Bread and circus politics

Bread and circus politics
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First Published: Wed, May 13 2009. 11 01 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Wed, May 13 2009. 11 01 PM IST
Wednesday marked the end of voting for the next Lok Sabha. Just before the declaration of results, what does the Indian polity look like? The landscape is that of fractured mandates and muddled coalitions, fuelled by contradictions that have emerged over the past two decades.
Two interlocked themes are visible on the political landscape. Citizens across various divides (caste, religion and region, among others) yearn for a better life. So far, all governments, Central and state, have been unable to provide simple necessities of life to a vast majority of Indians. That remains an elusive prospect.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
In theory, a single-party government unencumbered by coalitional constraints should have been able to carry out this basic task. That did not happen due to a mix of economic, political and historical reasons. Now, at least a decade after coalitions became the norm in New Delhi, it is obvious that smaller, more manageable and stable coalitions offer better prospects for attaining the goal of a better life for citizens.
This is the first, visible contradiction. If stable coalitions can create the political and macroeconomic conditions necessary for investment and growth, why do people across the country vote in a manner that prevents the emergence of such stability? History gives a clear answer: Citizens’ hopes from big parties have been belied for long. Their search for small, simple and justified demands have led them to the clutches of regional parties.
A key challenge, therefore, is to break the vicious circle of expectations-underperformance-greater expectations. A realistic, but pessimistic, appraisal of the situation says this is unlikely.
This leads to a second, higher order, contradiction. After localized players have been voted in, they ensure that stable coalitions cannot emerge. This sets the stage where citizens’ political choices get utterly divorced from what political parties do. Once this happens, the logic of political survival demands that ruling coalitions veer towards redistribution and not growth. Populist schemes become the order of the day: It marks the reinvention of the bread and circus situation. This leads, once again, to the question asked before: Why do people vote they way they do? The answer, however muddled, is obvious.
The results of the election will be known only some days later. But by Wednesday evening, early projections suggest that no coalition, the United Progressive Alliance or the National Democratic Alliance or the Third Front, can form a government on its own. It is quite in line with the situation sketched above.
Do Indians vote irrationally? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, May 13 2009. 11 01 PM IST