The INDIA alliance held a press conference after two days of meetings in Mumbai. The message was clear: The Opposition to the BJP is united and ready for the next Lok Sabha contest. So, the choice before the Indian voter is also clear. The incumbent Prime Minister and his party, or a grand coalition of 28 parties. Now a binary contest between NDA and INDIA, who the voters choose will decide not just who will form the next government but what kind of country India will be. This raises the question: How can we study this normative voter preference when studying their choices?
A clue is in a study discussed recently in The Economist newspaper. Four scholars asked, “What drives people to vote the way they do?” The answer given is that alongside the interests of their social group defined based on class, gender, ethnicity and age, “moral values” also play a significant role. It is hard to assess moral values so the authors innovatively used public data on charitable giving to see who voters give to — parochial “particularistic” causes such as funding requests from local schools or more “universalistic” ones such as presumably human rights. Districts that gave more to parochial causes also voted overwhelmingly Republican and had a much lower vote share for Democrats, even when controlled for race and other factors. Thus, while demographic factors remained important, adding deeper values provided a much better explanation. This US-based study is not directly applicable to India and its multi-party system, but it raises the question of whether India is now faced with a binary moral choice in having to choose between INDIA and NDA.
How would we define these two moral positions and how could we assess them through research? What kind of questions could we ask? Would they be questions such as: Do you have a separate set of utensils for domestic staff? Should religious minorities have the same rights as Hindus? Do you think reservations of seats for jobs and in educational institutions are justified? Does a poor person have a right to leisure? Can daughters have the same upbringing as sons? Would you donate money for machines that would replace manual scavenging? And so on… Such questions might indicate something of the voter’s moral compass on some of the key issues of social justice, rights and inequalities in India today.
We know where the NDA stands on most of these issues after 10 years of ruling. But what of the Opposition? We have to wait for their policies but meanwhile does today’s press conference provide clues? After all, ethical values have to be believed and practised, not merely said and printed. What did we see at first glance? A varied age group from politicians in their 80s to young ones in their 20s. Aaditya Thackeray was the first junior artiste who warmed the crowd. Lalu Prasad, the master rhetorician, was allowed extra time to talk about past prime ministers and his previous protests on the floor of the Parliament in 2002. Several others spoke and veteran Sharad Pawar provided the finale. More women on stage than at most official functions of the government (though none spoke and Mamata Banerjee had to leave early).
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Strikingly, politicians who had been bitter foes in the past, some having won elections solely on the basis of confronting the other, sat side by side. They acknowledged past rivalries but resolved to put them aside for the sake of a bigger, more important, fight. And as with any group, each member brought their particular cause to the stage. Sitaram Yechury talked about their commitment to equality and justice and Rahul Gandhi, both in his Hindi and English speeches, promised a tailored policy especially for the benefit of farmers and workers (kisan aur mazdoor) and quoted the shepherds of Ladakh to highlight how vulnerable the current government had made India’s borders. Arvind Kejriwal made it a point to raise the issue of the Adani story just as questions were being raised about whether anyone else but Rahul Gandhi was going to talk about it. Most of all, the diversity of accents and languages was striking and a reminder that India is the most polyglot nation of all. M K Stalin spoke entirely in Tamil, Uddhav Thackeray spoke for a while in Marathi and Nitish Kumar’s Hindi sounded utterly unlike that of southerner Mallikarjun Kharge.
At a time when screens, streets and sacks of rice are saturated with the image of one man, and one man alone, the coalition of a large diverse group of politicians on stage may have provided visual relief. When India is being polarised between north and south, Hindu and Muslim, billionaire and pauper, women and men, farmers and city, hinterlands and frontiers — the press conference provided a brief glimpse of a different kind of India that was diverse, accommodating, committed to justice and constitutional values and convivial despite personal differences.
But, as a recent board game in which progressive forces try to oust an authoritarian power analysed in The Financial Times showed, the biggest challenge for the liberal side was the cooperation dilemma. The right wing was much better able to work together than the other side who were divided by fine points of detail and mistrust. So, while ideological and other differences were put aside by 28 parties for a common cause today, the question remains, how long will they hold together? But for today at least, the INDIA alliance provided a stark moral alternative to the voter — the India that is committed to its constitutional values in contrast to India on their TVs each night. This is the profound choice that is before Indian voters.
Banerjee is at the London School of Economics and is the author of Cultivating Democracy and Why India Votes?