Saturday, May 18, 2024

Does corruption matter when India casts vote?

Corruption in public office doesn’t stay away from the political discourse for long. At present, the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government is facing corruption charges in an alleged liquor scam, and in Parliament, the Opposition has been questioning the political dimensions of the allegations against Adani group companies. But with a year to go for the next general elections, does corruption stand any chance of becoming an electoral issue?

It’s true that at least two national governments have in the past (1989 and 2014) been voted out mainly on the issue of corruption, but the matter mostly finds little resonance with common voters, shows recent survey data from the Lokniti programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The reason is simple: Corruption does make voters unhappy and angry with political parties, but during elections, the voting decision is not primarily guided by this opinion.

In 12 of 13 recent state assembly elections, more voters believed that corruption had increased since the previous polls compared with those who held the opposite view. However, in six of these 12 states, the ruling party or alliance got re-elected, and in the other six, it got voted out of power. Telangana was the only state where more voters believed that corruption had decreased. Not surprisingly, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi got re-elected with a thumping majority in 2018.

The analysis covered 13 state polls held in recent years for which such data could be analyzed. Voters’ views are based on what was captured in the Lokniti-CSDS’ state election studies.

Feeble Impact

Opinions about corruption affected voting choices mainly among respondents who felt corruption had increased. But the impact is not strong enough to vote out the ruling party.

In Gujarat and Karnataka, most voters said corruption has increased, but the ruling party still managed to win more seats. Even among those who felt corruption had increased, the ruling party got more votes than the main Opposition party. In Goa, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, the main Opposition did only marginally better than the ruling party among such voters.

In Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, those who reported higher corruption did vote heavily for the Opposition parties. Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in both states were able to retain power, thanks to the vote of the rest of the electorate.

In the five other states, those who thought corruption had increased overwhelmingly voted against the ruling party, and the final result aligned with their vote.

Pecking Order

Opinion about corruption was found inadequate to shape electoral outcomes because on a list of issues to pick from, respondents marked other considerations ahead of corruption.

The Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll surveys ask respondents to pick the most important electoral issue on which they base their votes. In eight of the 12 states where more people believed corruption had risen, the most important issue picked was development, and in the other four, it was unemployment. In most of these states, inflation was the second most important issue.

Only in four states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—did corruption figure among the top five issues shaping voting decisions. Both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, 5% voters mentioned corruption as the biggest issue. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, 6% and 7% voters said so. The incumbent government was voted out of power in all these four states.

2024 Outlook

In the 2014 elections, corruption had become a massive issue after the mobilization of the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. In that election, for 15% of the voters, corruption was the most important issue on which they decided to cast their vote. It was also the second most important issue overall, after inflation, which was picked by 26% voters then.

But this equation changed in 2019. Despite the Congress’ attempts to accuse the BJP of corruption in the Rafale aircraft deal with France, and the frequent use of the slogan “Chowkidaar chor hai”, corruption was only the fifth most important issue, with just 3% voters picking it.

Development, unemployment, inflation and economic growth emerged as bigger issues. Ahead of 2024, even as political parties quarrel over it, corruption’s track record as an electoral issue is weak.

The author is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.

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