Why Do We Vote? Is The Aware Voter A Myth?

The situation is a bit intriguing out there. Elections are on and they would prod us to be a conscious voter and not be swayed by emotions or inducements or appeals to narrow sentiments. Ironically, the entire campaigning process is designed for and directed at those same negatives. The advice to voters to act responsibility is presumptuous and it carries some contempt for the intelligence of the voter too.

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Now, does a conscious or aware voter actually exist, or is it just a myth? Let’s get a bit deeper into it.

How many voters are aware of the intricacies of the country’s economy? How many catch the nuances of diplomacy, or our defence preparedness or education policy or matters science or agriculture? When the individual voter prepares to punch the button to vote for someone, does he really make a well-informed choice?

Let’s face it. There’s no such creature called the aware voter. This is not to demean the intelligence of the voter, but to highlight the truth that it is impossible for anyone to be completely aware. Awareness is both subjective and relative. Someone with sound knowledge on diplomacy may not have a perfect understanding of welfare schemes. Even within the same knowledge domain people may have differing views. Economists, howsoever qualified they are, wouldn’t have a common view on India’s economy. The spheres of human activities are too varied and complex for one individual to fully grasp.

So what makes us the way we vote? There are broadly two kinds of voters, one is committed to a party or ideology; the second is the undecided voter, also known as the fence-sitters. The first category would vote for his favourite party no matter who the candidate is. Diehard Republicans would vote for Donald Trump despite the knowledge that he is not the best option. A Right wing sympathiser in India would vote for the BJP no matter who the candidate is. Their decision is made much earlier and no argument would persuade them otherwise.

The entire election campaign is directed at the fence-sitters, who are much larger in number and thus have the capacity to tilt the result one way or the other. Parties leave no stone unturned to sway this electorate. Impressive rallies, well-attended meetings, tall promises, loud claims, self-promotional advertisements in newspapers and television and digital targetting – all come into play. Of course, direct bribery in terms of cash, alcohol, meat, household goods and even jewellery is almost the norm. The tricks also include negative campaigns against opponents. A casual glance of the political advertisements on your mobile screen would make it clear. It doesn’t always work. The most profligate of governments in terms of freebies get booted out. But in a highly competitive environment, political players cannot just take the risk of not following others.

From the perspective of parties, it is about managing perceptions. They have to generate enough positive feelings among the people about themselves and neutralise the negative perception. If the net balance on the positive side is bigger, then the chances of winning are brighter. So from promises to bribery is par for the course.

What about voters? Their equation with parties is primarily transactional when it is not emotional. In a good democracy, people bargain with parties for a better deal. It is easier to have a weighter bargain when you have the numbers, either as a block of people with similar interest – as in case of trade or farmer unions – or as a social community such as caste or ethnic groupings. The numbers allow them to extract promises and action from political players. No wonder, caste continues to be important in Indian politics.

An intelligent voting community would try to leverage its strength to get the maximum out of the politicians. Self-interest is important. The political players can afford to ignore the middle classes because they neither have the capacity to develop common self-interest nor are they a cohesive voting block. Their strategy is understandably different for voters at the lower end of the class spectrum.

At the level of the individual, self-interest can be about freebies and the general inducement on offer. People would have no hesitation accepting these since the benefits are immediate and gratifying. It can sometimes overlap with community self-interest. The bitter truth about elections is the voter is irrelevant after the voting day. It is only pragmatic to derive the best bargain out of what is on offer.

The voting choice is thus a blend of cynicism, self-interest, sense of reality and perception. Awareness is just a myth.

(By arrangement with Perspective Bytes)

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