Bihar Shows The Way

Changing patterns of voting towards enduring outcomes

By B.Dhar

Studies conducted in the wake of the 2009 parliamentary elections in India are showing a welcome change in voter preferences. Dividing states in three categories, notably, high-performing, medium-performing and low-performing, interesting patterns of voter behaviour have been noted. If politics were to evolve in the same direction with voters in Mauritius, we could achieve something more enduring in the manner of voting than it has been the case over the past so many decades. The voting pattern in India shows that incumbency is not necessarily a barrier to re-election. The studies have shown that 85% of the candidates contesting election on incumbent parties’ tickets have won in the high-growth states; in the case of the medium-growth states, the rate of success of incumbent parties’ candidates was lower at 50%; it was the lowest, 30%, in the low-growth states. It will be recalled that when India’s growth rate had first spurted, notably under the ‘Shining India’ phase during the BJP government, incumbency was not rewarded. Although growth of a higher order had already come about, it had not touched the lives of the majority of individual voters closely. This must have created doubts about the sustainability of growth inasmuch as it would impact on the lives of the majority of voters. In the period after, growth has been sustained under Congress governments (UPA 1 and 2); it has had time to percolate in different ways into the lives of more voters subsequently.

This shows that voters have favoured those who have touched their lives more closely and positively through the accumulation of sustained phases of high growth. This pattern is reflected even at the level of state elections. Nitish Kumar scored a second resounding victory in the state assembly elections in Bihar against a formidable political adversary like Lalloo Prasad Yadav. The latter is well known for his high rhetoric which essentially pitches one set of people against the other. This strategy was paying off for the past so many decades to Lalloo Prasad Yadav. That Nitish Kumar has overturned this machinery shows that incumbency is not a liability per se, not any more. It also shows that a convincing growth performance can shift voter preference on a permanent basis from the icons which were held in high esteem in the past. The growth criterion is superior to all the electoral arithmetic based on sectional belongings and the view that only persons belonging to particular sections can defend voters’ interests.

The case of Bihar illustrates further that the statistic of economic growth does not matter in voting a government to power, even though Bihar under Nitish Kumar has broken impressive new grounds in this regard as well. In his case, many have been thrown into prison and punished severely who would have been tolerated for their proximity to the previous incumbents of power. People who are usually at the receiving end of such thugs see and experience daily under Nitish Kumar the difference this kind of strict application of the law means to their lives. It takes away the element of permanent fear they were made to live under. Nitish Kumar has also dealt firmly against a very deep-seated system of corruption which was undermining the state in its very heart previously. He may not have uprooted it altogether but voters can see the tangible difference it makes in having his party in power rather than others. A Chief Minister with development performance to show is, in voters’ eyes, superior to any other.

Growth has permitted governments both at the central government and state levels to better alleviate poverty, something which touches the population very closely. The reinforcement of law and order is a tangible result that makes the people more confident about the future. Better governance has strengthened faith in the permanence of institutions, their ability to deliver fair outcomes and not to let situations get out of hands into chaos. More than the rate of economic growth, therefore, it is bringing the benefits from higher growth to bear on the lives of individuals which has been swaying voters away from the classical mould and bringing hopes more rational voter choices in future.

Facts are not exactly identical in Mauritius compared with India. But it is clear that election results have been swayed from independence by some distinct core groups which support one side or the other at the end of the day. This means that political establishments have hardly evolved. They have remained stuck more or less in the pre-independence mould and appealed rather more strongly to emotions, namely a fear factor to preserve the thin dividing line between the two mainstream political contenders, than to reason to win at the polls. Whenever attempts have been made to free politics of this unproductive mould and concentrate it instead, as in India, on things touching more closely the daily lives and prospects of voters, it has been through the now famous system of ‘Koz-kozé’ between the leaders of the mainstream political parties. This is based on making a breach into existing coalitions but not on addressing deep-seated quests by voters, as it should have been the case, notwithstanding the fragility and superficiality of such political arrangements.

People would put more value on things like preservation of law and order, guaranteeing security at all times and in all places to citizens, helping the poor come out from the vicious circle that has kept them tied down, stopping abuse of drugs, excessive betting and gambling, giving better and more sustainable employment to citizens indiscriminately, assuring the population of supply of basic necessities such as steady supply of electricity and water and a sound infrastructure, etc., than giving political leaders the comfort zones they are looking for under stress. Voters can shift in this direction. If they do, we will have written off a phase of doing politics that has lasted for too long. 

* Published in print edition on 17 December 2010

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