We probably say this before every election, and we are going to say it again for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections: ‘This could be the most important election of our lifetime,’ to paraphrase Barack Obama.
Indian elections generate a mind-blowing level of interest and excitement. During the last election, our website—NDTV.com—had 13.5 billion hits, yes, billions, and those were only the hits during the twenty-four hours on counting day. It was a record for India. For this election, we are expecting even more.
In our four decades of observing elections, we don’t recall ever seeing the level of interest, both in India and globally, as there is in the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
This book has tried to decode India’s elections as simply as possible in order to provide a greater understanding of the underpinnings of our electoral system and to examine the many variables that determine ‘the verdict’ of the Indian voter. This final part takes only a few extracts from this book to highlight some key signals, indicators and trends to look out for while tracking this big election, from the beginning of the campaign till the result on the final day of counting.
1. Will 2019 be all about anti-incumbency?
There is a widespread belief that Indian elections are characterized by ‘anti-incumbency’ and that most ruling governments are not re-elected by voters.
In our analysis of big and medium-sized states, in the period 1977– 2002, 70 per cent of governments were thrown out by angry, dissatisfied voters. However, this has changed over the last twenty years.
To put it simply, the Anti-Incumbency Era is over.
India is now going through what can be called a ‘Fifty:Fifty Era’. Governments today have a 50:50 chance of being re-elected. Governments that perform are voted back. Those that do not deliver are voted out. The angry voter has given way to a wiser, more mature voter.
The underlying probability of governments being voted back has risen from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. This may come as a relief to many ruling state governments as well as to the Central government.
This Fifty:Fifty era marks a sea change in our electoral history, which has had three major turning points: Pro-incumbency (1952–1977), Anti- incumbency (1977–2002) and Fifty:Fifty (2002–2019).
While a 50 per cent re-election rate is far more reassuring for ruling governments than earlier, this is low compared with the re-election rates of over 80 per cent in developed economies.
2. Who will win and lose in the 2019 elections?
The bad news for ruling governments is that the voter is wiser and smarter. Voters throw out all non-performing governments and re-elect governments that have worked and delivered.
A corollary to the end of the anti-incumbency era is that in the current Fifty:Fifty phase of our democracy, the voter has a message for all elected governments: perform or perish.
The voters’ yardstick for ‘performance’ is whether economic growth translates into genuine development on the ground, in their lives and their constituencies.
So elections today are not won simply by flamboyance. The most successful chief ministers over the last twenty years, with high re-election rates, have been low-key, result-oriented leaders like Shivraj Chouhan, Naveen Patnaik, Raman Singh, Manik Sarkar and Sheila Dikshit. All at least three-time winners. Oratory also works as long as it is combined with development, as in the case of Narendra Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat.
3. Will we see the same faces or new candidates?
As always, familiar faces are likely to dominate this campaign too, but many may not win. In State Assembly elections, parties usually renominate over two-thirds of their sitting candidates—it’s called ‘sitting-getting’. But do they win, or is there a churn? Only 50 per cent of sitting candidates are normally re-elected. However, this is a higher strike-rate than new candidates, in seats they won last time, who have a less than 40 per cent chance of winning.
If these State Assembly re-election rates apply to the Lok Sabha, the next Parliament will see a significant churn.
4. Will the MPs going into the next Lok Sabha be young like the voters of India?
Our members of Parliament are much older than the average age of voters. Once again, expect older candidates as the average age of members of the Lok Sabha has been rising with every election.
Today, almost 60 per cent of voters in India are young, between the ages of eighteen and forty. But only 15 per cent of MPs are between twenty-five and forty years old.
This means that 85 per cent of MPs are of a different generation from the majority of voters.
And it’s a widening age gap!
For the BJP, the rising number of young voters is a positive development. In the recent past, the BJP and its allies have had a greater support amongst young voters. In 2014, the NDA had a 20 per cent lead over the UPA among young voters compared to a 11 per cent lead amongst older voters (based on our exit and post polls).
5. Expect 2019 to be the ‘election of the women of India’
Women’s participation in elections has been rising much faster than men, and the next Lok Sabha elections could be the first time in India’s history that women’s turnout will be higher than men’s.
Between the 1962 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections there has been nearly a 20 per cent increase in women’s turnout versus only a 5 per cent increase in men’s turnout. Today, the turnout of both women and men is almost the same.
In fact, in State Assembly elections, women’s turnout has now overtaken men’s turnout. Women voters had a 71 per cent turnout versus 70 per cent for men.
A revolutionary change.
6. Most important will be the votes of village women
Expect the focus of this election to be the women in villages.
The biggest change in Indian elections has been the increasing turnout of rural women—and it is now at virtually the same level as men’s turnout. Six per cent more village women turn out to vote than their urban counterparts. This is a huge change from 1971 when the turnout of women in rural areas was 8 per cent lower than in towns. A complete turnaround.
7. Women voters: Safety matters
Women’s participation in voting is today higher in the safer, more women- friendly states of east and south India. Amongst the top states are West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The worst states for women’s turnout, compared to the men, are primarily in the Hindi-speaking-belt in central and west India, especially Delhi (our capital city that has the worst recorded crime rate against women), Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
In the 2019 elections, watch out for social media rumour-mongering that may be aimed at keeping women from venturing out to the polling station.
8. Parties will focus on women voters like never before
Election campaigns earlier were almost solely focused on men: first, because there were many more men voters than women; second, men in the family used to be a primary influence on who women would vote for.
Today, not only are more women turning out to vote than men, but they are also making independent decisions on who to vote for.
Expect political speeches, manifestos and campaigns to be directed more at women than ever before in the history of elections in India.
9. Who do women vote for?
Traditionally, the BJP has had a higher support base amongst men than women. For example, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the lead of NDA over the UPA amongst men in India was 19 per cent while its lead amongst women voters was 9 per cent (based on our opinion and exit polls). This greater male-centric support base of the NDA is even more exaggerated in the bigger states of central, north and west India.
Which is why the government’s free gas cylinder policy (Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana) was a perfect election campaign idea; it targeted primarily rural, women voters. All parties can now be expected to make similar promises targeting women in these elections.
To illustrate how important the male voter is for the NDA, a simple simulation of the 2014 elections threw up two alternative scenarios. First, if only men had voted, the NDA would have won as many as 376 seats (40 seats more than the 336 that they actually won). Second, if only women had voted, the NDA would have won only 265 seats (71 seats lower than their final total in 2014 and 7 seats below the halfway mark of 272).
10. Rural turnout is higher than urban turnout
The number of people living in rural areas has always been greater than the urban population, but there is now a new reason why they are even more crucial to India’s elections.
The voter turnout in rural areas has been rising faster than urban areas and today, the turnout in villages is about 4 per cent higher than the turnout in urban areas in Lok Sabha elections.
This high and faster-growing turnout of rural voters may be of some concern for the BJP+ as it traditionally has a higher support base among the urban electorate and lower in the rural areas.
More than ever before, be prepared for more sops being targeted at the village voter rather than the one in towns and cities.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The Verdict’.
2019/Hardcover: Rs 599/Penguin.