India looks all set for what is perhaps the greatest democratic face-off in the world as the parliamentary elections draw nearer. The ruling United Progressive Alliance may have completed nine years in office but public confidence in government has hit an abysmal low thanks primarily to the spate of corruption scandals that surfaced with embarrassing regularity in the latter part of its tenure. The main party in the coalition, the Congress, is in the throes of a major leadership crisis. The main opposition - the NDA, which could have been the one to wrest this situation to its advantage, is also embroiled in an internal showdown of sorts over who would be its Prime Ministerial candidate. The mood of the nation shows that while the NDA certainly has an edge over the scam-ridden government if Lok Sabha elections are held today, it might fall just short of an absolute majority as things stand now.

The only good news for the UPA in the recent past has been a convincing win for the Congress party in the elections to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, where, too, the results are being viewed more as a vote against the erstwhile state BJP government. In normal course, several other state assemblies including Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh are likely to go to polls before the Lok Sabha elections. In the complex political scenario prevailing in the country today, how are these local mandates likely to swing voters’ decisions in the national elections? Will India vote against the menace of corruption and sluggish policy-making in 2014, or will narrow regional identities trump broader national consciousness?

Dr. Sandeep Shastri, Director of the Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education (CERSSE) at Bangalore’s Jain University and National Convenor of the Lokniti Network is an authority on the subject of Indian politics and the electoral system. He has been at the helm of various related studies and projects in leading Indian and international institutions, and his substantive empirical research in the field lend him him an acute perception of the realities of Indian democracy that few others possess.

Satarupa Sen Bhattacharya caught up with Dr. Shastri at his office in Bangalore to discuss the present social and cultural dynamics of politics in the states and how these are likely to manifest in the results of the imminent Lok Sabha elections:

Sandeep Shastri.

Now that Lok Sabha elections seem so close, perhaps closer than we think, do you think the state assembly elections this year might be a good indication of what is to come? Have there been any observable historical trends in this respect?

We do talk of a ‘honeymoon’ effect. If elections to the Lok Sabha election are held less than a year after a state assembly elections, more often than not, unless the State bungles really badly, the result is more or less the same. The trend has always been that within a year, the party that did well in the state election continues to do well in the Parliament elections. This has been borne out by several studies. And as I said, we call that the ‘honeymoon effect’.

It was seen last time in Karnataka. In 2008, the BJP got a big bulk of seats and elections were held within less than a year. In fact, this time it may be held even sooner. This is not just for Karnataka. It was true in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, and Rajasthan.

However, the converse may not be true. If an assembly election is held within a year of Lok Sabha elections, that trend could well be very different. A lot of us today feel that every election, whether Lok Sabha or state assembly, is largely driven by local factors. So when you vote for a State government, you are visibly voting for what you want at the state level. Subsequent to that within an year, when  you are voting for a Lok Sabha election, you want to indulge your State government for some more time; give them another chance. That’s a very clear trend that is seen not just in Karnataka, but all over the country.

UPA may be hoping that with cash transfers or with food security policy, they will be able to influence the minds of voters, but I don't think so. The impact of this policy will not have been seen in the daily lives of the people when the country goes to polls. It will continue only to be a promise which will not be able to compete with all the other negative publicity that this government has had.

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Karnataka has already seen elections. There are several other states that go to elections around October. Given the “honeymoon effect” that you mentioned, how do you see the various national parties strategising for the assembly polls with eyes on 2014?

If you see the two major alliances, UPA and the NDA, the Congress within the UPA does not have too many states to cheer about. Even the states where it did well last time could pose a problem this time - Andhra Pradesh, Maharasthra, Rajasthan. Secondly, if you look at UPA allies, those numbers are shrinking too and the allies who do well are not necessarily tied to the political strings of the Congress any more. They could go anywhere. The only state where the Congress seems to be gaining is Karnataka.

