Monday, February 17, 2014


Why the 2014 voter is different

Arvind Panagariya, TNN Feb 8, 2014, 12.08AM IST
It is widely believed that voter population in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in India will be significantly younger than in past elections. But census data belie this belief. It is true that the share of eligible voters in total population rose by 3.5 percentage points in 2011 over that in 2001 but this is not equivalent to the voter population being younger.
An examination of age composition within the voting population reveals that the proportion of younger voters has actually marginally declined between 2001 and 2011. Those above 18 and below 25 as a proportion of voter population have declined from 21.7% to 21% between the two censuses.
Likewise, those above 25 and below 45 have declined from 47.1% to 45.6% of eligible voters. Given the slow pace of change in age composition as reflected in these shifts over a ten-year period, it is unlikely that the situation would have fundamentally altered in April-May 2014 when India goes to polls.
Does this mean that the voter population today is more or less what it was in 2004 and 2009? Not by a long shot.
The age composition of voter population may not have changed but the voter in 2014 will be vastly different from his past counterparts in terms of economic experience and attitudes towards the government.
The key dimension along which the experience of the current voter population in general and the younger voter in particular is different from predecessor populations is the pace at which it has come to expect improvement in its economic fortunes.
In 1980-81, three decades after India had launched its development programme, real per capita income had risen by just 50% over that in 1950-51. Only in 1989-90 did per capita income turn twice the level in 1950-51. An average Indian who began his professional life at between 20 to 25 years of age in 1950-51 and retired after 35 years, did not see his income even double over the entire working life. Someone already 30 years or older and joining the workforce in 1950-51 retired without seeing his per capita income rise even 50%.
This depressing scenario changed markedly for those entering the workforce in the 1990s and later. By 1999-2000, per capita income was almost three times that in 1950-51 and one and a half times that in 1989-90. The average worker entering the workforce in 1989-90 experienced within a decade such increase in prosperity as the average worker entering the workforce in 1950-51 had experienced after three decades. And the prospects for him got even better in the following decade.
By 2012-13, per capita income was nearly six times that in 1950-51, three times that in 1989-90 and twice that in 1999-2000. In other words, an average worker who joined the workforce in 1989-90 had seen his income triple and the one who joined in 1999-2000 had seen it double by 2012-13.
Moreover, with the base income higher and higher, each 1% growth in successive years has been yielding larger and larger absolute improvement in fortunes.
That is the big difference today: a voter who is 45 years old or younger and therefore joined the workforce in 1989-90 or later is far more impatient than his older counterpart.
With prosperity has also come empowerment. Today's voter is far less likely to look to government for solutions to his problems than his counterpart of yesteryear. This is true even in areas in which government is supposed to be the main provider.
While government, media and NGOs keep pushing for more and more intervention by government in the provision of goods and services, a disillusioned and financially empowered voter has been progressively turning to private solutions.
Thus private schools have been progressively replacing poor-quality education in government-run schools. Even government school teachers who know much too well the woes of schools where they teach are using their higher salaries to send their own children to private schools.
The same goes for members of Parliament and the National Advisory Council who, nevertheless, insist on denying the poor the same right to choose between private and public schools that they themselves freely exercise.
Even the rural poor who lack access to private schools are seeking private tuition for their children, as the ASER 2013 report documents. Many parents in urban areas choose to pack homemade meals for their children for fear that the free midday meal at school may be contaminated.
Whereas the only choice my generation had for medical care was a government-run hospital or dispensary, the vast majority of households in both rural and urban areas today go to mushrooming private providers. Private expenditures on health are more than three and a half times public expenditures nationally and reach as high as nine times in the state of Kerala.
It is this hunger for ever-greater control of their lives rather than caste and community equations that is guiding today's voter. Also passe is the promise of free this or free that as a vote getter. Instead, it is empowerment through rapidly rising incomes that will win the day. This is why voters are flocking to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in large numbers.
The writer is professor of Indian political economy at Columbia University.

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