As India’s new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) jostles for votes in India’s ongoing (six-week long!) national elections, it must figure out a way to challenge entrenched voting habits and engage with low-income voters on the issue of corruption. The AAP has been described (and sometimes dismissed) as a middle-class phenomenon–a political upstart that will have difficulty connecting with the country’s many low-income voters, who have long been expected to vote along community lines. But this dismissive attitude–and the idea that anticorruption is predominantly a middle-class concern–may not be justified. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that an anticorruption message is particularly likely to resonate with poorer voters.
Recent research focused on Europe indicates that lower socio-economic status (SES) tend to perceive corruption as a more serious problem (both in terms of its prevalence and its impact) than do higher SES voters. A 2010 paper by Matthias Pázmándy crunches Eurobarometer data and finds support for that conclusion; this paper by Natalia Melgar and colleagues reaches similar conclusions. If lower-SES people in India also perceive more corruption, then an anticorruption party like the AAP may well find greater support among lower SES people.
The AAP’s own debut electoral performance in Delhi supports this notion. The party’s core activists in Delhi included plenty of upper-middle class Delhiites–young professionals, academics, activists, and university students–and the AAP also relied heavily on social media to spread its message. All of this fed the notion that AAP is a middle-class party, and that its ideas and promises would not sway Delhi’s poor. However, Srinivasan Ramani of India’s Economics & Political Weekly uses GIS tools to map AAP’s share of the votes across Delhi’s seventy constituencies, and finds that the party did best in areas that had high concentrations of slums. In other words, the AAP’s electoral success in Delhi–the party won enough seats to form a minority government–relied heavily on votes from the city’s poorest people. Pázmándy’s study of Europe suggests that one possible reason for this is that corruption may be a bigger, more relevant issue among low-SES Delhiites than their better-off counterparts.
Will this be enough to get low-income Indians to vote for AAP? I hope so. For decades, community ties, cults of personality and promises of subsidies have guided electoral decisions among low-SES Indians, especially those living outside the country’s major urban centers. This is starting to change: more than ever, campaign phrases like “development” and “good governance” resonate with voters in India’s poorest states. Take Bihar, for example. Voters in this northern state–one of India’s poorest and most backward–long elected leaders on the basis of caste and religion. Today, its Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, promotes his track record of curbing corruption, building infrastructure and empowering women on the campaign trail. And across the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is widely expected to form the next government, showcases its leader Narendra Modi’s efficient government in Gujarat state.
This change is by no means universal: the BJP’s B.S. Yeddyurappa demonstrates that the public is too willing to forgive, or tolerate, corruption. Nonetheless, the shifting paradigm does benefit AAP. Low-SES voters across India now have corruption and governance on their minds as they head to the polls. If these voters have faith in AAP’s single-minded focus on corruption, the party might yet surprise India with a strong showing once the election results are announced on May 16.