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The foolproof voter of India

May 25, 2009

India's election verdict has once again proved that voters expect results and not rhetoric from their political leaders. To find favour with people, political parties need to include serious development content backed by credible performance on the ground, says Lysa John, national campaign coordinator of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan.

Despite apprehensions of a low voter turnout, the verdict of the national elections has made it clear that the discerning Indian voter is here to stay.

And the underestimated voter is grinning ear to ear as media pundits and political leaders express amazement that across the country people have voted against the politics of division and for pro-poor development.

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If the pre-election advertising was anything to go by, it seemed the BJP had managed to corner every nook of cyber and mindspace while the Congress relied mainly on the public appearances of the Gandhi family.

However, in the final analysis, the party agendas have made a greater impression on Indian voters than the method of their propagation.

The second surprise is the state-level verdicts. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK – an ally of the Congress – demolished predictions of political doom to emerge a clear winner.

The most spectacular evidence of the people's verdict for development, however, comes from West Bengal and Bihar.

In the former, the Trinamool Congress – also a Congress ally – made history by breaching the 32-year stranglehold of the Communist Party.

TMC leader Mamata Banerjee had been labelled as 'anti-development' by corporate leaders and the national media for forcing the closure of the Tatas' car manufacturing unit at Singur.

In the final analysis, it appears her effort to side with the farmers and the poor against the combined might of the industry captains and state government has paid rich political dividends.

A similar story unfolds in Bihar, where curtains have been drawn on the era of Laloo Prasad Yadav in favour of the new agenda of good governance by the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), an ally of the NDA.

Ironically, Laloo and his Rashtriya Janata Dal were an integral part of the UPA and played an instrumental role in reforming the railways and bringing in (and implementing) the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

But there is yet another surprise. In the run-up to elections, while the media was obsessed with getting people to 'shut-up-and-vote', civil society groups were talking about the new discernment among voters.

This political maturity of the Indian voter was evident in over 300 parliamentary constituencies visited by the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan to set the local agenda for the elections.

The all India people's manifesto showed people did not vote so they could brandish an inked finger as a status symbol, but because it was a way to organise decisively around local priorities.

In the aftermath of defeat, opposition parties have gone on record to credit the NREGA for earning votes for the Congress.

They are right, NREGA emerged as the initiative with the greatest recall value. Equally interestingly, voters also expressed resonance with other initiatives such the Domestic Violence Act, which were underplayed even by the Congress campaign.

Steps taken by the UPA to strengthen public health and education systems through the National Rural Health Mission and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan were also recognised at the grassroots.

Another interesting insight is that the election process has brought to light the discord between priorities expressed by people and the propaganda promoted by party machinery.

While citizens spoke of the need for better infrastructure, land rights and livelihood, party representatives by and large displayed ignorance and disinterest in the development agenda.

An interaction with local candidates undertaken by the National Campaign for Education, for instance, revealed lack of awareness about national development programmes or policies and low priority for issues such as the Right to Education, despite local groups within their constituency directing attention to the same.

So, what are the lessons we can take home from the verdict this year?

For political parties, it is clearly the need to expand their repertoire of political strategies to include serious development content backed by credible performance on the ground.

For the second time round, the national electorate has shown it wants results and not rhetoric from its political leaders.

The moral of the story for the media may well be one of greater respect for the intelligence of the average voter. Surely, we can do with a larger portion of substantive content linking national issues and local priorities rather than the current overdose of celebrity endorsements.

The most significant cue is for us to remember elections are the opening act on the grand stage of national governance. Our role as voters may now be over but our responsibility as citizens has just begun.

Source : Outlook
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