Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Vote-bank politics is not always bad for democracy

Trouble arises only if a party appeals to a particular group at the cost of another group’s interests

In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections this year, the term “vote-bank politics" has been used many times by politicians, journalists, election analysts and others, mostly with a negative connotation. The term “vote bank" was coined by M. N. Srinivas, a sociologist who first used it in his 1955 paper, The Social System Of A Mysore Village, in the context of political influence exerted by a patron over a client.

Vote-bank politics denotes political appeals made to voters on the lines of caste, language, religion, and sect. Over the years, this has become a phenomenon and political parties across the spectrum have used it to their advantage to nurture groups of dedicated voters who align with their agenda and support them during elections. Many scholars point to this as a drawback of vote-bank politics, as it has a tendency to widen identity fault lines.

As a result, almost no political party wants to be seen as one that indulges in such politics. Last year in Rajasthan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the Congress of practising vote-bank politics and dividing people to get into power. He stated, “[Congress] allocates the budget as per vote-bank politics and therefore overall development does not happen." This statement suggests that vote-bank politics is low-level politics, which political parties should refrain from.

The larger question, however, is whether vote-bank politics is bad in itself or whether its interpretation by parties is wrong. It is considered dangerous because political parties try to woo particular caste groups and communities by making promises that are specific to those groups. The “vote banks" in turn see this as an opportunity to get their demands fulfilled, if their choice of party comes to power. Critics argue that in such a scenario, parties start favouring only certain groups that form the core of their support, thereby hampering overall societal development

Yet, if every group and community is catered to by some party or the other, is it still a bad phenomenon? India’s electoral history has shown that balanced vote-bank politics has provided both stable coalition governments and strong oppositions, where the interests of every section of society are represented. Conversely, when people have voted across caste lines and vote banks in support of a single party, it has resulted in wave elections, such as in 1984 and 2014, which subsequently led to majoritarian tendencies within the government.

It is the pressure of vote banks that keeps a check on parties once they are elected to power. How then did the term “vote-bank politics" acquire such a negative ring? Is such politics really synonymous with divisiveness? The answer lies in how one understands the term. If a political party or a politician appeals to one section of society in the name of a caste or religion, it may not necessarily be bad unless the act of appealing to that single section of society extends to polarizing that group against others or the rest of society.

It is only when the second step is taken of pitting one community—be it defined by caste, sub-caste or religion—against the other, that a problem arises. So, vote-bank politics is not a bad thing in itself, but it’s the misuse of it that is problematic. Therefore, when media houses, political parties and politicians cry foul over vote-bank politics, they need to be questioned by citizens who may themselves be part of a vote-bank.

Over the years, a perception has been created among the masses that being called a “vote bank" is an insult to them as citizens. This is again questionable. Being part of a vote bank could make voters more aware of both their individual strength as citizens and collective strength as hailing from a particular strata of society. It doesn’t always reduce one’s identity, as is often claimed. Rather, it enhances one’s bargaining power within the democratic system. It also makes for heterogeneity in popular representation.

Those who fear heterogeneity and diversity often make the most strident arguments against the concept, for they know that vote-banks are symbolic of the demands of different sections of society. There is a jingoistic culture being propagated in India that seeks to homogenize voices and reduce diversity, but its proponents should recognize that in a country like India—which is founded as a nation-state on the principle of celebrating diversity—it is but natural for different sections of society to speak in different voices, make different demands and have different opinions that may be mutually opposed.

The duty of political parties, civil society and media is then to bridge the divergences that arise from this process of conflicting interests of various sections vying for power. Sadly, however, this basic duty is not being fulfilled. Indian jingoists want everyone to speak in one voice, even as their actions in the political domain have the effect of pitting one faith against the other, one caste against another, and so on.

If a political party makes promises to a single section of society that it is going to fulfil their specific demands, it is within the party’s rights to do so.

However, some caution would be in order, if the demands of a particular section of society could overwhelm or harm the interests of other sections of society in the process of getting their demands fulfilled, creating unrest and violence. Vote-bank politics in itself is not a dirty word. It is the misuse of it that makes it bad.

Martand Jha is a senior research fellow at the School of International Studies, JNU.

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