Dispatch #45: The buck stops here

In this dispatch we will discuss ideas such as voter backlash after a crisis and 'democratic accountability'

Will there be a voter backlash?

Will the Indian electorate hold the government accountable for the pandemic suffering?

These are the questions that some political scientists have started to think about in the backdrop of India’s bungled pandemic strategy, shortage of oxygen cylinders, botched up vaccine strategy and horrific scenes of dead bodies emerging along the banks of river Ganga.

At the center of this question is the idea of ‘democratic accountability’. 

The classic definition of accountability is on the basis of principal-agent relationship. ‘A is accountable to B if A has to explain and justify his/her actions to B, and B is able to sanction A in case of misconduct’.  What makes this accountability ‘democratic’ is the scenario when B is the electorate and the voters have elected A as their representative to fulfil their wishes. 

Political scientist Johan P Olsen, in his book titled ‘Democratic accountability, political order and change’, has this to say about democratic accountability:

Democratic accountability implies governance based on feedback, learning from experience, and the informed consent of the governed. Citizens are neither the initial authors of laws and budgets nor the designers of the political order under which they live. But they are not powerless. Although most decisions are made by elected representatives, appointed officials, and other power holders, rulers still have an obligation to be appropriately accountable to the ruled. In well-functioning democracies it is difficult for decision makers not to respond to calls for accounts without losing legitimacy. Power without accountability is illegitimate, and unaccountable government implies a democratic deficit and an illegitimate political order. Those acting on behalf of the population must describe, explain, and justify their actions and face possible consequences. Power holders are expected to act in anticipation of having to account for their actions, and expecting to be held responsible makes a difference in both behavior and the way behavior is explained and justified.

-Johan Olsen

Olsen further adds:

A viable political order needs legitimacy and support from its citizens. The essence of morality lies in the right of each citizen to demand an account from others of what they have done and to discuss what are good reasons for accepting behavior and accounts as satisfactory. Political actions, institutions, and outcomes require explanation and justification, and accountability demands are linked to what is seen as legitimate in a political culture, that is, what citizens in a specific setting and time period see as an appropriate arrangement of governmental institutions, and what behavior, outcomes, explanations, and justifications are viewed as acceptable. Specifically, democratic legitimacy is based on the voluntary consent of the governed, and in that context legitimacy can also refer to what normative democratic theories define as good arguments for justifying a belief in the rightfulness of a political order, ideas often linked to assumptions regarding what citizens would accept if fully informed.

-Johan Olsen

It is this idea that forms the basis of the voter backlash argument. Will the Indian voters punish the Union government for mishandling the pandemic situation? 

The suffering due to the pandemic is not ‘vidhi ka vidhan’ but ‘sarkar ka vidhan’, argue Ashutosh Varshney and Amit Ahuja in this article where they talk about the ‘commission and omission’ of the government. 

Will the masses in UP attribute their grief and distress to fate, destiny, God’s will? Or will they hold the government responsible? Without a proper survey, it is hard to be confident about how grief will be interpreted. In all probability, multiple interpretations will exist. Some may not blame the government, but others will. One reason for that is simply the multiplicity of meanings normally assigned to different kinds of suffering. If my parents die after the doctors did their best to save them, it is not the same as my parents dying because something as elemental as oxygen was not available, or hospital beds were incomprehensibly scarce. Why could the government, with all its resources, not provide oxygen, or build make-shift hospitals? Similarly, the agony of cremating one’s child is very different from the torture of not getting enough firewood to cremate her and being forced to float her body in the Ganges.

Even religiously rooted human beings don’t consider all kinds of grief to be equal. Some are more easily linked to fate, others are inflicted by those in power — by their policies, or by their sheer absence in times of need. Whether or not a democratic government can bring joy and happiness, one of its key responsibilities is to prevent mass suffering, or alleviate its severity. At a time of deep collective agony and pain, a democratic government’s virtual disappearance — or its appearance only to punish citizens, journalists and health professionals doing their job — borders on brutish incomprehensibility.

-Varshney and Ahuja

If the Google trends are to be believed, then PM Modi is still by far the most popular national leader, given by the incredibly high number of interest people had in the midst of the second wave. Now this doesn't mean that all the searches would have been done while looking at the favorable news. Even then he is the most searched Indian political leader, leaving his rivals Rahul Gandhi and now Mamata Banerjee way behind.

