Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala decode India’s general election

With just days until millions go to the polls, NDTV figureheads deconstruct the psyche of the Indian voter.

Indian Elections
India's general elections will be held in seven phases starting April 11 [Anupam Nath/The Associated Press]

Madurai, India – Indian journalist Prannoy Roy, cofounder of the NDTV group, and Dorab R. Sopariwala, its editorial adviser, have spent four decades studying Indian elections.

Their book, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections, published this year by Penguin Random House India, crunches data and qualitative studies to explain what makes democracy in India tick.

Only days ahead of the general election, to be held in seven phases from April 11 to May 19,  the authors tell Al Jazeera about the psyche of the Indian voter.

Al Jazeera: In your book, you divide independent India into three time periods, each defined by the voters’ state of mind. How has the Indian voter transitioned over the years?

Prannoy Roy: There are three basic phases through which an Indian voter evolved. In any fledgling democracy, in the years following independence, 80 percent of elected governments are voted back to power. We refer to this phase as pro-incumbency and the data shows that it lasts for about 25 years. It was a period that was full of hope. People respected their leaders for the heroism that they showed during the independence struggle.

Around 1977 however, the pro-incumbency period came to an end in India and this marked a turning point. Disillusionment over the lack of development in the first 25 years began to grow, and the voter turned angry.

Prannoy Roy, left, and Dorab R Sopariwala, right, have spent years analysing the intricacies of Indian elections [Courtesy: Roy and Sopariwala]Prannoy Roy, left, and Dorab R Sopariwala, right, have spent years analysing the intricacies of Indian elections [Courtesy: Roy and Sopariwala]


Dorab R Sopariwala: For the next 25 years, we saw the emergence of what we call the “angry voter”. Voters threw out more than 70 percent of governments during this anti-incumbency phase. 

But by 2002, the Indian voter had become far more discerning – entering into what we call the fifty-fifty era. They threw out governments that did nothing for them and voted back those who focussed on bringing about change.

This was very different from the previous anti-incumbency era in which all governments in power were thrown out, regardless of whether they deserved to be in power or not. The fifty-fifty era motivated politicians to deliver. 

Al Jazeera: How quickly were politicians able to adapt to these changes and how did this evolution contribute to India’s growth story? 

Roy:  It took a while for politicians to realise the changing needs of the Indian voter. Once they did understand that voters were becoming wiser, many of the politicians began to visit their constituencies regularly. 

This is the most heartwarming factor of the Indian elections: the fact that women are now turning out in large numbers and that their vote is not influenced by family members.

Prannoy Roy, journalist and TV executive

The fact that politicians were now being forced by voters to provide results has been responsible for India’s rising gross domestic product and high annual growth rates, climbing steadily over the last 25 years.  

Sopariwala: Voters were pushing for reforms, but they weren’t necessarily focussing on overall economic growth. It was micro-growth that mattered to them. This is growth at a personal level – in their day-to-day lives and in their neighbourhoods. They were living difficult lives, and here’s where they needed to see change the most. Issues like electricity, housing, good roads and access to water became key areas of interest.  

Al Jazeera: In your book, you speak about the contradictions that exist between the rural and the urban voter…

Roy: It is true that there’s often a contradiction in the needs of the rural and urban voter. Many things that can benefit a farmer could possibly hurt the urban consumer. Take for instance the high price of food grains. This can drive a farmer’s income higher, but rising costs will affect the urban consumer. This is an issue we see all over the world. It is a factor that politicians and economists are forced to contend with, especially during election times. These contradictions can be managed with subsidies and greater support [for rural farmers].

Sopariwala: There are challenges here that are unique to India as well. We must consider the fact that in countries like America, only two percent of the population is directly employed in agriculture. In such a small population, you can afford to subsidise. In India, our agricultural population is very high. If you were to give such a huge subsidy, it would end up affecting the fiscal deficit. So in terms of getting their needs met, farmers do end up having a much more difficult time when compared to urban voters. That’s why you’ll find that they are often more discerning about who forms the government and what its policies are. 

