Iam not an election analyst. I am actually an armchair urbanite becoming progressively despondent about the survival of an idea called India. Fortunately, I think I have found a few rays of hope in the results from Uttar Pradesh.
One description of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) coalition is of Dalits, supplemented by the poor of other communities. Given that Dalits are mostly poor, it only requires a change of perspective to see this coalition as one based on economic class rather than caste and religious identities. This change in perspective is a key marker on the map that leads to the Holy Grail of electoral accountability, necessary to build a responsive democracy.
This perspective could also lead to substantial change in the policies that the BSP may follow. In earlier incarnations, the BSP has emphasized the amplification of caste identity as exemplified in Ambedkar Udyans.
Will it continue on the same track, now that it has a clear majority and a full five years ahead or will it shift to building more Ambedkar Vidyalayas?
Can the BSP become a party focused on providing bijli sadak pani to the poorer classes rather than just asmita to the lower castes? Will they herald the beginning of a politics based on a new poor-focused service delivery agenda shorn of the often-empty rhetoric of the Left? This is the first and big ray of hope.
The Uttar Pradesh elections also underlined the importance of cadre.
The kind of strong oversight and limitations on traditional forms of mobilization that is now coming to characterize the Election Commisssion’s approach to elections seems to be deterring the ghost voters, who are the Commission’s target.
But it may also be discouraging the “mass” voters, leading to a low-turnout election, with over-representation of committed voters. As a result, parties with strong local organizations, such as the BSP, saw a big rise in their vote share, by 10%. Even the Samajwadi Party, which lost heavily in terms of seats, saw its share rise by 2%, helped by its organizational strength. Conversely, parties that rely on periodic appeals to masses, like the Congress and the BJP, lost share.
If so, the phenomenon of differential voting for the national and state elections may just be wishful thinking of national parties. A party with half the seats in Uttar Pradesh would be a decisive bloc in any coalition at the Centre and it would be an insult to the Indian voter to suggest that s/he does not realize this. Can this prospect of Uttar Pradesh becoming another Tamil Nadu goad thenational parties towards building their local organizations and towards more inner-party democracy? This is another ray of hope.
A common statistic of the Uttar Pradesh elections was that 15% of the candidates had criminal backgrounds. Now, it appears that 40% of the elected legislators will have criminal records.
This is to be expected since most of the legislators belong to the major parties, whose share in criminal backgrounds is likely to be higher than the average, since independent candidates, who make up for the bulk of the numbers, are less likely to have criminal backgrounds. Also, one hopes that major parties would not be nominating such persons unless they were really strong candidates, making them more likely to win, to begin with. Thus, an alternative, though admittedly weaker test of decriminalization is whether egregious and incumbent criminals have lost.
Finally, elections in India continue to be about churn. Even the BSP, which did so well, lost a number of seats that it held in the existing assembly.
The number of seats that changed hands was a lot more than just the numbers gained or lost by parties. There are some who argue that this feature shortens the horizon of our legislators, but it remains to be examined whether our voters discriminate between effective and ineffective legislators. After all, one such effective legislator just celebrated 50 years of representation. Thus, if this churn shows that our democracy remains contestable, there is much to remain hopeful about.
Partha Mukhopadhyay is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.