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Six myths about Indian elections

Do women in India vote according to the wishes of their husbands? Do Muslims vote as a community? Political scientist Yogendra Yadav examines six myths surrounding the Indian elections.

Women voters in India
Women voters outnumber men in many states

A myth is a story or trend that a culture believes to be true. But it has also taken on the meaning of a popular conception that may have become exaggerated if not downright false.

The reason why there is so much myth making around politics and elections in India is partly because Indians are passionate about politics.

It is also because there is very little hard evidence on political behaviour. When it comes to politics, anything goes.

Here are the six most popular myths about Indian politics and elections:

WOMEN VOTE ACCORDING TO THE WISHES OF THEIR HUSBANDS

It is true that in India, like many democracies, the levels of interest and involvement of women in politics is lower than that of men.

Obviously, if you are less interested in something, you tend you go by somebody else's advice - in the case of women in India it may be the advice of men in their family.

But we cannot conclude that all - or almost all - women go by whatever their husbands ask them to do and so therefore are not really an independent factor in politics.

For one, the level of involvement of women in politics has risen sharply in the past two decades or so: the turnout of women during polling used to be a good 10 percentage points below the turnout of men; and now, the gap is barely two to three.

Today, more women turn out to vote than men in many states.

Women at a political rally
The level of involvement of women in politics has risen sharply

Second, if it were true that all women were to follow their men in their voting preference, we would not find any difference in the level of support for different parties among men and women.

But surveys over the past 40 years have consistently shown a difference in levels of support for major political parties among men and women.

Congress, for example, has always got more votes from women than from men since the days of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi or even earlier.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Bengal, the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, and the AIADMK party in Tamil Nadu led by former actress Jayalalitha, are some of the parties who get more votes from women than from men.

Since the early 1970s, researchers from Delhi's Centre for Developing Societies have asked women voters whose advise they seek while casting their ballots.

The evidence shows that fewer than 50% of women today go by the advice of their husband or any men in their family.

MUSLIMS VOTE HEAVILY AND AS A BLOC

We simply have no good evidence to prove that Muslims vote more than the majority Hindus.

This perception comes from seeing long queues at polling stations in some Muslim majority urban areas where community voters, especially the poor and women, tend to be very visible.

Research shows that in most elections after 1996, the turnout of Muslim voters has actually been a little lower than that of Hindus.

The other perception about Muslims voting en bloc has an element of truth.

Muslims in India
The perception that Muslims vote en bloc has an element of truth

Any minority community tends to flock together, consult among themselves, and has a great sense of community. This applies to Muslims as much as it applies to Sikhs in Delhi, Hindu pundits in Indian-administered Kashmir and to Bengalis in north-eastern India.

But it is simply not true that there is anything like a Muslim bloc at national level.

If there is one striking thing about Indian Muslims, it is the fact that unlike most minorities in most democracies around the world, Indian Muslims have not voted for Muslim parties.

They have had their preferred political parties - Congress used to be one of those parties, and now there are many.

Also, Muslims in India do not vote en bloc like, say, the black vote in the US for the Democratic Party or the UK's ethnic minorities who largely vote for the Labour Party.

Politically speaking, there is no single unified Muslim community in India.

Muslims are fragmented along the lines of religion, sect, caste and community.

In the past two decades, Muslim voters have chosen different parties in different states: the CPI(M) in Bengal, the RJD in Bihar, the regional Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, the DMK party in Tamil Nadu and the Congress in other parts of the country.

In other words, it is an exaggeration to say there is one unified Muslim vote in the country.

THE YOUNG VOTE DISTINCTLY AND INDEPENDENTLY

There is a perception that youth constitute a distinct political bloc with unique and independent political preferences and views.

Two-thirds of Indians are below the age of 35.

Young Indians in a pub
The young are no more politically active than others

That itself is no basis for concluding that the young are distinct and different from the rest of the population in terms of their political opinions, attitudes and behaviour.

I guess we tend to talk about "youth voters" because we import our vocabulary of political analysis from Europe where the generational divide is a significant political cleavage of that society. Where a party like the Greens primarily rides on the divide of the young versus the old.

This myth also feeds on a perception that youth are supposed to be carriers of change and transformation.

The evidence in India, however, does not confirm any of these beliefs.

There is no evidence to suggest that the young are politically more active than others. If anything, they are less politically active - obviously they have other anxieties in life, like preparing for a professional career.

Indians allow their image of the young to be dominated by the image of the city-bred English-speaking youth, which is very different from the rest of the country.

But we forget that this is a tiny slice of Indian youth.

There is no systematic difference between the manner in which the young and the not-so-young vote.

It is true that in many states political parties that are relatively more recent or young tend to get more votes from young people.

