The big test

Polls 2014 challenge parties to acknowledge, and find the language to address, a changing electorate.

Published: March 6, 2014 12:10 am

Polls 2014 challenge parties to acknowledge, and find the language to address, a changing electorate.

As it tests theories about how Indian voters have changed and how that is mirrored in what they expect from politics and the state, this election promises to shine the light on who we have become as a nation. The signs of change have been unmistakable even though analytical frameworks have not always kept pace.

For far too long, political competition has been painted as the same old tussle over caste and religion. An artificial fixity and impermeability has been assigned to these identities. This ignores the growing evidence from the ground, even from arenas like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where identity politics is seen to be the most resilient. The last two decisive mandates in UP, for the BSP in 2007 and for the SP in 2012, and the overwhelming vote for Nitish Kumar in 2010 in Bihar — in which the winning parties weaned away large chunks from their rivals’ vote banks — have underlined the change. It is not that the old vote banks have disappeared.

But they are showing increasing fragmentation and unpredictability. Vote bank politics is also losing its erstwhile salience, as parties, having bumped up against its limits, try to overtake their rivals by forging larger social coalitions, wooing the “plus” vote, and speaking more and more to the people’s shared aspirations.

This election is also likely to yield insights on whether the young are politically different, and whether the 18-22 demographic that is said to make up a significant constituency this time, can be regarded as a single or undifferentiated category. While it seems counter-intuitive to think so, given that they are as divided by region, religion, caste and class as other voters, this cohort, which files in to vote for the first time this election, has lived a dramatically different life from previous generations. Living standards have risen, expectations have raced.

Their historical memory is much shorter, and the events that decisively shaped Indian politics for earlier generations exist only as a tale told. What really drives young citizens? Do they value questions of secularism and social justice, or are they swayed more by talk of ending corruption and ensuring a better environment for entrepreneurship? This election could clarify the extent to which new voters inject new content into the political argument.

There are other curiosities, like the degree to which rural and urban areas have come closer. While the spread of roads, electricity, media and mobile phones have forged new linkages and smudged old divides, the question is whether parties can still treat them as distinct sites. Parties that are alert to these shifts on the ground and can be agile in moulding their agendas around them stand to gain.

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