United Voters of India: The Logic of Collective Action (Part 4)


To better understand how votebanks (voting blocs) have been a central feature in Indian politics, here is a brief summary of columns from the past few years.

Syed Ali Mujtaba in Himal SouthAsian (May 2004): “Vote bank politics has come to become an Indian reality and democracy in India has come to be the fine art of balancing different vote banks with very little exception. Some political parties may openly denounce the politics of cultivating vote banks but overtly or covertly they practice it in their own constituencies, for political survival and advancement… It has been said that democratic processes would put an end to India’s unique divisions, which were wilfully exploited by the colonial masters to perpetuate their rule. It was reasoned that periodic elections would gradually diminish the divisions based on caste, creed and religion. However, in the process of empowering the masses, democracy has sharpened the diversity by transforming them into vote banks and important ‘variables’ in the political process… There is no end in sight to the phenomena of vote bank politics in India. As new groups come forward to demand space in politics, the creation of new vote banks is an accelerating process. There is emerging consciousness among various marginalised groups to get united in the course of political mobilisation.”

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha in Mint (Oct 2012):Middle-class voters are generally less prone to tactical voting. One often hears about how entire blocks of votes based on caste or religion shift depending on the promises made by parties. One rarely sees similar analyses of middle-class votes. One reason could be that votes in this category are more stable, and hence part of the core support base of various political parties. The flip side is that such voters are taken for granted. Political parties have a great incentive to attract votes at the margins…Election contests can be quite close in India, with narrow victory margins. A consolidated group of urban voters who choose en masse based on strategic considerations could be one way out for citizens who currently either choose not to vote or prefer to back a certain loser. There are undoubtedly serious moral issues with such an approach, most importantly because strategic voting is insincere and cuts the roots of representational democracy and its ability to reflect social preferences.” Niranjan also references Atanu Dey’s UVI idea.

M K Raghavendra in Deccan Herald (December 2018): “Before speculating on what a ‘vote bank’ actually is, we may take stock of what is already known: a) money plays a big part in elections and the incidence of political corruption can be traced to it; b) a large proportion of the electorate votes on the basis of jati or the religious groups to which they are affiliated; c) national/state elections are won on the basis of small swings of 3-4%, which could add up over the years depending on the long-term fortunes of a political party; d) the educated voter is apathetic and does not determine the outcome of the elections; e) the poor come into their own at election time, when they vote en masse… Parties do not deal directly with the individual voter but through intermediaries belonging to this or that block, with the trust of its members. This intermediary is known to the members through tasks undertaken on their behalf — like getting civic problems attended to — and s/he is trusted by parties to deliver block votes. Together, voting groups linked through intermediaries to political parties constitute voting networks.”

Martand Jha in Hindu Business Line (March 2019): “There is a big positive side to it as well. It increases both the individual and collective bargaining power of the people vis-à-vis those in power. Democracy is a daily exercise, involving numerous bargaining processes between citizens and the political class…Therefore, when a particular group aligned on the basis of caste, sect, religion, or language is recognised by one or more political party, the chances of their demands and aspirations getting fulfilled are much higher than that of a group or community that is not recognised as a vote bank… Once a group or community starts feeling that it can be recognised as a vote bank, their collective strength increases manifold. All political parties, therefore, keep appeasing these groups as they can’t afford to lose their votes during elections…Given its potential for cynical misuse, vote-bank politics should be seen as an instrument to be deployed by citizens, and not by the political class.” Martand discusses votebanks of persons with disabilities and women.

Whatever we call it (I prefer voting bloc), two things are clear in the Indian context. First, politicians know and leverage voting blocs in election campaigns. Second, voting blocs have been along caste, community and linguistic lines. There has never been a voting bloc organised on economic prosperity and wealth creation.

Tomorrow: Part 5

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.