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Vote bank politics doesn't exclude governance

Last updated on: April 28, 2014 15:15 IST

Mihir S Sharma on the false opposition being created between 'governance' and 'vote bank politics'.

The essential task of a politician is "framing". A political choice must be framed in such a way that voters choose you above the other alternative. And there is no doubt that, in the 2014 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party -- and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi -- has won that battle, hands down. What, exactly, is the choice that they have framed and laid before the voters? Mr Modi provides the clearest answer in a recent interview: a choice is between “governance” and “vote-bank politics”.

Pause a moment to consider this. It will have become so much a part of your thinking that it may not immediately be obvious to you that the two things are not, in fact, opposites. They are not antonyms. The presence of either does not imply the absence of the other. You can, indeed, have both. Or you can have neither.

Why, then, does this false opposition have power? One major reason, of course, is the record of the current government. Given that it is led by the Congress, that vast pandering machine, and that it has a record on governance reform and administrative efficiency that is deservedly reproached, it seems there is a connection between the two things. The human mind sees two things together, and decides they are linked. The human mind, unless it questions what it sees, is prone to erroneous inference.

Another cause: the bone-deep elitism that believes that "vote banks" erode accountability. In actual fact, the phrase "vote bank" is a cretinous addition to Indian English that should have been called out as one of the more idiotic manifestations of elitism as long time ago. If other people vote for particular politicians even though they do not deliver the particular services or public goods from the State that we want, then we believe accountability has been eroded.

This represents a basic misunderstanding of electoral politics. People vote in their own interest. In some cases, other people's interests may run contrary to yours. The reason the Bahujan Samaj Party has a "Dalit vote bank" is that many Dalit voters believe a State machinery that provides them with adequate respect when it comes to service delivery trumps most other considerations at the time of voting. The reason many small shopkeepers in the North vote the BJP is that they believe the party will keep their pocketbooks in mind, and they are right to believe that.

And the reason many Muslim voters have often voted to keep out the BJP is not that they are undereducated sheep, but that they estimate physical security is more important when it comes to the voting decision than anything else, and they judge the BJP is the party least interested in providing that to them. If you look at this and see vote bank politics, there is something wrong with you, and not with them.

In fact, a crucial part of political analysis today is that the only people who are not a vote bank are urban, upper-caste voters, who care altruistically about everyone else and thus only ever vote for those people who deliver things, like flyovers, that urban upper-caste voters care about most. This is true accountability. Also governance.

A related argument that has grown insidiously common of late is the idea that "secularism" is being used as blackmail by the umpteen “secular” parties in India's polity. They do very little work to attract voters, we are told, and then urge voters to simply keep out the BJP at election time. This is, apparently, blackmail, rather than politics-as-usual.

What is truly mystifying, however, especially when it comes from otherwise intelligent people, is why the fault for this should be laid at the door of the Congress, or the Samajwadi Party, or whichever "secular" party. This is like discovering Coke tastes good but might also give you cancer, and then blaming Pepsi for "health blackmail" when it runs ads pointing that out. (Note: neither drink will kill you. That is what is called an "example".)

The idea that "governance" is necessarily the opposite of "vote bank politics" is, of course, the final victory of a particular idea of what governance is. It is the product of an assumption that the fruits of governance -- more police stations, say, or an investment in traffic management -- will be equally available to all, and have equal benefits for all. It is the triumph of a vision about policy that has very little to say about the actual consequences of the rationing of public goods. After all, more police stations only make a real difference if the people there are willing to write down the first information report you file.

Those who despise vote bank politics will usually manage to get their FIRs filed. Others, not so much. This is why the BSP government in Uttar Pradesh ensured that there was one person from a backward caste in each police station with responsibility for recording FIRs filed even by those unaccustomed to government working for them. That, too, is governance. But not the kind that today's votaries of "governance" would accept.

There is, perhaps, a deeper, policy-related reason why this framing -- of governance versus vote banks -- is so intuitive. And that is the inability of the IndianState to granulate its policies effectively. It fails to target individuals with any precision. Even families are tough -- help getting "on to the below-poverty-line list" is always a major request to State officials and politicians. For an inefficient, overworked State, targeting groups is easier.

A crucial constituent of the last-mile patronage economy is precisely this: the need to speak to groups and make credible promises to them. Promises to diffuse individuals are not credible; promises to individuals bound together as a coherent group are. And thus, what is described as vote bank politics is basically nothing but responsive politicians providing access to State services in a manner that is credible to voters.

One day, soon, that credibility component will change -- perhaps if Aadhaar survives this election, and if direct transfers really do take off. But that day is not today. It is not 2014.

The reason Mr Modi's plea -- one that is widely resonant, clearly -- to choose governance over vote bank politics is a magnificent rhetorical flourish is that it combines two registers. One spoken, one unspoken -- at least, not spoken by Mr Modi; his lieutenants are less controlled.

On one level, it is a subtle reminder that the BJP is a majoritarian party – a majority can never be a vote bank; it is merely a majority. Every other party, which speaks to group identities that are other than conventionally Hindu, is necessarily, therefore, pandering to vote banks.

And at the additional level, it links this political pluralism to efficiency. No other party, in other words, will ever be efficient at designing and implementing policy -- because no other party speaks for the majority identity.

In all ways, it is a sublimely well-designed message. That it is neither true nor sensible is beside the point.

Image: The BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. 

Mihir S Sharma
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