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This seems to be quite counter-intuitive, right? When the economic status of the citizens are not improving and when the country is facing one of the worst economic and health crises, there should have been a decline in popularity.

Doesn’t good economics or even good policy make for good politics any more in India? What happened to sabka saath and sabka vikas slogan? And has the quote given by James Carville (Bill Clinton’s chief strategist) ‘It’s the economy,stupid’, lost its significance or it was not at all significant in India in the first place?

Let’s begin with the basics.

The conventional wisdom is that the voters punish the incumbent political party if it has not been able to perform on the economic front. The 2019 general election was an aberration from this wisdom. The incumbent BJP was up against the wall when the challenger, the Congress, was trying to make slow economic growth, rural crisis and unemployment as electoral issues. We all know the results of the 2019 general elections. The BJP came back to power with a stronger mandate and an increase in the vote share. The economy seemed to be a non-issue for the voters.

Milan Vaishnav and Reedy Swanson, in their 2015 paper, titled ‘Does good economics make for good politics? Evidence from Indian states’ have studied the correlation between the economic growth and the electoral returns of the incumbent party in the state elections. Their analysis shows that in the 1980s and 1990s, there was either a negative correlation or no correlation between the economic growth and the percentage seat and vote share of the incumbent political party. But in the 2000s there was a positive correlation between economic growth and the electoral return of the incumbent party. This essentially means that in the 2000s the voters were kicking out the incumbent government if they were not able to deliver on the economic front.

When we review pooled data from the last three decades of state elections in India’s major states, we find no evidence of a statistically meaningful relationship between growth and electoral performance. At first glance, this seems to support the scholarly consensus that suggests that Indian voters typically focus on personal or parochial issues when deciding whom to vote for rather than broader issues of the economy. However, the picture changes when we look at the dynamic relationship between growth and elections; we find significant electoral returns to governments that deliver higher growth in the post-2000 period. Our results, therefore, lead us to conclude that the Indian voter is increasingly rewarding good economic performance, as a growing body of evidence seems to suggest. In other words, in the current era of Indian politics it appears that good economics can make for good politics

-Vaishnav and Swanson

The authors argue that there could be three reasons behind the positive correlation between economic growth and the shift in voters’ behaviour in the 2000s:

a) Except in the last years of UPA 2, the economic growth of India and the states was high. This could have led to an increase in the aspirations of voters, who would reward the party that could make policy decisions to increase the economic fortunes of the voters. In addition to this, some of the state governments actually did a good job in making sure that every section of the society could reap the dividends of rapid economic growth.

b) The political competition has increased manifolds since the late 1980s and 90s with the rise of the regional parties and political satraps. The voters have an option to ‘exit’ from one political party and support the other because they see their economic fortunes improving in the opposite camp. This left with no other choice for the incumbent political party to deliver on the economic front.

c) The voters realised that it’s the state governments that could lead the efforts on the economic front. Hence they turned out in large numbers during the state elections to make the state governments accountable for the economic growth of the state and their individual economic fortunes.

This trend continued till the 2014 general assembly elections when the voters were angry with the UPA 2 because of corruption and slow economic growth and they wanted a leader who is strong, decisive and who can take decisions that would take India on to a growth trajectory. However, as mentioned above, the 2019 general elections was an exception. Conventional wisdom says that the voters would turn out in large numbers on the voting day to kick out the incumbent government since it failed to deliver on the economic front. Voters did turn out in large numbers in 2019, but only to get the incumbent government back in power amidst the poor performance on the economic front and a 40-year high unemployment rate.

Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar calls this the politics of ‘vishwas’. There was a reason why the BJP made ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas, aur ab sabka vishwas’ their slogan as they fought the 2019 elections. By invoking the term ‘vishwas’, the BJP wanted the voters to trust PM Modi even though things were not looking good. The politics of ‘vishwas’ is personality-driven, people always trust the charismatic leader to make the right decisions and centralisation of power is one of its basic tenets. The politics of ‘vishwas’ is a complete antithesis to democratic accountability. In the democratic accountability polity, voters have a certain set of ideas around their economic well-being and they evaluate the incumbent political party on that basis. In the politics of ‘vishwas’, the leader can change the narratives very easily. For example, after demonetisation, that removed 86% of the currency in circulation overnight, we were told that this would curb black money; then we were told that this will curb terrorism that thrives on counterfeit notes; later we were told that this will encourage digital payments and hence would give a boost to Digital India. With RBI’s claim, last year that 99% of demonetised notes have returned to the central bank, we all know that the stated purpose of demonetisation was defeated. Similarly, at the peak of the 2019 election campaign, we were told that the biggest threat to our country is our neighbour and hence we should stop squabbling over the sluggish economic growth and lend support to the PM who is acting tough on Pakistan.

The differences between the politics of vikaas and vishwas structure political and electoral behavior in important ways. In traditional models of democratic accountability, i.e. the politics of vikaas, there is little room for the role of the political mobilization and little discussion of what makes voters turn out to the polls. In the politics of vikaas, the voter looks at the choices available to her and selects the candidate or party most likely to deliver economically or closest to her in terms of ideology. These models require that a voter can identify a stable set of issues consistent with their own preferences and have sufficient information on the preferences and attitudes of political actors. In the politics of vishwas, the reverence to a particular politician is explicitly a function of how well the individual politician is able to connect to the voter (or, perhaps, demonize the opponent) – chiefly through media or the strength of party organization

- Neelanjan Sircar

The politics of ‘vishwas’ rests on the huge machinery of electoral mobilisation. The BJP has created a formidable election machine over the years because of its cadre and also because it dominates the electoral funding landscape. Neelanjan argues that the electoral mobilisation, increase in voter turnout and politics of ‘vikas’ and ‘vishwas’ are closely related to each other. He has analysed the voter turnout data and the probability of the BJP winning that election.

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In the 1999 and 2004 elections, when the BJP was the incumbent, the probability of winning would drop with increase in voter turnout. In 1999, it won the elections but in 2004 it lost against the Congress and her allies. In 2014, there was anti-incumbency against the UPA and the voters came out to vote in large numbers to kick the UPA 2 out. This is the politics of ‘vikas’.

In the 2019 elections, the voter turnout increased and they voted the BJP back in power with a thumping majority. This is quite contrary to the democratic accountability model logic. At a time when the country is growing through its worst unemployment and rural crisis, the voters should have been harsh on the BJP. This is the politics of ‘vishwas’. The voters trusted the infallible leader who would put their interest before anything else.

The democratic accountability model gets undermined when the political parties are deinstitutionalized, the linkages between the voters and the party ideologies are weak but the linkages between the voters and individuals are personalistic, argue Scott Mainwaring and Mariano Torcal. An example of this personalistic linkages could be the BJP campaign where it urged the voters to vote since each vote to the BJP will be a vote to PM Modi. So it does not matter who your representative is as long as your vote is for the leader.

Another important feature of this brand of politics is that while the credit for the achievement goes to the leader, the responsibility for any failure doesn’t. The leader is capable of deflecting blame and criticism. This has been referred to as the ‘teflon coating’ around the leader. A similar teflon coating has been created around PM Modi. In political marketing terms, there are two types of politicians across the political spectrum- teflon personalities to which nothing sticks and velcro personalities to which everything sticks.

The Teflon personalities are perceived as extroverted and outgoing, characteristics appealing to voters and consequently linked to leadership suitability. These personality traits evoke certain emotional connections and reactions that attract voters

-Landtsheer and others

What has replaced democratic accountability?

Obfuscation and dysfunction? Yes.

But broadly speaking, the Government of India’s bungled pandemic strategy was a result of unilateral decision making by one person while simultaneously undermining all other institutions to which the power and responsibility should have been dispersed. James Manor calls it ‘competitive authoritarianism’.

They have mounted a broad assault on democratic institutions, norms and practices. Their ongoing drive for top-down control has targeted Parliament, cabinet, government, the Election Commission, the media and many other institutions and interest groups, including major corporations, senior civil servants and the BJP’s own party organisation. Because the new order seeks to create a one-man government, with adulation focused on a single leader, it is more a cult than a well-rooted and institutionalised system. Its long-term survival, after the leader moves away from the scene, is open to serious doubt

-James Manor

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