How ‘vote bank’ politics works

How Indians vote remains one of the world’s great mysteries of electoral politics. Some of the questions widely debated involve relative voting decisions in the Lok Sabha and state elections — whether voting is based on political party, ideology or issues; whether citizens vote on the basis of the performance of candidates; the reliability of star power in drawing votes, and the role of money.

Most often, discussants fall back on chosen views or sentiments: the voter is wise, he or she will not be misled by empty promises, divisive strategies will not have the desired effect, etc.

Elections have become so important to the nation today that major policy decisions are taken on their basis and it is necessary to arrive at a general understanding of how elections are won or lost, with the provision that the understanding is only contingent and based entirely on speculation. A key issue in electoral politics is whether people vote as blocks or as individuals and this is where the notion of the ‘vote bank’ becomes important.

Before speculating on what a ‘vote bank’ actually is, we may take stock of what is already known: a) money plays a big part in elections and the incidence of political corruption can be traced to it; b) a large proportion of the electorate votes on the basis of jati or the religious groups to which they are affiliated; c) national/state elections are won on the basis of small swings of 3-4%, which could add up over the years depending on the long-term fortunes of a political party; d) the educated voter is apathetic and does not determine the outcome of the elections; e) the poor come into their own at election time, when they vote en masse.

The first question is, perhaps, how money power plays a part since people vote in secret. How can a party ensure that a voter will not take money from different candidates simultaneously and then vote according to his or her ‘conscience’?

The answer that suggests itself is that parties do not deal directly with the individual voter but through intermediaries belonging to this or that block, with the trust of its members. This intermediary is known to the members through tasks undertaken on their behalf — like getting civic problems attended to — and s/he is trusted by parties to deliver block votes.

Together, voting groups linked through intermediaries to political parties constitute voting networks.

While a few individuals within each jati/religious group may vote independently, the vast majority vote as expected, and as directed. We may also surmise that political parties have such intermediaries on their roles on a long-term basis and their relationship could be similar to a FMCG manufacturer’s relationship with a stockist, also long-term.

That is why, voting percentages in favour of any party do not abruptly plummet, but decline gradually as its organisational strength and finances wane.

Voting networks are stable entities, but people within the groups may vote as individuals when there is great excitement in the public space — like when Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ galvanised the public space, or in the aftermath of her assassination. Even at such electoral moments, voting percentages do not show drastic change, though election results can be dramatic.

Role of ideology

When we consider the role of ideology in group voting patterns, we might propose that it becomes important only when it goes against any group’s interest. For instance, if the JD(S) had aligned with the BJP before or after the 2018 elections, it would have lost its Muslim support base. Another illustration could be the likelihood of the BJP losing a large part of its Dalit support base in 2019 because of its cow policy.

Ideology is important in this way but not as crucial to the voter as it is thought to be, although it is of supreme importance to the educated voters, most vocal in the media.

It is perhaps in the nature of rhetoric or a banner, which is only the first step in mobilisation. Sometimes, parties with virtually the same ‘ideology’ can be even deeply antagonistic to each other. In Bengal, for instance, it is difficult to identify ‘ideological differences’ between the CPM and the TMC.

The issue of political stars in elections is overdone. A question often asked in surveys is, who would one want as PM or CM. This is irrelevant since people vote for candidates from parties, who then elect their leader. Political stars are more powerful locally, where they have political or jati followings, and this is true even for film stars.

At the national level, a political star is important only to people who vote as individuals, but not when voting is guided by affiliated intermediaries. Those most visible become the biggest political stars, but their fate is decided by the voter networks that constitute the ‘vote banks’. An enormous amount of political effort causes only a ripple in them, although that ripple can be decisive.

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How ‘vote bank’ politics works

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