Now, look at the NDA on the other hand. BJP within the NDA again does not seem likely to get any new state which it did not already have in 2004 and 2009. Maybe Delhi,  but it has only 6 seats in the Lok Sabha. So my question is where is the BJP or the Congress, and I am talking about the two parties only, hoping to increase their seats? Which means that for both, UP would be critical.

UP has 80 seats. And this now explains the trend in the BJP. Amit Shah being asked to lead the UP campaign - is that part of Modi’s larger strategy upon realising that if the party can get UP, it could be closer to the 200 seats mark.

I think there is some strategizing going on in both but to me, at least at this juncture, the advantage seems to lie with a non-Congress, a non-BJP formulation. Note, I am not saying UPA or NDA, I’m saying non-Congress, non-BJP. Because I believe a lot within the non-Congress UPA and the non-BJP NDA could be enough.

As things stand, and if you look at the report card of the UPA-II we have shown recently , I don’t think there will be celebrating in Delhi today. So I think there is no good news now for the two big leaders. Of course, regional leaders may not capture the national imagination, but then they are very strong regional leaders. Only a small per cent may want to see Jayalalitha as a Prime Minister, but do that survey in Tamilnadu alone. Same applies to Mulayam and Nitish Kumar. As I’ve always said, I think the new centre of Indian politics is not the Centre, but the states.

Mathematics apart, do you see the Karnataka results having any impact on the imminent Lok Sabha elections?

Only on two parties, Congress and BJP. It is a morale booster for the Congress because they did not get any good news otherwise and do not hope to get any in the future also. This is the only piece of good news that they have. For the BJP I think the Karnataka election is important as I think it will trigger off a process of churning within the party, locally and nationally. It has already started. So I think in that way, it will have an impact on the BJP.

When you say that “the new centre of Indian politics is not the Centre, but the states” would you imply that regional identities, let us say caste for example, overrides other broader national issues when people are voting?

Adequate attention has not been given to why caste continues to be important. Whenever we use the word caste, it is generally associated with age-old hierarchies, with discrimination of the past. I would suggest that we look at caste today as a very modern category or parameter. Caste has nothing to do with hierarchies of the past. Caste is today a critical social identity and it’s not a question of vertical computation across groups. It is a horizontal computation.

So I think caste needs to be understood in that perspective where both the candidate and the voter uses it; the candidate uses it to say why he/she should be chosen by the party and the voter and the voter sees it as an important identity because at the end of the day that continues to remain an important social contract. Having said that, I believe that caste as an identity in politics dominates when no other equally or more important factor is there to dominate. When there is no critical economic/political factor that engages the mind of voters or forms a part of the general political discourse, then automatically caste becomes an important marker in politics.

The government at the Centre is trying to push through several measures or policies - for example through cash transfers or the Food Security Bill. Do you think that these might override regional identities and impact the Lok sabha results?

In 2009, when the UPA returned to power, a lot of people believed that its pro-poor policies, especially NREGA influenced the result in many states. But it is important to know that a lot of these pro-poor policies were implemented right from the time that the UPA-I took over. They all came about in 2004, 2005, 2006. So that when elections were held in 2009, we had already seen the impact of that policy. Now I feel it might be too late. UPA may be hoping that with cash transfers or with food security policy, they will be able to influence the minds of voters, but I don’t think so. The impact of this policy will not have been seen in the daily lives of the people when the country goes to polls. It will continue only to be a promise which might not be able to compete with all the other negative publicity that this government has had.

If a government has performed well, it will reap its rewards. I think, we have seen governments returning to power, simply on the basis of performance. And I am not talking about Modi; I think Modi’s so called success has a lot to do with how media has hyped him. But look at at Nitish Kumar’s government in Bihar. I think there are success stories within the BJP too, for example Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and to a certain extent, Odisha. The success stories in these states have a lot to do with ground level implementations of critical programs. In a very low-key way, these Chief Ministers have managed to assert their presence in their states. So if the voters see a visible sign of progress, or at least visible efforts towards development, then it would be very difficult to vote out that government. And there are a lot of examples to prove that.

