As India is heading into its 17th Lok Sabha elections from 11th April 2019, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala, traces the relationship between the voter and politicians in India since 1952 and serves as a guiding light for anyone interested in understanding Indian politics and for those who have been already embroiled in the process of decoding the mind of Indian voters for predicting 2019 election results.
One of the many striking statistical findings in the book is the significant rise of women voters. Between the 1962 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, women voter turnout has increased by 20% as compared to 5% increase in men’s turnout and in the state assembly elections women’s turnout with 71% has overtaken men’s turnout by 1% which is 70%. Today, the turnout for both men and women is almost the same. Moreover, women’s turnout in rural areas is six per cent more than their urban counterparts. With this, it is needless to say that women’s issues are at the centre of any political campaigns and will intensively be so in the upcoming elections. Hence, women voters can possibly be a game changer in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The author touches upon the lesser known concept in India, ‘voter suppression’ which is akin to the US; through the missing women voters and the missing votes of millions of migrants across Indian states. While women’s turnout has shown an increasing trend, there would be an alarming number of around 21 million eligible missing women voters in 2019 as they have not been registered as voters. This dismal situation of missing women voters has been prevailing since decades in India and needs to be checked, given the significant impact of women voters on the fate of the political parties.
A major part of the book deals with the merits and demerits of polls and polling systems in India and whether polls should be trusted in 2019 elections. While emphasizing on the unbiased nature and professionalism of credible polling agencies in India backed by statistical evidence of 97% strike rate of predicting winners in Lok Sabha elections, the author cautions one to be wary of fake polls, social media polls and the ones that have increasingly failed in their outcomes. They also emphasize the fact that polling does not affect the voting behaviour of voters.
Another important indicator that is repeated at the centre of discussion in multiple parts is the rise of grassroots democracy which makes national elections more regional and local. The rise of regional parties in India has increased from an average of 35 Lok Sabha seats in the early phase of Independence to over 160 seats now, almost a third of seats in the Lok Sabha. There has also been a rapid increase in the votes that regional parties win. The importance of sub-national parties will create state-level swings instead of an all India uniform swing. Hence, it is important to focus on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections at a micro level.
The much dubious claims of EVM hacking are debunked in detail explaining why in fact, EVMs are one of the finest innovations for Indian elections due to their remoteness from the internet to prevent tampering and their ease of use for illiterate voters are major advantages. Moreover, it is the losers’ insecurity of the EVMs that create hullabaloo at the end of every election.
The other focal points of the book include the relationship between voter turnout and the winning chances of a particular political party; the importance of opposition unity in 2019 elections, and the most interesting being the transformation of India’s first-past-the-post system into a quasi-proportional system over the years.
While the author talks about various indicators and predictors to look for in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there is very little mention of the role that social media has to play in ultimately affecting the voter behaviour. In the 2019 election, it is expected that all constituencies are going to be impacted given the extensive penetration of social media in previously dark median areas. Also, social media users are no longer just urban professionals and students. As Web 2.0 becomes more compatible with vernacular scripts, the poor gatekeeping function governing messaging platforms like WhatsApp, ShareChat and Helo, makes it easier to spread polarizing messages and disinformation faster. There has been the creation of filter bubbles and echo chambers, enabling the quick and pervasive spread of polarizing politics. (Mahapatra, 2019). As the author suggests, there is an important word-of-mouth dimension in communities so that no one is left out in the process of information gathering and today the increasing penetration of internet and social media does greatly impact the word of mouth spread of information as well. A more detailed discussion with a comparative analysis of the shift in the trends of social media form 2014 leading to 2019 elections would have provided a comprehensive discourse on the changing voter behaviour.
