Elections and Empowerment: India’s Legislative Assembly Elections and What We Can Learn From Them

kids_congress_flag_20090409The first round of the 2012 elections has taken place in India. Of the seven legislative assemblies whose tenures expire in 2012, five states (Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand) held elections from late January to early March. The results of these elections are important for several reasons: they are indicators of the general election results due in 2014. Moreover, the results provide a snapshot of the changing trends among voters in the world’s largest democracy.

The results have been disappointing for India’s two major parties. The Indian National Congress (the ruling party at the centre) fared rather poorly in this cycle. Among the five state contests the Congress has only won a single state outright: Manipur, a state in the nation’s poor northeast region. While it managed to remain ahead of its national rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) in Uttarakhand, it did so with only a one seat lead in the assembly. A loss for its incumbent government in Goa and a poor performance in Punjab has placed the Congress in a tough race in the 2014 elections.

Meanwhile, although the B.J.P. did somewhat better than the Congress in this election, they have not been able to gain a clear mandate in the polls either. While it won Goa from Congress as well as retaining control of Punjab with its coalition partner they did not gain tremendous ground in other elections. In Uttarakhand, the B.J.P. failed to win a majority and in Manipur the party faced disappointing electoral returns.

In the key battleground of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), a very influential state in national politics due to its population size, both major parties did badly. Coming into the elections, Rahul Gandhi, the presumptive heir to the leadership of the Congress Party, was relying on these elections to validate his credentials as a national leader. Many analysts and politicos saw these elections a test of Gandhi’s abilities in national level politics and his candidacy for the premiership. Similarly, the B.J.P. needed a strong showing in U.P. to prepare for the general elections and bolster the strong right-wing political support it once had in the state. The results show that neither party performed well; neither the Congress nor the B.J.P. mustered enough votes to be considered the main opposition party within that state’s legislature.

The elections thus far illustrate the influence of regional and interest-based political parties within state and national politics. The political scientists Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar refer to this growth and influence of regional political parties as the “third electoral system.” They trace the origins of this trend to the 1970s and 1980s and showed that smaller parties have become increasingly popular–gaining their prominence by better representing the interests of voters’ communal, caste, and economic interests. This trend appears to be continuing in the current elections, particularly in U.P.

In U.P., the electoral contest was primarily between two regional parties, the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party (B.S.P), led by the controversial and polarizing figure Mayawati, and the Samajwadi Party. Both claimed to represent the common person and have populist platforms. The B.S.P., over the last two decades, has emerged as the most prominent organization for the region’s sizable low caste Hindu citizens, the Dalits. The socialist Samajwadi Party under Akhilesh Yadav’s leadership has transformed itself from being once considered a very corrupt organization into a more legitimate popular party.

The election results of the five states are indicative of interesting trends in Indian politics. While dynastic and populist politics are common features in not only Indian but South Asian politics more generally, they alone can no longer guarantee electoral victories. Without strong leadership in local branches of national parties, the presence of the political equivalent of celebrities in the run-up to elections no longer generates votes. The defeat of the B.S.P. in U.P., which many analysts viewed as the party’s stronghold, showed that without addressing issues that voters consider crucial, such as tackling political cronyism and other forms of corruption. Mayawati did not even have the support of her major constituency, the Dalits. Indian voters, especially the rural poor and low caste groups, have become increasingly discriminating in their voting habits due to increasing literacy rates and rising income levels. As the political commenter Soutik Biswas rightly pointed out in a recent BBC editorial “voters are no longer satisfied with paltry patronage. They demand more. They are less likely to turn a blind eye to corruption, which they are inured to. And no party, this election proves, can take voters for granted in today’s India.”

The major Indian political parties must adapt to these shifts in order to remain viable. Regional and interest-oriented parties also can no longer expect voters to simply cast ballots for them based on caste and communal politics. These developments have serious implications on the organizational structure and agendas of all political parties. The Indian voter is becoming more discerning and this is a very good thing. In a region where democracies are the exception rather than the norm, Indian democracy continues to develop and take root. Political parties and politicians must remember this.

Riksum Kazi is a graduate student in MESAAS at Columbia University. He specializes in South Asian political economics and regional economic history.