There are some standard public narratives about voting in India. The better-off groups do not participate in elections as actively as those worse off than them. The upper classes claim that the poor vote only in order to get various benefits such as money, consumer goods, clothes and so on. The majority claims that the minorities vote as a bloc with the added suggestion that this voting is primarily influenced by considerations of religious identity.

These acts are seen to represent the weaknesses in Indian democracy. Not so surprisingly, these have also led to various recipes for improving democracy, such as potential restrictions on who can vote and sometimes even suggesting that the British should be brought back to rule India!

These electoral practices, combined with money and muscle power, which are needed to survive elections and party politics, show Indian democracy in a poor light. They also seem to suggest that it is
impossible for voters to function as responsible individuals for they are not doing their duty of voting for the best person, namely, the best political representative who will govern well.

Much of this is based on the belief that there is a particular purpose to voting which many do not adhere to in their act of voting. Whether it is voting for money or voting based on caste or religious considerations, these voters are seen to go against the purpose of voting in a democracy.

Of course, one can extend this argument to everybody who votes: some may vote for a party based on certain ideological principles, others based on expectations of some economic policies that they support and so on. Every act of voting is based on some expectation and so is always a transaction, a social transaction.

On the other hand, while these problems about elections are generally true in national and more centralised political processes, democracy when decentralised has not only had a significant impact but has also been more socially sensitive. It is often said that voting is a duty, but what kind of duty is it? Is it to make a choice on a sheet or is it actually a particular process of thinking and deciding? Moreover, if it is a duty, then duty to whom? To whom is the voter accountable?

Although democracy seems to highlight the role of a voter as an autonomous agent, every voter recognises that their vote is only a negligible fraction of the thousands of other votes that are cast. So when they vote they are playing a guessing game, since there is no direct correlation between one individual’s vote and the potential outcome of the election. It is the pragmatics of this game of making the best possible guess that drives voters to indulge in transactions with politicians.

Consider the act of voting by those who get paid before they vote. In taking money or goods, voters see elections as a transaction. What they are basically asking is this: What am I getting in return for voting for you? This transactional mode is a natural consequence as long as the voters see the elected representative using their election to increase their power and individual wealth.

Voters ask this question because they have seen for decades after independence that becoming an elected politician has led to a massive increase in the wealth of that politician and their family. So if voting has to be disinterested – in the sense of not expecting benefit for oneself by voting – then it should also be the case that those who are governing should also be disinterested in personal benefit. But when governance has become a business for the politicians, why should the voter not demand their price?

In fact, the transactional mode of voting shows clearly the wisdom of the voters who have recognised the empty claims that democracy is for “the People.” Thus, the voter thinks that she is doing a job for a politician whom she votes for and expects to get paid for that act. So also, the politician understands the business aspect of voting very well and is willing to spend money as an investment for future profit.

This is the dilemma in electing somebody, a dilemma that is so well understood by the public. They argue that as voters they are supposed to vote for free, whereas the result of their action ends up creating power and wealth for another person. So why is voting not seen as a business transaction when the winner of the election profits from the action of the voter? Why can’t the voter who is enabling opportunity for another person’s wealth ask for a share in that wealth?

In fact, this argument is a perfectly rational one from the voter’s side. On the other side, there is a similar rationale for the politician: they pay the voters since giving money to voters is like an investment. The amount voters are paid is a measure of how much elected representatives hope to make during their tenure!

But there is also an underlying belief that such actions do not constitute democracy. In the case of an ideal democracy, what would be the nature and function of voting? The fundamental difference between the social model of democracy that I discussed above and voting today is that in the former, voting is not an act that will yield personal benefit but one that will improve the well-being of others who are worse off.

For those who are better off in a society, their vote is not a vote for their self-interest but a vote for the interests of those worse off than them. For those in the lowest stratum, if they do get to vote, then their vote is to improve their basic well-being. If we agree that democracy should always be defined relationally with respect to the worst-off, we cannot define the voting by that group as voting for self-interest.

The dynamics of voting is thus a complex problem of rationality, similar to problems in rational choice theory. First, how do politicians know that the people will vote for them after taking their money or listening to their promises, especially if more than one politician pays the same group of people or makes similar promises? Moreover, how do they know that enough people will vote for them to make them win?

For the voter, it is a much simpler calculation. They get paid for a service they perform by voting and they can maximise the benefit they get from different parties. Interestingly, many of them apparently do vote for the person they take money from, because they feel they are morally bound to do so. But once money is transferred, there are other factors that influence voting, including fear.

There is a problem when voting is reduced to this monetary transaction, because then democracy gets reduced to principles of business. In such a case, the government will literally be in the “business of running the country.”

But for real democracy to be possible, voting has to be seen as something more than a transaction and more as an ethical duty. It might be useful to remember that benefit for the larger society will include others benefiting as much as each one of us through our votes. That is, when I vote, I vote on behalf of others who are worse off than me and not on behalf of myself. This duty is the ethical rationality of democratic voting.

Excerpted with permission from The Social Life of Democracy, Sundar Sarukkai, Seagull Books.