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The shadow in the middle

Does the aam aadmi care about economic policy?

Written by Tariq Thachil |
September 28, 2012 3:33:03 am

Does the aam aadmi care about economic policy?

The heated debate on recent measures,enabling foreign direct investment in the retail sector,raising diesel prices and limiting cooking gas subsidies,has been framed by the media primarily as one between elite political rivals. The most vocal proponents of these policy shifts are the Congress and India’s business leaders (the so-called “India Inc.”). The most strident criticism has come from the UPA’s political opponents,and some of the Congress’s regional allies,including the SP and the TMC.

These differences,resulting in the TMC’s withdrawal from UPA 2,have shown that ruling coalitions in India can be threatened by elite disagreements over economic policies. But far less attention has been paid to whether such policies actually determine whether political leaders come to power in the first place. The salience of public opinion has been heightened by the prime minister’s defence of his government’s course of action in a rare national address on economic policies. But his effort begs the question: do most Indians really vote on the basis of such policies?

Opinion remains divided on this question. Commentators have argued that economic policies are indeed increasingly important influences on Indian elections. In 2004,the BJP-led coalition’s unexpected defeat was widely interpreted as poor voters punishing the party’s elite-friendly policies and its “India Shining” platform. Five years later,the goodwill generated by NREGA and agrarian debt waivers were seen as crucial to delivering the UPA a second term. In state elections,the JD(U)’s resounding 2010 victory was described as a reward for Nitish Kumar’s prolific record of building roads and staffing schools in Bihar. In contrast,the BSP’s recent defeat in Uttar Pradesh was seen to reflect growing resentment,even within the party’s Dalit base,of its inability to propose and implement policies with equivalent efficacy.

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Recent research,however,has questioned such conclusions. Electoral survey data shows that the BJP did not uniformly lose votes among the poor in 2004. In fact,between 1996 and 2004,the party increased its vote share among disadvantaged communities by double digits in seven major Indian states. Similar data from the 2009 polls found more than two-thirds of the rural poor had not benefited from either the NREGA or the agrarian debt forgiveness programme. In UP,a recent study reported that only 14 per cent of Dalits had benefited from a flagship BSP scheme providing Rs 300 to poor families each month,while 50 per cent agreed that the Mayawati government had wasted money meant for development on building statues and parks. Despite holding such opinions,six in ten Dalits still voted for the BSP in 2012.

More generally,the nature of party politics in India makes it difficult for citizens to simply “vote on the issues”. First,most political parties formulate economic policy platforms that are internally inconsistent and often indistinguishable from those of other parties. Second,parties often fail to implement major policies when in office. Finally,Indian parties can dramatically change their positions on major policies out of political expediency — as exemplified by the BJP’s shift from critic to supporter of liberalisation in the early 1990s. Thus,scholars have argued that voters are connected to parties not on the basis of policies,but through patronage networks,often built around caste or other social markers.

While we should be cautious about reading electoral outcomes as verdicts on policies,we should equally resist exclusively viewing Indian democracy through the reductive lens of patronage and caste. A more productive conversation might begin by refining the question “do economic policies matter for elections” into “when do they matter”.

To that end,I propose for consideration three questions regarding the electoral impact of economic policies. First,are voters even aware of the policy in question? This is not a trivial point,as public debates over policies often assume most Indians are fully informed about them. On the contrary,a study by Lokniti found 40 per cent of the rural poor were not even aware of the existence of NREGA in 2009,despite considerable effort to publicise the scheme,and nearly 50 per cent of Dalits in UP were unaware of the BSP’s cash handout scheme in 2012.

Second,do voters clearly perceive the impacts of proposed policies? Policies that visibly affect individual voters,either positively or negatively,are more likely to affect electoral outcomes. Public opinion data from the 2009 elections found widespread opposition to reducing the number of government jobs,but more diffuse opinions on trade liberalisation. Such variations may reflect differences in voter understanding of the costs and benefits of each measure. In the current debate,we would do well to distinguish between policies that have a clear impact on household pocketbooks,such as the diesel price hike or the cooking gas subsidy cuts and those that do not,such as expanding foreign investment in aviation or restructuring bank debt.

Finally,well-known policies with clear impacts may not register electorally if voters remain unclear about whom to credit or blame. Such clarity of responsibility is muddied by India’s multi-tiered federal structure and complicated coalitions. Should voters attribute a specific policy to a local politician who publicises it,a state government that implements it,or a national government that funds it? For example,the recent reforms let individual states decide if they want to allow foreign investment in multibrand retail,making policy attribution difficult. In contrast,voters may more clearly ascribe the diesel price hike to the central government.

These questions are just starting points and answers will vary between states,and even across the support bases of different parties. But if we are to better understand the relationship between policies,public opinion,and elections in India,we need to pursue such answers. The importance of these efforts should be only too clear in a context in which the figure of the aam aadmi is repeatedly invoked by champions and critics of major shifts in policy without actual reference to what such a figure knows or thinks.

The writer is assistant professor of political science and South Asian studies at Yale University


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