Al Jazeera: Who are elected representatives most likely to pay attention to?

Roy: I can tell you who they should be paying heed to and that’s the woman voter – particularly the rural woman voter. Already, in assembly elections [to choose the governments at a state level across India], we’re witnessing a startling transformation. Woman voters used to lag behind men by 20 percent in assembly elections in the 1960s. But in the last few elections, women’s turnout has exceeded [that of] the men. 

In the national Lok Sabha elections, the female turnout is catching up to the male turnout. We’re expecting them to overtake the men in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. And for me, this is the most heartwarming factor of the Indian elections: the fact that women are now turning out in large numbers and that their vote is not influenced by family members. We’ve spoken to many rural women and our qualitative studies have proven that they clearly know their own minds. 

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, centre, a leader of India's main opposition Congress party and sister of the party president Rahul Gandhi, gestures as she speaks with women during an election campaign meeting in Ayodhya, India, March 29, 2019 [Pawan Kumar/Reuters]Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, centre, a leader of India’s main opposition Congress party and sister of the party president Rahul Gandhi, gestures as she speaks with women during an election campaign meeting in Ayodhya, India, March 29, 2019 [Pawan Kumar/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: Despite this high turnout, in your book you reveal that there are many Indian women voters missing from the electoral rolls.

Roy: India is currently missing 21 million women voters. We arrived at this estimate based on the numbers of women recorded in the last census and the numbers who are registered to vote. This is a conservative estimate. By our other estimates, it could be as high as 28 million women. Significantly, all the missing women voters are in North India. In South India, this isn’t a problem. We haven’t analysed why this is the case yet, and there needs to be more research into this, but it’s shocking that this adds up to over 30,000 women voters in every constituency in North India. 

The worst affected state is Uttar Pradesh where there are 6.8 million women missing on its electoral roles – that averages a potentially game-changing 85,000 women voters in each constituency. We don’t have any evidence that this is deliberate voter suppression. We need to analyse how much this is due to systemic failure to register votes.

It’s also significant that the numbers of these missing women having been rising dramatically over the last 25 years. On an average, in the first 25 years, three million women were missing from the rolls. In the second phase (1997-2002), six million were missing, and in the third phase (2002-2014), there were 19 million women on average unregistered.

Sopariwala: This is an issue that just isn’t acceptable today, given the technology we have. The Election Commission of India needs to address this issue.

Most of these women are likely to belong to the most vulnerable sections of society – the poorest and the most disadvantaged communities.

Al Jazeera: What other changing trends became evident as you researched the book? 

Roy: Regional parties (political parties that have a strong presence at a state government level in India) will play a larger role in these elections than ever before. Earlier, their presence at a national level was just five percent. This figure steadily rose to 35 percent in the last election and now we estimate it to be at 40 percent. 

This is significant, because the issues that affect every state in India are different, and now these issues will have representation. 

Sopariwala: There are only three large states in which the two major national political parties in India will face each other head-on as main contenders. In all the others, they will face stiff competition from regional parties.

Al Jazeera: Do coalitions between political parties gain importance in this scenario? 

Sopariwala: Yes, and there is the trend in recent years where regional parties tend to unite to form a formidable opposition to the national parties. 

When they face this kind of opposition, the vote share of national parties is bound to decrease. 

Roy: In earlier years, a high number of seats, over 65 percent, were won only as a result of a popular vote. But now, many of these seats – nearly 50 percent – are won purely because of a united opposition. Many seats change hands because of these alliances. And we’ve seen that if your political presence is concentrated in one region, even you were a small party, it could translate this into a significant number of seats and presence in the Lok Sabha.  

In this way, smaller parties are getting their due in terms of power at a national level. 

This is purely an Indian innovation of the British electoral system – we call it the Jugaar-First-Past-the-Post system: pure Indian ingenuity. It tends to work better for a bigger country, and makes the process much fairer.

Source: Al Jazeera