But that is only a function of political socialisation: simply because the young were more exposed to that party than people of an older generation who had not even heard its name.

Even in terms of opinions, we have simply not found anything like a generational cleavage in Indian politics.

The young support democracy in much the same way as the old do.

The young are about as traditional and conservative as the old. Even on questions like inter-caste marriage, the opinions of the young are not actually very different from the rest of the population.

HIGH TURNOUT LEADS TO DEFEAT FOR THE RULING PARTY

It is simply a coincidence that the era which has witnessed higher voter turnout at the federal and state level is also the era which has witnessed a higher level of volatility - a tendency for voters to switch from one party to another, leading to ruling governments or incumbent representatives losing the election.

Voters queue in India
Turnout in village council elections is more than 80%

But there is little evidence to suggest that there is a linkage between the two.

It is simply not true that elections that witness high turnout lead to a loss for the ruling party.

Take the latest case of Madhya Pradesh. In the state elections last year there was a record turnout.

Some analysts saw it as evidence of the ruling BJP being thrown out. The BJP won the polls again.

High voter turnout can be a function of many different things - a spontaneous outpouring of the voters, of intensity of political competition, of greater mobilisation and resources put in by political parties or of greater interest on the part of the voter.

So depending on what led to the higher turnout, you would have different consequences of it.

THERE IS WIDESPREAD APATHY TOWARDS POLITICS

This is one myth that comes close to being totally false.

The fact is that while in many other democracies in the world, voter turnouts have declined, in India turnouts have either remained stable or have gone up.

If we look at political associations, Indians have an amazingly intense attachment to politics.

The proportion of people attached to one party, who feel close to a party, is much higher in India than in many other democracies.

The proportion of people who are members of a political party is much higher in India than in the US and most European democracies.

A political party supporter in India
There has been a participatory upsurge for democracy in India

The proportion of voters who report that they took some part in electoral activity - going to meetings or campaigning - is quite robust.

And the number of people who report that someone came to their house to canvass for votes is very high.

In advanced democracies, as you come down the various tiers - from national to local elections - the turnout of voters goes down.

In India, it is exactly the opposite: the turnout in federal elections tends to be around 60%, in the state elections it is around 70% and when it comes to village council elections it is anything upwards of 80%.

Most important, our democracy defies what was once considered a law of political participation in the world: the higher up you are in the socio-economic hierarchy, the more you participate in politics and voting.

In India, evidence shows that the poor "untouchables" vote more than upper castes. The poor vote as much, if not more, than the urban middle classes. Rural areas vote more than urban areas. Women vote almost as much as men do.

In other words there is no connection between social hierarchy and participation in politics.

Rather than voter apathy and indifference, there has been a participatory upsurge for democracy in India.

INDIANS DON'T CAST THEIR VOTE, THEY VOTE THEIR CASTE

It is true that caste is one of the major determinants of voting behaviour in India. In certain situations when voters are extremely polarised, it appears to be to the sole consideration.

But the fact is that caste is not quite the sole consideration.

It is certainly untrue that defeat and victory for political parties in elections can be explained by a few caste or community groups switching sides from one party to another.

Dalits at a political party meeting
The turnout among untouchables is high

The reason many feel that caste is powerful is because we use the phrase "caste based vote bank" to mean many things.

In Delhi's politics, the expression "Punjabi" (literally, residents of Punjab or people who speak the Punjabi language) is used as if it is a caste. Actually, it is a linguistic group.

People use the word "Bihari" (literally, residents of Bihar) as if it is a caste group. Actually, it is a regional affiliation, or a moniker for poor migrants.

A caste vote can also be a vote against a candidate of a voter's own caste in favour of a party considered closer to their caste.

So if a person belonging to the Yadav caste in Bihar votes for a Congress party candidate because the candidate is a Yadav himself, it is an example of caste voting.

If the same person were to vote for a candidate belonging to the Bhumihar caste put up by the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) - which largely represents the Yadav caste - it would be also an example of caste voting.

The evidence on caste voting suggests that caste tends to be a major determinant, specially among the large, visible and powerful caste groups.

The caste-vote trend is towards voting for a party that is considered to be close to their caste or community group.

But the fact remains that most voters in most constituencies in India do not have a simple option of voting along caste lines.

Either they have more than one candidate from their own caste or they have none.

They simply cannot vote according to their caste. There has to be a consideration other than caste for almost three-quarters of the voters.

Caste provides us with good information on the initial affiliations of social groups. But across two elections, the increasing votes for one party or defeat of another is not explained by castes changing sides.

When a party goes up in popularity or declines in popularity, it usually wins and loses votes across castes.

Yogendra Yadav designed and co-ordinated the largest ever series of academic surveys of the Indian electorate for the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.



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