India has a population of over 1.2 billion, which is marked by such heterogeneity and diversity that it becomes absolutely impossible to point out any one factor which could uniformly impact the voting behavior in the entire country. The moment one tries to refer to any one factor as the chief determinant of voting behavior, there are so many others that pop up — the face of the party, social identities in terms of caste, religion, language, sub-nationalistic identification, mass literacy, factionalism, performance of the party in power, immediate issues and so on. What is interesting is how all these determinants in their individual capacity have such a decisive role to play in the electoral process.
Face of a Party
Right from the election of the first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to the current Prime Minister Mr. Narendra D. Modi, one cannot ignore the role that these faces have had to play in projecting a strong leadership in during the elections. When figures like Vajpayee and Nehru addressed the people with their charisma and vision in the rallies which were attended by sizeable chunks of the population then it was the spark of these individual figures only which swept the votes in the direction of their parties. Be it Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” or Modi’s “Achhe Din” face value of a strong leader always has an upper hand in determining the voting behavior when compared to what a party stands for on the whole.
A potential reason for such a pattern could lie in the fact that people want themselves to be represented by an ideal leader. And this ideal leader in their perception will be responsible for everything that happens in the country, which is precisely the reason why when something goes wrong we immediately comment upon what so and so leader is doing and not what the party is doing. Hence, any individual who is able to fit into this apparatus of an ideal leader even if it is by the virtue of mere projection, he/she is bound to win the confidence of the people.
Social Identities of Caste and Religion
The institution of caste is a unique stratification system to which every kind of political formation has adhered to across centuries. Unfortunately even a democratic republican kind of system could not help but give into it. In fact Morris Jones writes in this regard, “Politics is more important to caste and caste is more important to politics than before.” Ones identity of belonging to a particular caste acts as a strong determinant inside the polling booths which is why political parties play on its contours so consistently. A clear example of this was the usage of KHAM (alliance of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim communities)- style politics in Gujarat a clear implication of which was the rise of Congress as a strong electoral force in Gujarat in the assembly elections of 2017 [Frontline].
The very same Gujarat Assembly elections also indicated a wide usage of communal lines for mustering support. The fact that the Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar belt is inevitably seen as a Hindu majority Belt is a clear indication of how voters are expected to behave in these regions. A comment was made in Rajat Roy, in EPW, “The Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to enter into Bengal politics by attacking the TMC on its appeasement policy and is trying to whip up pro-Hindu sentiments.”
Here the point is not what is being done by which party; what is important is to note how the parties condition voters’ behavior by reiterating their social identities through various media. In a way, political parties never let us forget our external identities that are conferred upon us, thus, preventing us from making decisions as conscious individuals.
Performance of Party in Power
A very strong determinant of voting behavior is the performance of party in power. Time and again this has been proved. 1989’s loss of Congress, 2004’s loss of Bharatiya Janta Party and 2014’s loss of Congress are clear reminders of the performance factor. When parties fail to perform well they are bound to be toppled of their seats.
This happens because over the years the number of “floating voters” or “switchers” has increased, these are voters who do not mind switching their choices from one party to another as a result of which they aren’t tied by external social identities. These are the kind of voters who vote on the basis of immediate issues. Like in New Delhi in the last assembly elections the immediate issue was corruption thus, the Aam Aadmi Party came to power.
These major factors– when coupled with other determinants like usage of media, kind of campaigning, narratives over local issues — exercise a considerable impact on the voting behavior.
Picture Credits: Tibet Sun