Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced no electricity bills for houses that consume less than 200 units per month. This decision follows the Aam Aadmi Party government’s move to announce free rides for women commuters in DTC buses and Delhi metro. While one cannot rule out a particular kind of welfarist impulse some incumbents have, most often there is an electoral calculation behind such policy decisions. After all, the raison d’être of political parties is to win and retain power.
Such electoral calculations are based on a simple idea: if a voter benefits from the government’s policy decision, she is likely to reward the party with her vote in the next election. Equally, if her primary concerns (of roti, kapda, makaan, paani, shiksha among many others) are not taken up by the party, she is likely to punish it by either abstaining from voting or by voting against the party. This supply-demand model of government performance has given rise to the famed worldview of understanding electoral outcomes from reward and punishment framework – voters reward the incumbent when they perceive their economic conditions have improved, they have received welfare benefits, their concerns have been taken care of, and so on; they punish if the incumbent has failed to meet their expectations.
The results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were a surprise for many but especially those who link objective economic conditions to vote choice. Jobs are one of the primary concerns for citizens, and the unemployment rate in India was reportedly higher than ever before. Yet, the government was re-elected. Why do some issues remain active concerns for voters but fail to become salient during elections? Recently, data journalist Rukmini S underlined the dissonance between the concerns of the Indian citizen and the Indian voter. Economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen have also written about a similar conundrum with education in the past. People want better education for their children, and most elected governments have failed to deliver better education. Some others find weak evidence for a correlation between macro-economic performance and voting in India.
Why don’t Indian voters punish incumbents despite evident dissatisfaction with their performance in some key areas? Are Indian voters irrational? The absence of a clear link between people’s real needs and electoral outcomes has led analysts down three different Alician rabbit holes. Unable to explain why vote choice is not correlated with economic conditions, the Indian voter in scholarly and journalistic accounts has been presented as being bought by cash or liquor, a believer in primordial ties such as caste and religion, or simply not sophisticated enough to hold governments accountable for poor performance in office.
When can voters punish
In our view, these arguments are flawed because they do not ask a simple question – under what conditions could we expect economic concerns to influence the vote? An analogy may perhaps help. You face an immediate problem – the electricity connection to your house has blown a fuse. What do you do? You call an electrician. If the electrician fixes the fuse, you will call her back again. If she cannot fix the fuse, you will look for a new electrician. The logic of single-issue voting is analogous to this line of thinking. The logic goes something like this: I care about jobs but the government is not creating jobs, and I am not getting a job or I am dissatisfied with my current job; therefore, the government in power needs to be voted out of office. If I had got a job, I would vote for the government again. This line of reasoning works only when three very restrictive conditions hold simultaneously.
First, if voters attribute their problems like lack of employment, shortage of water, or poor infrastructure to the party in power. For instance, a voter could be facing a water shortage, but she will blame the party in power only if she either believes that errors of commission or omission by the party led to the water shortage or the party in power, and only the party in power, can address water shortage.
Alongside this belief, she needs to think that the political alternative would be able to address the issue if it comes to power. Or, in other words, let us assume that voters linked the lack of jobs to the party in power – the Bharatiya Janata Party. For them to desert the BJP, the Congress needed to make them believe that it could generate more job opportunities.
The third assumption that needs to be made is that voters are single-issue voters. Or, for them, their most important problem (such as unemployment, water shortage, or price rise) is the only issue that matters.
If any of these assumptions do not hold, we do not see voters deciding on whom to support in an election only on the basis of one or two issues that matter most to them.
Punishing and rewarding both
Is there evidence to support any of these assumptions? Often voters don’t attribute particular policy failures to a party; rather, they may blame the government or politicians in general. More importantly, citizens have one vote. There is no scholarly research, which shows that one issue, and only one issue, decides a citizen’s vote. This is not to say that there are not single-issue voters, but it is hard to believe that for a majority of citizens, only one issue dominates their decision calculus when they enter the polling booth. Voters often demonstrate greater commitment or interest in certain policies and issues (a concept known as issue publics in political science). But nothing stops a voter from being part of multiple issue publics. Vote choice is a complex decision and requires a concurrence of various factors – issues, ideology, identity, leadership, and even emotional connect to name a few.
Because of the impossibility of linking single issues to a vote, political analysts and scholars should not be surprised when their one favourite issue does not decide the election. Single issues rarely do. In our view, the scholarly enterprise of viewing electoral decisions merely through the lens of political accountability on most pressing problems for the voters needs to be revisited. Perhaps, Indian voters are rewarding/punishing the relative performance of incumbents on multiple issues and (or) prioritising political representation of their ideological beliefs and policy concerns of their group identity.
Pradeep Chhibber and Pranav Gupta are at the University of California at Berkeley, US. Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.