Column: Assembly election lessons

Written by Nirvikar Singh | Updated: Dec 11 2013, 08:44am hrs
Elections are an essential part of democracy, but only a part. Election results reflect the will of voters, for sure, but they also depend on a complex set of institutional structures (such as first-past-the post rules, caste reservations and campaign financing) and political choices (such as party alliances, candidate slates, and the appeal of leaders). Voters, too, have to weigh many different factors in expressing their will, all the things that go into good governance: law and order, stable prices, efficient public services, social safety nets, and more. Put simply, though, in a democracy, citizens demand good governance as they perceive it, and politicians seek to supply it. In that sense, the victors in an election, almost by definition, are those best able to provide what a plurality of citizens want.

Over the decades of Indian democracy, citizens have learned that there are real choices between suppliers of governance. For some citizens, the fact that these suppliers may differ in their conceptions of what it means to be a citizendoes religion, caste or class matter, for examplemay be salient in their choice. For others, the choice is a pragmatic one, based on how their daily lives are affected (though conceptions of citizenship matter for that, as well), in things like finding a job, travelling to work, and paying for food and shelter. There are also intangibles, in how much trust, comfort or identification citizens feel with a political leader or a party ideology: this is related to the first point, since narrow or unequal conceptions of citizenship affect trust and comfort. But it also includes perceptions of politicians honesty and empathy. These may, of course, be signals of practical effectiveness in supplying governance, but may also be valued in themselves.

What does this tell us about the recent assembly elections Clearly, the demand for good governance has increased, and it has become more sophisticated. Just as India Shining was not enough for the BJP nationally in 2004, the performance of the Congress in Delhi did not satisfy voters expectations, despite reasonable competence. In the Delhi case, of course, there was a new supplier: the Aam Aadmi Party seems to have tapped into a broad cross-section of support, those seeking a more attractive package of process and outcomes in the supply of governance.

Much has been made of the special nature of Delhi, as national capital and as a big city. But Narendra Modi, in some ways, reflects the same trend nationally. His attractiveness to many voters, one would guess, is based on the perception that he can deliver a package of honest and effective governance. The ideology that accompanies him is, for these citizens, unfortunate excess baggage. One can also hazard that many citizens are also pragmatic about the honesty component of governance, at least at the top. This seems to be the case in Tamil Nadu, for example where both main rival parties are not free of high-level corruption, but compete reasonably well in providing effective day-to-day governance.

Part of this tolerance of corruption comes from a disconnect between citizens as taxpayers and as voters. Over time, as the tax base broadens, tolerance for corruption should come down, since then it is clearer that the dishonest politician is imposing a direct cost on the citizen as taxpayer. It is also true that a more developed, and hence more complex economy requires less corruption in order for governance to be effectiveotherwise bridges fall down, buildings get built where they should not, and dangerous products get made and sold.

The hypothesis here, therefore, is that the demand for good governance is rising across the country. It is not only an urban phenomenon, though the precise nature of the demand will differ between urban and rural populations. That, in turn, is a function of initial conditions, income and education levels, and access to information. Certainly, some policies may favour farmers over consumers, or business owners over workers, and so each group has a different idea of what is good governance and who is most likely to deliver it. But the essence is the same.

The real issue with respect to the Aam Aadmi Party is one of scalability. Its showing in Delhi certainly indicated some ability to scale: the capital territory has a population bigger than that of Belgium. But it is much more compact. Campaigning in a city is much less costly, therefore, than campaigning in the countryside. It is also not easy to build a political organisation that can challenge at the level of of a single large state, let alone nationwide. The struggles of the Lok Satta Party illustrate the challenges of organisation-building.

Finally, the supply of governance depends on actually governing, not just winning elections. Here, too, new entrants are untested. But the central lesson remains that the demand for good governance, in varied local forms, is rising, and politicians have to up their gameelection victories will go to those who can credibly promise a supply of good governance. Some politicians have still not figured this out.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz