Vantage point

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Vote-bank Politics - Cause or Symptom?

A lot of Indians would vehemently agree if one was to mention vote-bank politics as one of the causes for our country's troubles. Yes, they will say, those bloody politicians just care about vote-bank politics.

What does vote-bank politics really mean? A few google searches wil, show you that the term, much like 'eve-teasing' is almost exclusively Indian. There is no universal definition, so I will try to articulate one for my own understanding - A political strategy in which a politician or a party concentrates on the well-being of just one particular group of people to win elections and doesn't care about other groups, or the country/society as a whole.

If you examine the definition carefully, you will realise that this would naturally be the political strategy of any political party. After all, what is the ultimate objective of a political party? To be in power. How will they be in power? By winning elections. How will they win elections? By any means possible which they can get away with.

Why doesn't vote-bank politics seem to be as dominant in other countries like, say USA or UK? The general opinion is, their politicians are "more honest" than ours. Better people get into politics abroad than in India. Well, whether that is indeed true, and if true, whether that again is a cause or a symptom, is a subject for another blog post.

Let's just recognise that politicians are driven by the same objectives everywhere. Winning elections. What differs from place to place is the system which puts in place explicit and implicit incentives to do the thing which will benefit the country, and explicit and implicit disincentives that will stop them from doing things which are harmful to the country.

Vote-bank politics is obviously harmful to the country. It needs to stop. If we are hoping for a magical "Honesty Revolution" that will clean up our political scene, we are thinking Utopian thoughts. Let us examine why vote-bank politics is so prevalent in India and let us identify the actual reasons logically than give the high-school-level-elocution-competition reasons like corruption, population, poverty etc etc.

Votebank politics exists in India due to two reasons. One reason is reality-based about which nothing can be done. Second reason is system-based which can actually be changed.

The reality-based reason is that India is a very diverse country. We have several religions, castes, sects, communities, each of them well defined. As a result there exist substantial chunks of people which naturally are susceptible to being moulded into a 'vote-bank'. The best case study for this is Uttar Pradesh where you have 20% Muslims, 15% high castes, and the remaining divided into percentages varying from 5-20%. Other democracies like USA, UK, Japan, etc are not as diverse. Correction....USA and UK are pretty diverse. But the different groups there as not as strong numerically as in India.

The second reason is our election system, which is 'First Pass the Post'(FPP). Any election in which people cast their votes, is FPP, i.e. the candidate with the maximum votes wins. So if there are just two candidates, the winner will have to get more than 50% votes. But in India, there are several parties and several candidates, each representing a group. So whoever gets the maximum votes wins. These 'maximum votes' may be as less as 10%, he will still win, as long as no one else got more than him.

so if the electorate is as diverse as it is in India, all you need to ensure is that you keep your "votebank" happy, and that it is big enough to beat anyone else. And you are assured of an election win.

If you were wondering why Paswan was going on and on about a "Muslim CM", this is the reason. He calculated that in addition to his traditional base, if he also gets votes from the 'Muslim Votebank', his number, while way way short of 50% will still be quite high.

As long as we remain a diverse society, and cling on to the FPP system, make your peace with votebank politics. Because votebank politics is not a cause of our country's ills, but just a symptom.