My grandfather was a lifelong supporter of the Congress (I). This was not a relationship he suffered lightly – he was perennially disappointed by the party. Like a wayward son one must love despite his shenanigans, my grandfather felt for the Congress Party through thick and thin; at least if his vote spoke the truth. He was not an ideologue; even if he were, there was no immutable ideology the Congress party ever offered. I believe his loyalty spoke of the nostalgia of the post-independence optimism and the not so subtle and consistently powerful effect of the Gandhi name.
To be fair to him the opposition parties never inspired his allegiance. In the two epochs the Congress party was derailed from power the opposition’s singular claim to fame was to double the number of prime ministers that could be sworn within an election cycle.
In the election following the imposition of emergency rule in 1977, a broad coalition of parties produced a circus of jokers whose definition of the greatest national concern was that Indira Gandhi had used a government vehicle inappropriately during her campaign.
The second epoch in 1989 produced an improbable alliance of the far left and the far right to oust a center-left government. "United in Hate" is, of course, the natural corollary to the British motto of "divide and rule". Political scientists would have mused at such a union, although not for long: the uniting banner of "anyone but Congress (I)" failed to last a leap year.
Thus the choice between a highly dysfunctional party with no principles and even more dysfunctional parties with fewer principles is not a difficult one to make, unless you make voting decisions based on a coin toss.
If the Congress party ever solicited my grandfather’s opinion on contentious national policies that might gain some votes and lose others the conversation might have proceeded along these lines.
Congress Party: Are you opposed to reservations?
Congress Party: Who would you vote for if we imposed a quota of 85 %?
Grandfather (angrily): Congress (I).
Congress Party: How about a quota of 50 %
Grandfather (still angry): Congress (I).
Congress Party: What about a quota of 15 %
Grandfather: Congress (I).
Now, if you were doing market research for a mobile phone and you find that your product would sell equal volumes if priced at Rs 5000, Rs 500 and Rs 50, what price would you choose?
Politicians do not care about loyalists. Politics curiously imitates life where, if you can be taken for granted chances are that you probably will. People care more about the volatile person, the person who is impressionable but can change his mind. The fair-weather friend exacts more mental anguish than the loyal friend; the loyal friend will always be there but the frivolous friend may move to greener pastures.
American psephologists have a name for a group of voters who do not vote according to party lines: the Independents. The term "independent" affects an element of rationality. No doubt this group has a sub-group of voters who are quite rational and weigh the pros and cons of each party’s election manifesto. However, this group also has people who are simply too fickle to be ideologues, who vote with their gut and decide in the preceding seconds of casting their ballots which party they will choose.
Nonetheless, there is one attribute that unites the Independents, the undecided voters: they are persuadable. In the US, political parties spend large amounts of money trying to win over the independents. In fact, one can say that the standing of the political party with the independent voter is usually, not always, a reliable marker of overall electoral success.
There are many redeeming qualities of the independents. They tend to be moderate. This goes without saying because if they were not moderate they would surely choose one or the other party. Their moderation is more rigid on social matters. On fiscal matters they vote with their pocket. They are troubled by inflation, high taxes and high petrol prices. They tend to be fiscal conservatives and social liberals. They support low taxes. They are disturbed by religious bigotry.
Genuine independents, not those who simply claim to be independent to bolster their intellectual superiority, supposedly form ten percent of the voting bloc. They are the single most important group, however. The independents sculpt the political landscape of the US. It has been said that in US elections the challenger, a Republican on the last occasion, must run to the center fast enough and convincingly enough to win enough of the Independent votes by election time. Indeed, one reason Mitt Romney might have lost the Presidential race was that he started too far off to the right in the primaries, a necessity to win the support of his base, and alienated many independents particularly the female independents due to the Paleolithic views on abortion held by some of his party men.
The independents define moderation, espouse moderation and spread moderation. They are healthy for a democracy. They define the political center of gravity and anchor it by punishing politicians who stray too far from the center.
How does a democracy encourage proliferation of independents? This requires an encouragement towards the rejection of any ideology. The ideologue looks for solutions. To discourage the proliferation of ideologues democracy must be emphasized for what it is; inherently flawed, the least-worst system that offers trade-offs, not solutions.
Education is important but not enough. Take the case of West Bengal which is renowned for its educated masses and yet managed to elect the Communist party with depressing iteration despite, or rather because of, the high level of education. Skepticism must be an intrinsic part of education. However, the level of skepticism must be optimal. Politicians must neither be eulogized nor demonized. Excessive demonization of politicians can result in an electorate that is indifferent; too apathetic to vote. If politicians could care less about people who will always vote for them they would have even less concern about someone who is likely never to cast a vote.
Above all the electorate must be encouraged to pursue their economic interest. Holding the government accountable to the price of onions is a more certain way of affecting their behavior and policies than holding them to the delivery of nebulous goals such as brotherhood, social justice and equality.
As George Orwell remarked, "some people are more equal than others"; not all voters are equal. Some can get more attention from the politicians and punch above their weight simply by being undecided.
Dr. Saurabh Jha, MD MRCS, a British/Indian NRI, is an Assistant Professor of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. With his natural flair for writing, Dr. Jha will be expressing his views on Bihar, Bihar-related issues, and other topics that are sure to grab the attention of the visitors of PatnaDaily.Com.