportunity to gain, because by merely contesting the space they impact the outcomes. In all these cases, the splitting of anti-ruling party votes has made it very difficult for the major opposition party (the AIADMK in Tamilnadu, BJP in Maharashtra, and TDP in Andhra Pradesh).

Participation in the fray

This reminds me of something I heard one of the wiser politicians of today say recently. We cannot increase the cost of winning sufficiently, he said, because no matter how much it costs to win an election, there will be candidates who don’t mind spending this money. They can recover it manifold once in office. Instead, we should focus on increasing the cost of losing, i.e. make sure that someone loses despite spending huge amounts of money as a result of chances spoilt by a smaller third party.

So, the first goal should be to vote for candidates who are acceptable, and not worry very much whether they can win. They can make someone lose, and that’s good enough.

Now, let’s turn to the candidates. For long, many people have shied away from contesting elections because they don’t believe they can win, and they don’t believe that their participation will make a difference. But that is slowly changing, and will change even faster in the coming years. In city after city, we will see urban middle class candidates contesting on new or independent platforms, and their participation in elections will be the tipping point that draws the hiterto indifferent voter to the booth.

Such candidates, even they lose (and many will) can take heart – they will be performing an important service by merely throwing their hats into the ring. They will be the pioneers of change, giving the last untapped vote bank in this country a reason to vote – for candidates like themselves.

For the established parties, this will pose a great challenge. Their historical dependence on deprived communities will have to accommodate the rising expectations of new voters who want very different outcomes. These parties cannot embrace this transformation too quickly. At the same time, unless they embrace it they will witness a slow and long decline.   ⊕

About Ashwin Mahesh 16 Articles
Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.

1 Comment

  1. interesting thoughts. Some ramblings from me.
    We are still a young democracy (60 years), I guess we’ll mature into a good one in sometime. The very fact that our middle class soared in the nineties when our politicos gave up socialistic policies shows that we are a group whose voice will be heard.

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