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Elections in India: Episode 1

The recently concluded Kharsiya Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh is likely to change how elections are going to be fought in future. For the first time in political history, a strategy was exclusively designed to influence the voter - enter the voters mind (EVM) in the last 20 meters to the electronic voting machine (EVM) or the EVM 2 EVM, a model that has been been experimented in the Assembly elections.

For kharsiya, the elections were unique in many ways. O P Chaudhary, a 37 years old former IAS officer resigned to join the BJP is contesting the Kharsiya Assembly seat against the sitting MLA, Umesh Patel of the Congress. Traditionally, a Congress bastion since independence, the voters have remained loyal to the Patel family since 1990. Late Nand Kumar Patel remained undefeated winning five consecutive times until his death in a Naxal attack in 2013. Despite the BJP remaining in power in the formation of Chhattisgarh, the Congress has won this seat with a huge margin of more than 30% in each election since 2003.

Both candidates are from the Agharia caste and are seen as the son of the soil weaving their own story of sacrifice, courage and dreams.

With 86% voting in the last elections, the only way to sway to election outcome was to influence the traditional Congress votes. EVM 2 EVM was designed to target the booths which constituted nearly 50% of the margin of votes. In kharsiya, 65 booths were identified. The model identified women as the key to the elections and therefore began to train the women volunteers.

Mukul, the co-creator of the model looking at the challenges said, 'a unique strategy was required to influence political outcomes, simply to rely on youths and new voters was unlikely to change political outcome. Instead, a strategy was required to intervene into Congress dominated areas and identify the first-time voters and the neutral voters.'

The first step was to train volunteers to start a conversation with the voters assessing five dominant emotions which could influence political decision making. It was intended to help voter see voting as a value bereft of any political allegiance. The voter was singularly empowered to assess the candidate merits relying on the voter's power of judgment as against party allegiance or political perception while orienting the voter to the merits of the candidate.

Eventually, when the voter finally goes out to vote and press the EVM, he is made to think in the last 20 meters to the booth when he is alone and with no encumbrance of any kind and he/she votes in his/her self-interest.

In Kharsiya, the intervention met with a lot of resistance. Congress was a natural political selection and to speak of any other party other than the Congress in the traditional vote bank booths was unthinkable.

Tribal voters which constituted majority of these 50 booths continued to hold allegiance to the Congress citing the The Madhya Pradesh Ceiling on Agricultural Holdings Act, 1960 as the Congress gift to the poor and landless. They saw their withdrawal of support was as an act of betrayal or in a clichéd vocabulary, 'Mein us party ko jawab kya dunga jis ne mujhe zamin aur jine ke shamta di'(what will I answer to the party which has given me land and a living).

The intervention was carefully designed to meet such local challenges. For example, if it was a sense of betrayal to the land allotment, there was a countervail of the Atal Awas Yogna. But it was not as simple. The voter was to be helped to understand that that the larger value of the vote is the universal desire for progress which both candidates promise. What the voter has to decide is who assures him/her the idea of progress.

The outcome is yet to be seen which will be influenced by a number of other parallel strategies but Mukul notes, ' the only tangible reference point would be to assess the women voting pattern in the last 65 booths which voted for Shri O P Chaudhary.'

He has the numbers with him but we have to wait till December 11 when Kharsiya goes to counting.


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