Lessons from India’s Elections

The fourth and final phase of the elections is set for Monday, with counting taking place on Thursday. Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express writes about how the Indian voters have become smarter than the politicians and what it means for Indian politics:

1. The arrival of the smart voter

This voter does not allow himself to be swayed by either charisma (in this case Vajpayees), or hype, as over India Shining backed by testosterone-laden advertisement campaigns. The lesson is, no matter how much media you buy, how well you misuse the media you own and how much noise you make, this voter will not vote on the idea of feel-good unless he is really feeling better than before. This is where the NDA went wrong in confusing the malls of Gurgaon, the software parks of Bangalore and Hyderabad, cheaper housing loans and easy gas and phone connections for some huge trickle-down effect of ten years of reform that might translate into a high index of voter satisfaction. It forgot that for an overwhelmingly large number of Indians these things are merely in the realm of fantasy, their lives are still untouched by the comforting winds of reform. That kind of a deep, and wide, feel-good wave would require five years of robust reform in economy and governance, not just one year of 8 per cent growth. This election marks the rise of this smarter voter who checks out your claims and he will redefine our politics.

2. Decline of negative politics

This campaign will mark the decline of several negative issues that have dominated our electoral politics for nearly a decade and a half: Bofors, Ram Mandir, reservations, national security, a leaders foreign origin and even the old leftist notions of pristine secularism. Actually, except Sonia Gandhis Italian origin, none of these issues has even been raised seriously by any side in this campaign. Even there, the BJPs senior-most leaders were careful in keeping away from the foreign origin issue and concentrating on their own track record instead…The 2004 election is setting us firmly on the road to a durable bijli-sadak-paani agenda. Hopefully, as we become more intelligent, less cynical and thereby more demanding, we will add education and health to this.

3. Mixing foreign policy with domestic politics back-fires

One opportunity the BJP has totally failed to exploit in this election is peace with Pakistan. Nothing else would have created greater optimism and comfort…But two weeks into the campaign most of its campaigners were not even mentioning peace with Pakistan. Why did they so quickly give up the one creative idea and part-achievement that even the Congress or the Left could not have questioned? The BJP blundered by using this simplistically to seek Muslim vote. Its initial idea, that better relations with Pakistan were essential for better Hindu-Muslim relations here, is not fallacious. But it was wrong to say this in the elections. It angered the Muslims. Was the party making peace with Pakistan to make them happy? It confused many Hindus: Was the BJP making concessions to Pakistan to get Muslim votes? Either way, the BJP squandered a great opportunity. The lesson is, do not enmesh issues of foreign policy and larger national interest in partisan, or worse, divisive domestic politics.

4. The business of electioneering has changed

The era of the massive election rally has been long over. People now have work to do. This election was fought more in the media than in the streets. Television is now the new electoral battleground and, as with more developed democracies, will increasingly replace public meetings and door-to-door campaigns as the mode of campaigning. A recent India Today opinion poll had clearly shown that a large majority of the voters now make up their minds on political issues on the basis of what they learn from the media. So, much as they detest us, our politicians will have to learn to live with that reality. This voter is becoming more literate, smart and questioning. That is why, irrespective of which pollster is proven wrong or right, this election will mark a happy break from the past in our politics.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.