New Delhi: In two key state elections of 2007—Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat—psephologists were wildly off the mark, failing to pick up signals of what would eventually turn out to be landslide wins forMayawati and Narendra Modi.
But this failure may well point to what is a significant, structural change—the emergence of a new variable in electoral equations. Something that is as difficult to define as it is to measure: aspiration.
And it appears quite likely that this variable may well play out once again in the assembly elections scheduled for Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh during 2008. And, quite likely, also in the general election, which could come earlier than 2009 if the beleaguered ruling United Progressive Alliance decides to roll the dice.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines aspiration as hope or ambition.
But, it is just that and much more, depending on the person and the context. For the impoverished, aspiraton is survival. For the higher income groups, naturally, it means something else altogether. And, if demography is included as an additional factor, then aspiration, across individuals, vary even more.
It is not that Indian voters did not possess aspirations before. But, in a stagnant economy, it just remained a hope. A decade of robust growth, with the last three averaging 9%-plus increases in gross domestic product, has changed all of this. Now, there is a good chance for many, if not most, that their aspirations can be realized. And worse, from the politician’s perspective, people have begun to believe so, even if their immediate circumstances dictate otherwise.
Some sociologists have picked up on a trend in their field studies.
Dipankar Gupta, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, notes that rural Indians, who comprise anywhere between 60% and 70% of the 1.2 billion population, have begun to “talk more of educational opportunities.”
“In 1985-86 (during surveys),?I used to ask what is it that you want,” he recalls. “They would respond by saying that they want a better floor price (for their produce), more subsidies and so on. Now, they still talk about these things, but they come at a much lower level” in their wish lists.
With aspirations taking flight, the Indian politician’s traditional approach, epitomized by the Congress, of handouts or promises of public goods, such as roads and bridges, may just not be enough. For instance, mere road connectivity will not suffice. Voters have begun to expect that the state should then also provide good transport services on these roads.
“What most villagers are looking forward to today, if you ask me, is that if you are able to give them good education, transportation and some kind of ancillary job around the village,” says Gupta.
The enhanced aspirations, which are directly proportional to economic empowerment, may have a lot to do with increasing connectivity across the country, growing levels of literacy—currently at 60%—combined with the demonstrative effect, especially consumerism, of the new growth trends in the economy.
Anecdotally, it is already clear that occupations are being delinked from hereditary roles. A range of options, especially for low-skilled segments of the population, have opened up new alternatives. Parents, particulary of those among the lower income groups, are willing to go out of their way to ensure that their children get the right education and access to better jobs.
A McKinsey study, The Bird of Gold: The Rise of India’s Consumer Market, in May, argues that economic growth, together with the huge social sector investments that have been undertaken by various governments over the last few years, will, in the next decade or so, begin moving a lot more people out of what it describes as the “deprived” category, particularly in rural India.
“The upward migration will first be noticeable by about 2010, as the benefits of the last decade of economic growth begin to trickle down to this poorest category. By 2015, the aspirer class of households will be the largest group at 47% of the rural population, or 80 million households, and will control 55% of the spending. Thus, within 10 years, we expect a large part of the rural population to have risen to a level between poverty and middle class,” the study predicts.
The discernible shift in the country’s demography—towards younger age groups only complicates matters further, especially in terms of electoral arithmetic.
A survey done by Invest India Market Solutions, the consulting practice of Invest India Economic Foundation, a think tank, estimates that 40% of India’s population, or 30.8 crore, in 2008 will fall within the age group of 18-30. Their calculations show 3.5 crore teenagers turning 18 just in 2008. It would be safe to assume that an overwhelming proportion will turn up to cast their first vote—their first moment of political empowerment.
So, what can political parties do about this first-time voter?
Instead of being defensive, political parties will have to be far more imaginative. The Congress strategy, of attacking Narendra Modi and not having a positive plank of its own, failed in Gujarat. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest opposition party in the country, failed by relying on a similar strategy in Uttar Pradesh.
While there is no obvious template, it is apparent that positive agendas, focused on young voters, will have to be a critical plank of any election strategy.
At the same time, while Modi and Mayawati successfully pulled off their crafty campaigns, the challenge for both, simply put, is: what now, as aspiration feeds on itself and has a flexible glass ceiling. As a result, the sheer ability to deliver may not be enough. The electorate, especially the younger voters, will need to be convinced that enough—and then some—is being done to realize their aspirations.
As these five states go to polls in 2008, in a sort of a mini general election, keep an eye on those who seem to have their pulse on voter aspirations and the youth factor.
Udit Misra and Pragya Singh contributed to this story.
Praveen Kumar Hari, 20
Education: Class VIII
Occupation: No permanent job
Career goal: A “good job”, as a peon
Plans to vote for: BJP
“What growth are you talking about? Where is the job, road, water and electricity? There are no industries in the state. I earn around Rs2,000 in a good month. What hope is there for people like us? Growth sound good only for the leaders.”
SUujeet Suman, 19
Education: Pursuing a BA in geography
Career goal: Join the state government
Plans to vote for: BJP
“I study in a college that offers no infrastructure. There is no discipline or any interest on the part of the teachers to teach, which is understandable since they are not paid their salaries on time.”
Shwetha Shenoy, 20
Education: Second year MBBS student
Career goal: To be a doctor
Plans to vote for: A “secular” party
“I want the next government to pay attention to the growth of rural areas instead of concentrating on big cities. I believe in secularism...I would prefer voting for young and female candidates...we need more representation from” them.
(Compiled by Utpal Bhaskar and Malathi Nayak)