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Rediff.com  » Election » The Indian voter has become more demanding

The Indian voter has become more demanding

March 25, 2009 10:17 IST
Less than a year ago, the big issue that seemed to have the potential of swinging votes in a general election was the allocation of land for special economic zones. Opposition political parties were training their guns at the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance for having allowed industry to acquire land from farmers on relatively easy terms and at prices that were substantially lower than what prevailed in the open market.

Under attack for these policies, the UPA government even proposed a new scheme for rehabilitation and resettlement of farmers who sold their land to industry for SEZs.

It is true that the political parties, which supported farmers in their battle over loss of land to industry, made electoral gains in several of the local elections held around that time. But with the passage of time, the political hue and cry over land-grabbing by industry in the guise of setting up SEZs has subsided.

Political parties now preparing for the general elections to be held in April-May show no inclination to refer to the SEZ controversy. Even if they do, that passion over farmers getting poorly compensated for losing land is no longer in evidence.

Eight months ago, the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA government after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to sign the civil nuclear co-operation agreement with the United States. Leaders of the Left parties had thundered then that they would go to the people of this country for their verdict against a government that in their view had mortgaged India's sovereignty to the US.

Even the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to take political advantage of the UPA's precarious situation.

Indeed, several protest rallies were held in states where the Left parties had some presence. There was no doubt then that the Indo-US civil nuclear deal would become a big issue in the general elections to be held soon. After all, the deal was responsible for having come close to bringing down the UPA government.

More significantly, the deal required major compromises to be made by the Congress leadership to ensure the passage of its confidence vote in the Lok Sabha. But today, barring the solitary mention in the CPI-M manifesto, the Indo-US civil nuclear deal is hardly an issue with voters.

At around the same time, the impact of the global economic crisis hit the Indian economy and the markets. Prices rose even as the economy's growth began to decelerate sharply. Now the inflation rate is well under control, but the unemployment rate is rising and achieving higher growth has become a bigger challenge.

Today, these are issues that every Indian voter is highly exercised about. But will that voter blame the government for causing the crisis?

Not likely. However, the Indian voter will expect the new government to come out with a policy package that helps him and the economy to tackle the crisis. So, it is not the elaboration of the crisis and blaming the government for the crisis that will fetch votes. Instead, voters are likely to favour the party that enunciates the most effective policy to bail the economy out of the current crisis with the least pain to the people.

Similarly, issues like terror attacks or the controversy over the staging of the Indian Premier League's cricket matches or Varun Gandhi's provocative speeches may hog the limelight for a few days or even a few weeks. But it will be naïve to believe that these will become the key factors that voters will weigh before deciding on which political party should be elected to the Lok Sabha with a majority.

Voters in India have become much more demanding and discerning. Their expectation levels have risen. It is not just the basic necessities (roti, kapda and makaan) that matter to them. Equally important are the basic infrastructure services (bijli, paani and sadak) that a political party should promise to offer if elected to form the government.

Religion, cricket, prices and ties with the US may provide a few talking points in election speeches. But they may not necessarily win votes. That is why, perhaps, such issues have a transient value. They are likely to be forgotten as other developments take place, new slogans are coined and new speeches are made.

The 15th Lok Sabha elections will, therefore, be completely different in this respect. Voters are not likely to be impressed by political parties that react to the policies or performance of their rivals. Nor are decades-old slogans on religion and caste likely to work the same old magic.

Instead, they may look for the party that helps them become financially better-off. That is one reason why even the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is talking about cash transfers to the poor and the Congress plans to extend its aam aadmi agenda to cover even the urban poor.

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A K Bhattacharya
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