Home/ Opinion / Online-views/  Kejriwal, Carroll and the middle-class voter

Now that Arvind Kejriwal has decided to take the plunge into electoral politics, it will be interesting to see how middle-class voters react in the next election. Will their rage against a corrupt political system become more potent?

It is common during elections for people like us to complain how our vote does not matter. One response is to refuse to vote at all. The other is to waste the opportunity by backing a candidate who has little chance of winning.

It is quite easy to feel powerless during elections, and withdrawing from the game is fashionable for those living in a bubble of private schools, private security, private transport, private hospitals and private clubs. The poor vote because they have a greater stake in who represents them in Parliament and in the state assemblies. Criticizing them for fulfilling their duty is plain wrong.

The problem is a genuine one, but neither staying at home nor voting for a candidate who is certain to lose is much of a solution. The despondent middle-class voter would do well to read Lewis Carroll.

The author who gave us the adventures of little Alice was also a mathematician and early game theorist. As Charles Dodgson, his real name, he wrote a booklet titled The Principles of Parliamentary Representation in 1884, the year of the last great debate on the franchise in Great Britain. He was also an inspired political pamphleteer, and a supporter of proportional representation.

His exact ideas are not important. What is important is that Dodgson was one of the first to write about strategic behaviour among voters. Much of this could be anathema to purists, and for good reason: A voter who chooses based on strategic calculations does not choose the candidate he really likes but another one who has better chances of keeping the undesirable sort out of power.

Consider the following example. You have to choose between three candidates. Candidate A is a criminal. Candidate B represents a party whose ideology you dislike. Candidate C is a “good man" with not much of a base. Who would you vote for? Or, would you vote in such a way that the least-liked candidate is kept out of power, even if that means voting for a criminal or an ideological opponent? Would you vote for Candidate A to keep Candidate B out? Or would you choose the other way round? Or would you still vote for Candidate C although he has no hope of winning?

These questions cannot be answered till you order your preferences and then vote strategically. Middle-class voters are generally less prone to tactical voting. One often hears about how entire blocks of votes based on caste or religion shift depending on the promises made by parties. One rarely sees similar analyses of middle-class votes. One reason could be that votes in this category are more stable, and hence part of the core support base of various political parties. The flip side is that such voters are taken for granted. Political parties have a great incentive to attract votes at the margins.

One interesting solution has been put forward by Atanu Dey, an economist. “It is possible that the 150 urban parliamentary constituencies of India have an aggregate of 20 million or so people who are sensible, educated, middle-class, urban voters. If they can be consolidated into a ‘vote bank’ and persuaded to vote en bloc, it is possible that they can swing elections and be a force to contend with. The idea is to create a constituency which we call the United Voters of India…. By creating a constituency that demands good governance, the political parties and politicians will be forced to reform," he suggests. One does not have to necessarily agree with his implicit assumption that this class is necessarily a superior type of voter to see that the core idea of consolidating an urban vote bank is a thought-provoking one.

Election contests can be quite close in India, with narrow victory margins. A consolidated group of urban voters who choose en masse based on strategic considerations could be one way out for citizens who currently either choose not to vote or prefer to back a certain loser. There are undoubtedly serious moral issues with such an approach, most importantly because strategic voting is insincere and cuts the roots of representational democracy and its ability to reflect social preferences.

Of course, several economists who have studied social choice showed that voting results can be ambiguous; they may not necessarily reflect social preferences, or, more radically, there may even be no such thing as a single social preference that a system of voting will magically reveal. One can think of the voting paradox of the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century, as well as more contemporary examples such as the Impossibility Theorem of Kenneth Arrow and the “liberal paradox" of Amartya Sen. True, these are theoretical exercises that need not have any immediate practical relevance.

Kejriwal and his fellow crusaders have the proven ability to catch the political establishment on the wrong foot. Their ability to transform their movement into a viable political platform depends, among other things, on how well they convince potential supporters that their votes can be successfully consolidated into a bloc.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Write to Niranjan at impartialspectator@livemint.com

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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Updated: 25 Oct 2012, 06:46 PM IST
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