This could be India's WhatsApp election
In a conversation with Khaleej Times, Roy and Sopariwala talk at length about some of their assessments.
Underneath the rhetoric and frenzy that characterise Indian politics, there are hard facts that point to ground realities. Right ahead of what is sure to be definitive general elections for India, psephologists Prannoy Roy and Dorab R. Sopariwala have authored a book that, apart from chronicling voting patterns in India, deep dives into burning issues, such as the curious case of 21 million women voters who are missing from the electoral rolls and the contention that electronic voting machines can be tampered with. The Verdict, published by Penguin Random House, cuts through the rhetoric to understand the Indian voter from the prism of numbers.
In 2019, there will be 130 million first-time voters in Lok Sabha elections. How can they change the course of elections?
PR: Traditionally, first-time younger voters are more pro-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) than pro-Congress. The older generation that witnessed the independence struggle had an allegiance to Congress, but the subsequent generation has become less and less so. This differential is changing over time - in the last elections, the advantage that the BJP had over other parties amongst the young voters was less than in previous elections. However, it is still true that the BJP tends to be slightly stronger amongst younger voters.
DS: It also depends on the extent to which they vote. Often, the youth have a lower turnout rate than adults. But we do not, unfortunately, have the data from the Election Commission. Traditionally, the youth are less interested in politics. Secondly, they have often tended to vote for the BJP much more than other parties. So, that would make some difference. If they do decide to turn out, it may help the BJP a little. In this country, since 2014, they have been pro-BJP. The young tend to vote for parties with leaders who, they believe, are more dynamic.
You have divided the voting patterns into three phases. The pro-incumbency period that followed the Indian independence, where parties would be voted back owing to a euphoria. This was followed by the anti-incumbency phase, where ruling parties would be routinely voted out. And now the 50:50 phase, where you either "perform or perish". What is this phase a response to?
PR: What happened was that in the initial 25 years after independence, governments would generally be voted back to power, irrespective of whether they did any development work or not. This was due to the euphoria prevalent post-independence. There was a sort of innocent trust amongst voters. Then it slowly began to dawn on voters that these politicians are doing nothing to improve their lives. They appear during election time, make promises, then disappear and hang around the corridors of power in Delhi - and then come back five years later, right before the next elections. Once these initial 25 years were over, the voter said enough is enough, these politicians are not delivering at all. So, they went through an angry phase - a 25-year period of throwing out everybody. During this period in elections, 70 per cent of governments were thrown out. It took a long while for politicians to understand that things had changed - voters were no longer naïve, they were angry. And politicians understood that they had to start delivering. After this second and angry phase - 25 years later, politicians actually started delivering on the ground (the turning points happen every 25 years or so). Once they started delivering, they began to be voted back to power. The voter has become much wiser because they are not blindly trusting, but distinguishing between those politicians who deliver and those who don't. And it's not only about GDP growth, it's about micro-level changes that impact the voter. So, for politicians to regularly visit their constituency and engage in productive work has become absolutely crucial.
DS: We don't say anti-incumbency was an antidote to pro-incumbency. It's just that the voter woke up. In the first 25 years, because of independence, people voted like sheep. With the Emergency, the voter realised they could kick someone out. The politicians woke up late, they thought their old rhetoric would help them, and that the performance didn't matter. In the period up to 2002, they learnt that performance did, in fact, matter. People began to think in terms of what has this leader done for me, and not in terms of 10 per cent GDP growth. He began to use the vote as an instrument to exercise his choice.
There is an observation that a leader has to be a thinker, fixer or a communicator. Who is winning in the current scheme of things?
PR: The fixer, here, means a person who gets things done for his constituency. So, those leaders who have actually been voted back three times are the real doers. And they don't have to be flamboyant - just doers: like Raman Singh, Shivraj Chouhan, Sheila Dixit, Naveen Patnaik - all low-key people, they are not great orators, but they made a real difference to the lives of people on the ground. Consequently, they countered the 50:50 re-election rate and were voted back again and again. Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat also delivered on the ground. The fact that he delivered was more important than the fact that he is also a great communicator. Voters today see through just communication; they focus on improving their daily lives.
Post 2002, people have voted back those who deliver, this has meant leaders have started delivering more and that has impacted our growth rate. In the last 15-20 years, India has had its highest growth rate since independence.
DS: It is difficult to tell. It depends on the state one comes from. If it is in terrible shape, then a fixer would do well. If it's a state that's doing well, a communicator will be needed. There are really no easy answers. What matters is how you balance all three things. You cannot be a thinker and not a communicator. You cannot be a fixer and not think. The balance varies from state to state, time to time, person to person.
The grassroots voter is more concerned about his immediate representative. In cities, is ideology taking precedence?
PR: While national and international media focuses on Lok Sabha elections - for voters today, the representative at the local level is becoming more and more important - even more significant than the Lok Sabha MP. In the new hierarchy for the average voter - the most important is the MLA of the local State Assembly, next is the panchayat leader in the villages or the municipal representative in towns and only at the third level of importance is the Lok Sabha MP. This is reflected in the levels of voter participation in elections - the turnout - which is highest for state assembly elections and lowest for Lok Sabha elections.
DS: Had the urban voter been more ideologically driven, South Delhi and South Bombay wouldn't have had the lowest voter turnout. You will find that people in bastis (slums) vote. But seth log (the rich) don't.
Another key takeaway from the book is the 21 million women voters are missing from electoral rolls. What has that meant for Indian politics?
