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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 21 New Delhi May 11, 2019

Balancing Economics and Politics in Elections

Tuesday 14 May 2019

by Joseph Abraham

For the vast majority of the Indian electorate, the current elections appear to be a complex decision-making process between the economic gains of the pro-poor welfare schemes of political parties and the concerns of the electorate on issues relating to faith and religion. Though there is little doubt that these two are equally important for the large majority of voters, the growing agrarian crisis and rising unemployment appear to have shifted electoral preferences and attention of the vast majority of the poor and marginalised sections of voters from divisive issues to those of economic welfare, growth and development. Further, the process of exercising voting power has now clearly assumed the role of a new political purchasing power with the electorate to form a government identical to the functions of money as a medium of exchange for goods and services, a unit of account and store of value. There has been little discussion on the close similarity between the economic principles underlying the functions of money in the economy and that of the emerging political purchasing power of votes to elect a government based on political preferences of the electorate. The economic dimensions of voting behaviour in India is extremely unique as it reflects a complex decision-making process by the electorate intermixing the principles of welfare economics with that of faith and religion.

Theoretical analysis of electoral behaviour are largely based on electoral experiences in the democracies of Western Europe and North America focusing on the political psychology of the voters without much attention to the underlying economic principles. They are more of a political analysis of how the electorate makes informed political choice despite their relatively low level of political sophistication and understanding of the intricacies of the power strategies of political parties. Psychological analysis of electoral ergonomics have also identified the role of emotions and affective influence in voting behaviour, that is, surprise, anger, anxiety, fear, pride, influence of political campaigns, pre-poll surveys, altruism, emotions and emotional bias.

In the Indian context, though there is little doubt that faith and religion are a major determinant of voting behaviour, the huge anticipated economic benefits offered by the political parties to the poor and vulnerable through their election manifestos make voting a major economic decision-making process. As electoral choice has a deep bearing on the welfare schemes for the poor, voters find themselves as major stakeholders in the electoral process. It is in this context that the economic dimensions of voting behaviour in India assume major importance as these are seen as a choice with serious welfare implications to the vast majority of the poor.

The anticipated economic benefits of electoral choice tends to make voting as a new form of purchasing power with the electorate who tends to utilise the vote carefully as an economic decision-making process since electoral choice exercised through votes is capable of performing most of the basic functions of money in the modern economy. Thus the electorate in India has realised that while money represents the economic purchasing power which empowers the people with the capacity to purchase goods and services, the vote represents the political purchasing power which empowers them to choose the political leaders and party which would form the government. Thus for the general public, and particularly for the vast majority of the poor, electoral choice in India is a highly complex balancing act between political choice and economic decision-making.

While one of the basic functions of money is to serve as a “medium of exchange”, faith and religion have emerged as a “medium of exchange” for votes in the modern elections. The transition of a system of electoral preferences of voters from critical socio-economic issues towards those based on faith and religion is in fact rooted on the economic principles of the “medium of exchange” governing the role of money in the modern economic system with votes acting as a powerful medium of exchange based on preferences of faith and religion.

One of the adverse fallouts of this development in the political economy of the country is that issues relating to faith and religion have taken precedence over critical economic issues facing the country like poverty, corruption and governance reforms, pollution control and environmental safety, ensuring basic needs like food security, housing, water supply and sanitation, improved infrastructure in education, health etc.

Essentially as money in its role as a medium of exchange provides a wide variety of consumer choice between various goods and services, votes are becoming a medium of political exchange with enormous purchasing power offering political choice for either safeguarding religion or for gaining sizeable economic benefits through pro-poor welfare schemes and programmes. This unique conflict of the political scenario of the country makes the present electoral battle a clash between two conflicting choices, that is, religion versus economic welfare. With the deep ethos of religion in the Indian psyche, the most serious dilemma before the Indian electorate, particularly among the poor, is therefore about the choice between these two mutually exclusive agendas. Thus while the vast majority of voters, particularly the poor and marginalised, would like to have both of them, the existing political parties are mainly highlighting their agenda only on one of them to the Indian electorate.

Another unique dynamics of modern electoral politics in India is that it reflects the profound economic principle of “rationality”, “exchange” and welfare maximisation as the underlying voter-political party relationship is identical to the buyer-seller relationship in the free-market system. This is particularly so as the political parties are engaged in a fierce competition to “sell” their political agenda to the voters who are seen more as their “customers” in this highly competitive political free-market system. As this market reflects all the traits of a perfectly competitive market, only those political parties who are able to sell the most attractive and popular agenda are able to survive in the market, win the elections and form the government while the rest lose the elections and disappear into political oblivion or end up as Opposition parties. In this scenario, the voter is definitely at an advantage similar to the free-market concept of consumer as the “king” as the voter is empowered to make a comparative cost-benefit analysis of the agenda of various political parties and eventually make an informed decision of voting for a particular political party based on the core economic principles of rationality, exchange and “welfare maximisation” rather than emotional issues based on faith and religion.

Another powerful role played by faith and religion in electoral politics is identical to the pivotal role played by money in the modern economic system as a “unit of account” where the value of goods and services are expressed in terms of money serving as a common denominator as well as facilitating comparison of different prices reflecting the relative value of different goods and services.

The thrust of the political economy of voting as a “unit of account” is based on the value attached to issues relating to faith and religion enabling the voter to make an assessment of the “comparative advantage” of voting for a political party based on his preferences of faith and religion. Thus for the large majority of voters, each political party assumes an “invisible value” as a “unit of account” in electoral politics causing considerable inter-party competition to maxi-mise its value as a unit of account among the electorate.

While money is saved as a durable commodity with high “store of value”, both voters and political parties look upon votes as “commo-dities” with high store of value and long shelf-life which can be utilised for exchange of political power provided the party is elected to power. The large number of socio-economic welfare schemes included in the political manifestos of various political parties prior to the election is based on the assumption that each political party should maximise its image among the electorate as an attractive “store of value” for various segments of society for which welfare schemes and religion become an indispensable and the most attractive ingredient. However, this tends to neglect the rational economic decision-making process inherent among the large number of voters from the poor and marginalised sections of society who are increasingly more concerned with unemploy-ment, poverty, agrarian debt and other core economic issues

With the growing unrest among the debt-ridden farmers and unemployed youth, and with widening income inequalities, there is little doubt that economic issues are gaining an upper hand among voters highlighting the need for political parties to refocus attention to resolve these critical economic issues rather than harping on divisive issues with little economic content. However, in the current scenario, it is a matter of serious concern that there is a continued neglect of the economic principles underlying electoral behaviour in India. This calls for a shift in the focus of electoral politics towards critical socio-economic issues facing the country and an appreciation of the electoral process as a rational economic decision-making process by the Indian electorate.

Dr Joseph Abraham is a former officer of the Indian Economic Service (IES) who retired as the Principal Adviser, Department of Agriculture, Corperation and Farmers’ Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.

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