Election results in India are not merely an aggregate of atomistic decisions made on the polling day. Even before the first vote is cast, a significant degree of synchronization has usually already taken place in the voting choices of the vast majority of the electorate. One of two scenarios usually obtains. Either a candidate wins by a huge margin, or, if the contest is a close one, the overwhelming majority of votes are split between the top two contenders. In other words, only those candidates who are perceived as having a real chance of winning are catapulted to victory, while others receive little more than scraps.
The concept of the electoral hawa (lit. breeze, wind) denotes, in lay usage, the creation of this perception of winnability. It is a notoriously ambiguous term, whose usage spans the entire spectrum from the buzz created at the electoral betting market (satta bazaar) to the more profound process through which the entire electorate is said to make up its mind. Part of this productive linguistic ambiguity stems from the fact that the hawa ‘reaches’ different people in different ways, depending upon their location within society and their involvement in politics. Only those who are involved in creating the hawa, i.e. politicians, or those involved in diagnosing its direction, i.e. the satta bazaar operatives, can be said to possess anything like a bird’s eye view of it. For most of the rest of the electorate, who observe politics from a distance, the hawa becomes discernible only when, having turned into an aandhi (a seasonal storm), it is already upon them.
While in some elections its direction (i.e. who is going to win) seems to be quite obvious from the very beginning to all and sundry, in others the “picture” does not become “clear” until the last few days before polling. In still others, there is no hawa at all. Consider the fact that the hawa is almost never seen in local body elections, such as village panchayats and urban municipalities. It is hardly surprising, then, that many among the electorate should regard the hawa as one of the vagaries of the chunaavi mausam (election season), which can seem to make or “break” (toot jaana) overnight.
The beginnings of the hawa lie in the innocuous eddies of speculation that begin to circulate at the electoral satta bazaar immediately following the announcement of parties’ list of candidates. For as soon as it becomes possible to make an educated guess about the winning chances of the candidates in the electoral fray, the wealthy and the powerful of the constituency rush in to place their bets upon them. Once it is set, the going rate at the satta bazaar is generally regarded by the sociopolitical elite of the constituency as one of the most reliable indices of the winnability of a candidate, even though in recent times it is increasingly being displaced from this role by opinion polls carried out by TV channels – every self-respecting channel feels the need to have at least one of its own. Very often it is only the the middlemen looking to clarify their political allegiances early on in the campaign who pay attention to the going rate at this stage. However, some sense of which way the hawa is blowing does begin to trickle down as rumor and political gossip travels from the towns’ marketplaces (where small time shopkeepers double as satta bazaar operatives), along various sorts of fora such as bus-stands, addas, nukkads, chai-shops, reaching finally the village chaupals.
In a sense, then, the satta bazaar is only the epicenter of a much larger, orally organized, episodic sphere of discussion, which opens up during every election season, and which is geared primarily towards diagnosing the direction of the hawa. It is worth pointing out that women are almost totally absent from this sphere; in North India, at least, politics is clearly a man’s domain. Wherever men meet as a matter of course, guesstimates are exchanged and talk about electoral arithmetic dominates. How many votes a candidate shall get, which caste/community shall vote for whom, who is ahead in the “race”, all this and more constitutes the staple of discussion during this period. Such is the preoccupation with winnability that political parties very often do not even feel the need to announce serious and detailed manifestoes before the elections.
In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the chief campaign strategy of most mainstream political parties consists, not in carrying a message to the individual members of the electorate, but rather in creating an aura of winnability. And nothing accomplishes this more effectively than the election rally. A rally brings together tens of thousands of people in a massive show of strength, which is designed to exhibit, to the undecided voter and the party loyalist alike, the extent of the party’s support base. Where there exists an undercurrent of support for a party, a big rally can consolidate and amplify it; even where no such support exists, a successful rally can manage to put the party in the reckoning. On the other hand, even when a party enjoys considerable support to begin with, unless it can make this support manifest through giant spectacles such as election rallies, it starts to lose ground very rapidly. A flop rally almost certainly spells doom for a party’s electoral prospects.
For, when the attendees return to their respective villages and towns, they carry back with them the “message” of the rally, which is, above all, a judgment about the potential winnability of the party, formed by taking into account not only the number of people at the rally, but also the enthusiasm of the crowd. In this way, as the campaign progresses, the relative winnability of various parties is evaluated, and the very large proportion of fence-sitters gradually begin to make up their minds. However, a hawa can sometimes fail to form despite a party’s best efforts. At most, a party’s campaign can amplify an already present undercurrent of support by making it manifest. For, in the final instance, a hawa cannot be manufactured out of nothing: it either is, or it isn’t.
When hawa is present, then, it is experienced in the final days before polling as the combined buzz created as a result of all the indexical signs pointing in one direction: the going rate of the potential winner plummets drastically; the rallies of the imminent victor see ever larger and more enthusiastic crowds; political middlemen of all shades and stripes often begin to shift loyalties en masse; and the arguments put forward by the party in question gain momentum within society at large. But above all, the hawa reveals itself in an emerging consensus within the sphere of discussion about electoral arithmetic. Upon visiting the various fora mentioned above during this period, I found that only the hardcore supporters of rival parties still continued to valiantly hold their own against the rukh of the hawa; most of the fence sitters had already capitulated.
Hawa, then, is an episodically formed collective will. Neither the result of a deliberate co-ordination, nor a mere bandwagon effect, this collective will is mediated through a sphere of discussion, which is geared towards diagnosing the extent and direction of this very will. The widespread preoccupation with winnability, reflected in the ubiquitous discussion about electoral arithmetic, constantly tries to bring to light a developing undercurrent of support for a party, and in the process guides and further amplifies it. The hawa, thus, ultimately derives from the ways in which pre-existing oral processes of opinion formation have adapted to the logic built into the First-Past-the-Post system of elections. By introducing the requirement of forging majorities, elections enable people to conceive of themselves as part of an abstract set, which can not only make up its mind, but also act, together.
It is a remarkable fact of contemporary Indian politics that voting as part of an abstract collective, as voting with the hawa undoubtedly is, has a positive value attached to it. More often than not, it is considered to be a liberating experience. For the poorest and the most powerless of voters, who has neither any hope of receiving political patronage, nor a personal axe to grind, voting with the hawa is considered as voting with the collective decision that the janata, or the “public” has reached.In his eyes, the hawa is a basis that is loftier and more universal than the petty factional disputes of local village strongmen, in which he otherwise remains implicated. To invoke a cliche, to fail to vote with the hawa is to “waste” one’s vote.
(Drawn from my experience of observing elections in the northern Indian state of Haryana)