Nitish Kumar. Pic:, Narendra Modi. Picture:

The recent Parliamentary by-elections in Bihar, however, seem to have delivered a rude blow to Nitish Kumar. Just as the Bastar killing has thrown a cloud over Raman Singh’s handling of the Naxal issue. How do you see these two separate developments in what were being largely seen as sunrise states? How do they look likely to impact the Parliamentary results?

The `shadow boxing` between Modi and Nitish Kumar will continue with each having their ups and downs. The result in Bihar is about one Parliamentary constituency which though a setback for Nitish does not real call for alarm bells to be rung. The Gujarat by-election result is, of course, more spectacular and would boost Modi’s efforts. The Naxal linked developments in Chattisgarh would surely bring a new focus to the electoral politics of Chattisgarh and place the state government on the backfoot. It would need to be seen to what extent the Congress in Chattisgarh can organize itself and present a credible alternative to the BJP in the state.

There has been a lot of discourse on the disengagement of the urban populace from the electoral system. As Karnataka has shown in the recently concluded elections, as also in earlier ones, polling percentages have always been lowest in the Bengaluru urban district. Why?

There could be multiple factors. One of course could be technical - related to errors in the voters’ lists. In urban areas, we see a greater chance of migration. People come in and move out at a faster pace. This has contributed to a lot of flaws in the voter list: people coming into the city have not been registered or people leaving the city,have not been removed from these lists. So you find errors of both omission and commission that affect the turnout ratio.

Having said that, however, I also feel that lower voting in urban areas is linked to the socio-economic profile within an urban area. Take Bangalore city, for example. The percentage of urban poor in Bangalore is higher than the national average of urban poor. Studies have shown that voting per cent among the urban poor is actually more than the overall urban ratio. So the urban poor does go out in larger numbers. Low voter turnout has, in fact, been found to be linked to areas where the the upper middle class and the upper class live.

One of the factors could be a genuine sense of anger against the system. This is also invariably the class that is more educated and believes that the system is not working properly, that there is too much corruption and maladministration and therefore, do not vote as a sign of protest.Then again, all who do not vote may not fit into that category either.

A significant number of middle class urban voters, I feel, are disconnected with the system. My friend puts it very poignantly. He says for the middle class, ‘I love democracy, I hate politics’. Because democracy is a great thing, India must be a democracy but I don’t want to sully my hands by getting into this dirty politics. There is that high moral ground which this particular section of people tends to take. They tend to believe that there are only two solutions to India’s politics and problems in general - the legal system, therefore the judiciary is a great darling for that group and second - technology. Because they are so negative about how the political system functions, they tend to exit completely from the system rather than work towards the reform of the system.

Now, one may ask, is this negativism also a mask? Perhaps, a mask to hide means? “I don’t need the political process to solve my problems of daily life. I have the means, I have the influence, and I have the capacity to get a problem resolved in more ways than one. I do not need your elected representative and your governmental processes to solve it. So why should I take part?” More of a cost-benefit analysis.

People queuing up at a polling booth in Bangalore during the May 2013 assembly election. Pic: Anantharaman R/Citizen Matters file illustration

Would you say the discourse on politics and leaders in media or in the public sphere encourages this mindset?

Yes, and also the fact that the last three decades has witnessed a change in the language, context and content of politics; I mean the political process is seeping downwards, it’s becoming more inclusive, more participatory. So what happens is that the privileged middle class who, in a way dominated the process in the years after independence, see an element of alienation today now that this process is not under their exclusive control. New social groups have come up which are now educated and they bring their own language to politics - a very valid, a very authentic language. This is seen as another interesting trend.

How do you explain this contradiction - in a way, politics has become more inclusive, more participatory, and at the same time it has ended up alienating a significant section of people?