The author discredits the claim of the flamboyance of politicians having a great impact on voting behaviour and emphasizing more on state leaders than Modi-Shah appeal or Rahul-Priyanka appeal, once again it is important to study the impact of narratives at the state level as well. If not at the national level, state level narratives do ultimately affect the voting choices of people. Any honest assessment of the health of democracy in India must recognize that the infirmities of state parties are often replicated when it comes to their national counterparts, the Congress and the BJP. (Vaishnav, 2015). However, state-based parties like Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Biju Janata Dal(BJD), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) are shaping their parallel development visions and their credible work at the ground level and influencing the national narrative as they too now know the tricks of PR- driven political canvassing. One can infer from this, narratives and popular appeal are factors that cannot be ignored in the future of Indian elections even at the local level.
Another significant observation in the book is the considerable low support for BJP among women. However, in a 2014 post-election survey, the party found that 33 per cent men and 29 per cent women had voted for the BJP, according to a party document accessed by India Today. Fast forward to 2017, and a party research paper showed that the party had made big gains amongst women voters in Haryana, Odisha and West Bengal while the growth among the men was moderate. Another pre-election intra-party survey in 2018, in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan this time, showed a slight bump in popularity among female voters, from 29 per cent to 31 per cent between 2014-2018. (Punj, 2019). Moreover, almost 60 per cent of India’s voters today are young, between the age of eighteen and forty years. With the big battle of 2019 approaching, the political parties are on an overdrive to engage with the young electorate who come with a little political baggage and become steadfast loyalists of a particular party. The BJP, for example, has been organizing booth level events for nav matdata (new voters) to convert them into life members. Since women and youth form majority of the electorate in 2019, the question that remains and needs to be looked at in the 2019 elections is, does local and group-based issues play any role in either diverting or entrenching the grand narratives of identity and populist politics?
While there has been an optimistic and ideal perception in the book, of Indian voters growing into ‘wiser voters’ and judging the politicians on the basis of their credible work and real issues, many questions remain unanswered as to what is perceived as real issues by the voters today, which requires a careful assessment without ignoring the internet and mobile phone growth. Also, will the credulous voters overpower the traditional ‘wiser voter’ in the upcoming elections? And if it does, what next change will we observe in terms of a maturing democracy? Is the increasing rise of regional parties enough of a sign for indicating the rise of grassroots democracy with many aspects of the first-past-the-post system still remaining contentious?
While the author mentions in the end that The Verdict is an open-ended story, the above-mentioned questions do indicate the uniqueness of 2019 elections. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections would indicate a break from the past and be a major testimony for the claims of the voter being ahead of the politicians.
As the book focuses more on the arithmetic aspects of Indian elections emphasizing more on the quantitative analysis, it shifts the debate from more nuanced aspects of voting behaviour majorly dealing with assumptions of identity politics and economic impact. It may appear to a reader that elections are all about the game of numbers, whereas other qualitative factors are indeed important for an in-depth understanding of Indian politics which in turn affect the numbers in a broader sense.
In conclusion, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections is a significant read for one to understand the dynamics of Indian elections and their complexity. The exemplary statistical data and their clear explanatory interpretation break down various psephological concepts in a simple manner for the reader. This lucidity is majorly commendable and it reflects the expertise of the authors in studying Indian Elections since decades and hence, making the book an accessible fundamental read.
Mahaprashastha, A. ( 2019). The Wire. Elections 2019: Why Regional Parties may Hold the Key to Victory. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/politics/elections-2019-states-bjp-tmc-trs-alliance
Mahapatra, S. (2019). The London School of Economics and Political science. India Online: How Social Media Will Impact 2019 Election. Retrieved from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2019/01/11/long-read-india-online-how-social-media-will-impact-the-2019-indian-general-election/
Punj, S. (2019). India Today. Why women votes matter. Retrieved from https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/cover-story/story/20190225-why-women-votes-matter-1455807-2019-02-15
Roy, Prannoy, & Sopariwala, D. (2019). The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections. New Delhi: Penguin Random House India
Sharma, S. (2018). The Economic Times. How the new age voters will be crucial in deciding the political fortunes in 2019. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/why-political-parties-cant-ignore-these-10-cr-voters-in-their-quest-for-2019/articleshow/63347913.cms
Vaishnav, M (2015). Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Understanding the Indian Voter. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/06/23/understanding-indian-voter-pub-60416
Image Credit: Time
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