Vote-bank politics is not such a bad thing

Martand Jha | Updated on March 30, 2019

Less recognition as a vote bank   -  THE HINDU

Despite the negative connotations, vote banks can raise the bargaining power of individuals and groups

Whenever the election season arrives, an oft-used term in political analyses and the media is ‘vote bank’. Almost all commentators, journalists, political parties, columnists and psephologists use this term to showcase a type of politics — so-called politics of appeasement — associated with it.

Vote bank is usually used pejoratively. The term ‘vote-bank politics’ was first used in a research paper in 1955 by noted sociologist MN Srinivas to showcase the political influence exerted by a patron over a client. However, when Srinivas wrote that research paper titled ‘The Social System of a Mysore Village’, the term vote-bank politics was used in a very specific context. Today, it denotes voting on the basis of, among other things, caste, sect, language and religion.

Today’s discourse on the subject reduces the identity of a citizen to a vote-bank and that’s why it has come to assume a negative connotation. No self-respecting citizen wants to be seen only as a voter with a community stereotype, because if that’s the case (which many argue is the case), then the relevance of a citizen between elections falls drastically.

Just as a market treats a person as a consumer, a political party or leader sees the masses merely as voters, who are a tool to elect, re-elect or defeat the contestants during elections once in five years.

Positives too

However, if this is the negative side of vote bank, there is a big positive side to it as well. It increases both the individual and collective bargaining power of the people vis-à-vis those in power. Democracy is a daily exercise, involving numerous bargaining processes between citizens and the political class.

Therefore, when a particular group aligned on the basis of caste, sect, religion, or language is recognised by one or more political party, the chances of their demands and aspirations getting fulfilled are much higher than that of a group or community that is not recognised as a vote bank.

For instance, persons with disabilities are not considered as a vote bank despite being 40-60 million in number, as per World Bank reports. So, mere numerical strength doesn’t matter as much as the recognition of the group as a vote bank by political parties and the intent to be seen as a vote bank by groups and communities. Taking the same argument further, had millions of differently-abled people aligned together to be seen as a possible vote bank, then political parties in order to cash-in on their votes would have given much more prominence to disability rights issues than they are given today.

Similarly, women, despite accounting for almost half of the total population, are not considered as a vote bank because over the years political parties have realised that women don’t vote as a group or community for a political party.

During elections, their identity as women takes a back seat while their identities of caste, religion and sect gain prominence.

That’s perhaps why gender issues are not given much importance by political parties.

Cultivating vote banks

It is often argued that political parties try and ‘cultivate’ vote banks in order to secure more votes. However, this is not always the case, as political parties don’t cultivate vote bank across identities. Cultivating vote banks while appealing to different identities of citizens is quite an uphill task.

Once a group or community starts feeling that it can be recognised as a vote bank, their collective strength increases manifold. All political parties, therefore, keep appeasing these groups as they can’t afford to lose their votes during elections.

In this way ,vote banks serve the purpose of both the voters as well as political parties. Vote-bank politics becomes ugly only when it is misused to manipulate the demands of one group or groups in order to polarise society, thereby creating unrest.

Given its potential for cynical misuse, vote-bank politics should be seen as an instrument to be deployed by citizens, and not by the political class.

The writer is a Junior Research Fellow, School of International Studies, JNU

Published on March 30, 2019

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