As I said, it is because those who were seen as dictating the system, those who were seen as opinion makers in the system, are today having to share that space with other groups. You look into the politics of the 90s and 2000’s. Take Karnataka’s case. Karnataka in the post 90s has seen the rise of new leaders in all  parties. Be it a Kumaraswamy, be it a Yeddyurappa, or a Siddaramaiah. These leaders represent a new social group, a non-English speaking, non-elite culture.

They are not very conversant in English, they are excellent to dialogue with in Kannada, and you see how the urban middle class views these leaders. They are even seen by some as enacting a kind of theatre of the absurd rather than as the real voice of many. If you ask a typical Kannada-speaking middle class youth today at the state level, he is able to sync with Kumaraswamy very well as the latter speaks a language that he understands. By language, I don’t mean Kannada, but the the idiom of politics which is often very different from what the urban middle class can connect to.

And you think this, by extension, applies to the national scenario too?

Yes, absolutely. At the national level you have leaders like, Mulayam, Lalu. Today if I go to a typical city, and if I am lecturing at a college or a public programme, the very mention of Lalu’s name brings smiles to the faces of those in the audience. A lot of these people, who are smiling in the auditorium, do not understand that Lalu represents a very authentic foil of politics in this country today. It may not be to your liking, but it’s a reality. This social change is what I mean when I say politics is seeping downwards. These are leaders who are all products of a silent, but visible social revolution that is happening in this country. Mandal was an early step in that process...

Now, going back to the original point, somewhere I feel the urban middle class sees itself as lost in this process. More so, because things are not going in the direction they would have wanted it to go in terms of who leads. Globalization has also contributed to it by taking decision-making away from the state into the private domain. Therefore you have less need to interact with the state.

Finally, how important do you think corruption as an issue is in the mind of the average voter? I mean Karnataka voted overwhelmingly for the Congress even when the UPA under its leadership was reeling under accusations in so many scams...

During the Karnataka elections, we conducted a representative survey across the state. We asked this question to people: How do you rate your state govt on performance, corruption? How do you rate your central government on performance, corruption? The central government did not come out great shades at all. But because this was a state assembly election and because the level of frustration with the state government was much higher, the vote was against the BJP, and therefore the Congress and Janata Dal won.

I think what happened is that people were unhappy with affairs of the state and they were equally unhappy with what was happening at the national level. So, I think voters just felt that it’s not the party label that’s important: the general feeling seemed to be “you see what’s happening in Delhi, and you see what’s happening in Bangalore, so let us just go by the candidate.” For me, that’s another interesting trend that is emerging - voters are increasingly looking at the candidate and not so much at the party.

In terms of corruption as an issue, I think if voters feel that the corrupt practices of an MLA or a government has directly impacted their lives - for example, if the voter feels that an MLA has diverted funds that should otherwise have gone for development or if the citizen feels that an MLA has done nothing for us but has had a great time himself - then there is that strong resentment which the voter expresses by voting out the sitting MLA. There are many examples where this has happened.

But I also think today voters recognize the fact that to contest and win elections, finances are critical. And as long as those finances are not taken from what the people should be legitimately be getting as a citizen, it is okay.

What about using money to influence votes?

In fact, a lot of people make this point about parties and candidates buying votes. In the Karnataka elections, I have talked to a lot of people who told me that they specifically went back to their villages to vote. When you scratch a little deeper and ask them why, the real truth comes out: ‘people were giving us freebies in the village, direct cash, other incentives.’ And when I ask them, “does it influence your vote?” the answer is very interesting. They seem to feel that when different people were offering them benefits, why should they not take that? One even went to the extent of telling me, ‘That’s my right. I elected him. He became corrupt, he has just parted with a part of that money which is legitimately mine’.

But then the bottom line for me is even more interesting. They say “we would have taken doles from whoever gave us but then, we decide who we vote for’. I am today convinced that voters decide whom to vote for, and that has nothing to do with the freebies that they get from these people. To be visible in an election one has to spend above a particular threshold, but just because you spend you are gonna win - I don’t think that is a reality today in either Karnataka politics or Indian politics as a whole.