Heading Into Polarized Waters

Politics in India is far from stagnant. The BJP managed to create a non-coalition government in India for the first time in 25 years in 2014. To put things into context, India as a democracy is only about 75 years old. Although seemingly benign, this phenomenon is a symptom of a wider problem facing many of the world’s oldest democracies.

In a country where smaller parties have played an essential part in addressing issues at a local level, the sudden growth of the BJP may have put that equilibrium in jeopardy. Combined with the specific majority demographic that the BJP targets, the interests of minorities may stand to be overlooked even further. The more right leanings tendencies of the BJP have already aggrieved many, highlighted by the protests in response to their controversial CAA Bill.

One of the major issues in the next election will be that though many dislike the far-right attitude of the BJP, the lack of a strong, or even competent, opposition means many will vote for the lotus anyway. On an immediate scale, this information seems obvious, yet when we take a step back, a concerning trend can be seen. Nowadays, people who talk about politics fall into one of two categories; those who are die-hard supporters of BJP and those who are extreme critics. The middle ground is rapidly shrinking. Currently, there is no strong opposing party to the BJP but the environment is ripe for a strong left of Centre or development plank party to emerge, representing those who are against BJP's most extreme policies. As and when this happens, many people vote for this party. Not necessarily because they agree with all of its policies but because they disagree with BJP's. This may not happen over the course of a single election, but it will happen.

This phenomenon of a shrinking middle ground and conflicting ideologies is called voter polarization and can be seen affecting all of the world's oldest democracies. Countries like the USA and Britain (with 200 and 300-year-old democracies respectively) did not start with bi party systems, but voter polarization taking hold led to it. A good example of a country being affected by voter polarization is Australia. Australia has a democracy only 50 years older than that of India, yet in the last two decades, the number of moderate candidates has steadily shrunk. Voter polarization is impacting countries globally. Other examples of polarized voter banks in countries include Brazil, Canada, Poland, Turkey etc. Voter polarization is characterized by a conservative or right-leaning party and a liberal left-leaning party becoming extremely dominant. Once well underway, there are only two main parties left, with it being next to impossible for a new party to emerge. At this stage, the only variables in the elections are the moderate voters, who can potentially vote for either side. The parties at this point also start demonizing each other (currently best seen in American politics), prompting some to vote for them not because they like their respective party, but because they dislike the other option.

The reason it becomes hard for a third party to become successful in this bi-party system is that even a third party falls closer to one party’s ideologies than the other, hence splitting that party voter base and actually benefitting the other side. This is called a spoiler effect.

We can conclude that India might be the next country to face voter polarization, but is this in any way a good thing? The answer, as seen by the examples of other countries is a vehement NO.

Polarization reduces legislative productivity as policies of one party are against those of the other. Over time polarization also tends to reduce voter turnout and poisons civil relations between supporters of opposing parties and ideologies (such as the case in Turkey, where decisions of marriage or business partners are often influenced by the other's choice of the party).

However, there is one more evil of polarization which can have lasting repercussions. In states like Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh where religion politics is playing an ever-increasing role, and the delegates for whom form a major chunk of the government, the cause of development can often be overlooked. And in the present situation, this is the worst possible attitude to have. With the world losing confidence in China, many companies are looking to migrate to other countries. This creates an opportunity for the government to attract foreign investment and facilitate India step to taking China's place as the world's chief producer.

China wasn't always the trade superpower it is today. Somewhere along the line it abandoned orthodox communism and instead adopted an industrial stance. For decades they worked on creating a skilled workforce, which in addition to their availability of vast human resources and rapid industrialization helped them become the titan they are today, however long that lasts is another story. To unseat China as the world’s primary manufacturer India has to be prepared to embrace change and adapt.

To conclude, India is on the cusp of being another country gripped by voter polarization, however, that is not the only option. There is another form of voting that is known which avoids the problems associated with the current one. The alternative vote allows voters to pick a list of multiple parties in their order of preference instead of a single one. If the party they chose gets the least number of votes, it gets eliminated and the people who voted for the eliminated party have their second preference counted instead. In this way all candidates are eliminated until only one is left, who is the winner.

In this way, people can vote for smaller or regional parties without worrying about the spoiler effect causing a party they disagree with to assume office. This system of voting is more democratic as instead of a party having the favour of a minority of voters winning; it allows a candidate preferred by most people to win.

-Sabyasachi Das