Column: Assembly election lessons

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SummaryClearly, the demand for good governance has increased, and it has become more sophisticated

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 citizen—does religion, caste or class matter, for example?—may 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,

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