Indian elections

What Determines Voting Behaviour in India


There are three schools of thought that dominate analyses of voting behaviour – the sociological school, the psychosocial school and thought based on rational choice theory, which de facto represents the economic school. The sociological model of voting behaviour focuses on the influence of social factors, while the psychosocial model studies the behaviour of voters based on their party affiliations, and the rational choice model utilizes variables affecting choice such as rationality, information and uncertainty.

The Sociological Model
Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) formed a hypothesis that voting behaviour is influenced by individual decisions influenced principally by the personality of the voter and also by the voter’s media environment. However, the hypothesis was proved false in the study. It can also be said that a voter’s social habitus influences his voting behaviour more than the media environment, which can be seen as a constituent of his overall habitus.

Habitus in sociology is a concept introduced by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu which represents a system of dispositions and tendencies held by a social individual in terms of the perceptions and analyses of their social world and their reactions and practices in regard to these. A habitus can frequently be a shared habitus among groups of individuals or it can be peculiar to an individual. The habitus is phenomenologically acquired through the process of mimesis, in which individuals are socialized according to their lived experience. The concept of habitus thus offers a format against arbitrary causal correlations in analyzing voting behaviour.

Based on a sample of about 600 voters, Lazarsfeld et al in a landmark study in 1944 made the principal inference that most voters voted according to their political predispositions instead of according to media-enacted impositions. The study found that people think politically as they think in terms of their social habitus; with socio-economic status, residential location and religion being major factors determining voting behaviour. Lazarsfeld et al’s study also found that cross pressures which arise due to voters with predispositions opposed to election candidates can be persuaded after initial doubts to vote for a particular candidate due to social pressures. Rather than being a purely individual act, the study found that the social groups to which voters belong are more important determinants of voting behaviour than the autonomous individual.

A study later in 1954 by Lazarsfeld, Mc Phee and Berelson on the presidential election of 1948 in the US refined the earlier study by providing a clear structure of approach in voting behaviour. The study found indications that the social differentiation of voters as based on factors like race, religion, socio-economic status and residential location predetermines their political disposition and the thinking of political manoeuvring along lines based on political groups.

This is combined with transmissibility, which leads to the passing on this social differentiation from person to person. Finally, there is also greater proximity between members of a homogeneous group, as opposed to between members from different groups, which act to greatly influence voting decisions.

The study found that political predispositions of voters greatly corresponded with these three social criteria, with political themes in elections that tend to be centred on issues of some consensus in the political society. The study found that people tend to be more or less consistent with voting behaviour unless an extraordinary occurrence changes their mind. Voting behaviour thus is consistent with the social habitus that people are ordained to, reflecting their predispositions with which they approach politics. However, while this demarcates the political predispositions of voters during the campaign and before voting, this is not sufficient evidence to justify the actual voting decision.

The Psychosocial Model

The central principle of the psychosocial model is centred around partisanship in voting behaviour, which appears as a psychological affinity to a political party that need not be a formal link. The model involves a psychological examination of the affinity among voters that they belong to the social groups that certain political parties represent. However, the psychosocial model is not able to link psychosocial partisanship directly with the act of voting. Voter affinity in this model remains mostly psychological, and like the sociological model, does not necessarily account for the objective nature of voting behaviour.

The Rational Choice Model
Anthony Downs’ ‘An Economic Theory of Democracy’ (1957) is the watermark publication for the rational choice model in analyzing voting behaviour. Downs posits how economic factors such as supply of goods and technological conditions can influence the political outcome in terms of choice in voting behaviour. The principles of rational choice applied in explaining market behaviour is utilized in this economic analysis to explain voting behaviour as well in the rational choice model.

Here a direct analogy is derived between voters and consumers and between companies and political parties. Just like consumers seek to maximize the utility of a product and companies try to maximize profits, here voters are analogized as maximizing the utilitarian value of their vote while political parties are analogized as maximizing electoral gains in line with their political agendas as product. The premise for this analogy is that all voting behaviour is rational behaviour and that democratic electoral systems can exhibit a certain degree of consistency that can allow predictions on electoral patterns. Even uncertainty is included as a part of the democratic set-up whereby different choices become possible (R. Antuno, 2010).

A rational choice is said to be based on knowledge. However, a lot of ambiguity can arise in the voting process whereby voters may not be aware of the actual actions of parties and could instead depend on party ideology, which can again create ambiguities. Voting behaviour cannot be said to be perfectly rational and always based on voluntary choice in the complete sense, making accurate estimations and predictions impossible in the majority of cases.

Voting Behaviour in India
Several social factors may be involved in India that influences the voting behaviour of Indian voters. This can include factors such as community, caste, religion, money, language, ideology, etc, which are utilized by political parties in influencing election results. Among these social factors, some social factors dominate that influence the psychosocial make up of the Indian voters, who decide on the basis of a rational or habitual choice in casting their vote. A habitual choice could be called a rational choice that is pre-determined by a previous rational choice.

The first social factor influencing Indian voting behaviour is charisma, which demotes an exceptional quality of a factor influencing voting patterns that can override interfering factors through its force of attraction. Charisma may involve attractive leaders revered by voters who can turn the tide in an election. Caste, the second factor, is deep-rooted in Indian society and is an important determinant of social relations, especially in rural areas, from where the majority of votes are derived.

The third important social factor is religion, which being among the most pervasive factors in Indian society, frequently figures in the electoral process as an important factor. Although certain legal restrictions are placed on invoking religion, tacit usage of religion in the voting process is among the most prominent features of influencing voting behaviour in India. The fourth important social factor is language, which becomes important especially because of the linguistic ordering of most Indian states. Even within states, numerous languages can exist, and these can act as inflexion points in elections.

The fifth social factor is money, with India having massive numbers of poor people. Access to money or opportunities becomes thus a very important determinant in Indian elections, with many party promises and manifestoes based on financial arrangements. Sub-nationalism is the sixth social factor, with India’s numerous regional identities being a major factor in influencing intrinsic voter behaviour.

The seventh factor offers among the most rational choices, being the performance of the incumbent government. The performance of the incumbent party in power is a very important determinant of voting behaviour, and often anti-incumbency votes happen that can remove the party in power. The eighth factor remains a major hindrance to rational choice in Indian election, being literacy, or often the lack of it, that can affect the rational choice of many voters, such that people may be disposed to vote in terms of social factors other than a studied analysis of who one should vote for.

The ninth factor is factionalism in politics, which among mainstream parties can disenchant voters towards local organizations. The tenth and last factor is the status of the candidate, which can greatly influence voter’s associations with voting behaviour in terms of the influence of the legacy that an electoral candidate might have. This is different from charisma in the sense that this provides a more rational basis for voter engagement, as based on the candidate’s record of service rather than emotional appeal (B. Hazarika, 2015).

Most of the dominant sociological factors influencing Indian voting are not completely rational, and many involve a mix of both rational choices and psychosocial affinity. As such predicting election results can be difficult, and results can be anticipated on the basis of pre-existing social and political conditions instead of an analysis of pure rational choice. Even then many ambiguities present themselves in that a mix of voter opinion and his pre-existing sociological conditions influence his voting behaviour, although no theoretical supposition can sufficiently account for the final choice of all voters in the election process.

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