PR: Well, it is a travesty of our democracy. There are 18-year-olds, who go to polling booth to vote and are not able to do so because their name is not on the list. It's a terrible shame and it's focused on women. In Uttar Pradesh, there are 80,000 women per constituency who are not registered, which is a huge number. It can change an election victory into a loss or vice versa as many constituencies are won with a margin of victory under 80,000. So, this can change the course of elections. Moreover, it is a sign that society is oppressing and suppressing women voters. There needs to be more investigation into why this is happening and the different ways in which women voters are denied their fundamental right to vote. It's a crisis.
DS:Missing voters do make a difference. Women, in general, tend to support the Congress more than the BJP. In that sense, it's a loss to the Congress. Of course, that cannot be true for all states or regions. That is probably why you would see the BJP giving away cooking gas cylinders to women. They are realising that women are becoming more independent.
But why do women tend to not vote for the BJP?
PR: Women, of course, vote for the BJP, but the BJP's vote share is higher amongst men than amongst women - and the BJP needs to introspect on that. What is clear is that with the rising turnout of women, a lot of parties are making promises that are targeted at women voters. In fact, this time it is likely to be at its highest as women's turnout in Lok Sabha elections is likely to be higher than men's. The participation of women in elections used to be 15-20 per cent behind men in 1960s. If there were 60 per cent male voters, there would be 40 per cent female voters. Now, women and men turnout is the same, which is hugely important and a heartwarming turnaround.
DS: The BJP is more of a male-dominated party. If they become more inclusive, perhaps more women would come. Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje are perhaps the only women chief ministers from the party, and let's not forget, Raje comes from a privileged background. But you don't see as many regular women in BJP as any other party. I mean, where are the Mamatas, Jayas or Mayawatis? I think women are now realising that they are important. Thirty years ago, they did what the men told them to do. Today, they don't. Recently, we met someone who was going to vote for Party X, his wife would vote for Party Y and his mother for Party Z. And each one of them had a good reason to vote for their respective parties. Even in those working class households, it is now accepted that people will have different views. So, you now have to get to the man and the woman individually.
The book also busts the myth about EVM tampering. Can you elaborate on that?
PR: We have been following the development and technology of EVMs since they were conceived 40 years ago. In all these years, there has been no credible evidence that the EVM can be tampered with - despite numerous attempts to discredit them. The main thing where we differ from other countries is that the EVMs here are not connected to the Internet, so there is no scope of hacking.
Perhaps it's not a coincidence that only losers claim that EVMs were tampered with - which is why they lost, of course. The same party - and this cuts across all parties - never complains about EVM tampering when they win an election.
With ballot papers, there used to be a huge amount of booth capturing. People would stamp 800 votes in less than half an hour and go on to capture the next polling booth. This can't happen with EVMs - as they allow only one vote every 12 seconds. So, it takes half a day to capture the votes. With EVMs, booth capturing is over.
DS: If you have a calculator, would I be able to manipulate it? No, because it is not connected to anything. EVMs are counting machines, and are kept centrally. If the Election Commission says there are seven constituencies in Delhi, they will send 1,000 machines to each constituency. Now, these machines come from all over the country and are randomly selected. So you don't know which machine is going to come where and how the order will be. Also, in some cases, the Election Commission might accept my name as Dorab Sopariwala as well as Sopariwala Dorab. In that case, you cannot even be sure of the order.
When people challenge something, they must be able to provide evidence.
How is social media shaping voter's perception and how will it impact the outcome in elections?
PR: Social media is going to impact these elections in a significant way. We were just talking to a whole lot of kids in a Muslim village, and asked them which social media do they use. They said, 'Facebook and WhatsApp'. It's the same in every kind of village and town. This could be called a "WhatsApp election". Social media is becoming a major source of information, and, worryingly, a source of disinformation. Mischievous people can put up false messages or fake videos to try and incite violence. With the anonymity of the Internet, it is impossible to trace where the fake and violent message originated from.
DS: Frankly, nobody knows the extent to which it is shaping a voter's perception. The importance of elections is to move voters. You have your voter, but you've got to win the other guy.
Russians, for instance, targeted black voters, saying white segregationists will give them a hard time, then, they went to white voters and said the blacks are against you. The Election Commission has called Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and asked them to ensure that these apps don't have enormous influence. I don't know about the impact of fake news but it will have to be seen whether they are preaching to the converted or the unconverted. If you're already preaching to the converted, it will not help you.
You note that whenever the voter turnout is high, BJP's margin over Congress drops. Can you elaborate on how high turnout impacts verdict?
PR: We have some hard data that explains that BJP - or any cadre-based parties - does better when the turnout is low. That's because they have a lot of foot-soldiers on the ground ensuring that their own voters get to the polling booth. So, you get that guaranteed basic turnout of their supporters. On the other hand, non-cadre-based parties hope for their voters to voluntarily come out and vote, and that makes the level of turnout for non-cadre-based parties uncertain.
Whenever the turnout is high, it means there are more voluntary, self-motivated voters. That's where the BJP's lead goes down. So, turnout is an important factor in determining the outcome of elections - and parties are focusing more and more on turnout to help win elections.
DS: Today, the BJP and the Communists are the only real ideological parties who have a cadre of their own, which is willing to work for them for free, unlike the cadre of other parties that takes the money, goes to a dhaba to have some tea. It works because the voter himself is self-motivated, he has enormous desire to have his party win. The other voter does not have an incentive to go out, he has to be brought out. The RSS effort is much less because the volunteers are motivated, their own party members are motivated. For the other voter, you have to give him a huge issue, and only then will he come and vote. In the absence of a huge issue, the turnout will be low.