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N Gopalaswami & Praveen Chakravarty: The myth of the astute voter

A close analysis of the Tamil Nadu Assembly election results shows that there is no marked difference in the voting pattern

N Gopalaswami & Praveen Chakravarty 

The party has just begun to celebrate the “intelligence” of the average and his astuteness in using the power of the ballot to overthrow the corrupt. The Tamil Nadu 2011 Assembly election results have acted as a catalyst for exuberance and revelry of the coming of age of the and the supremacy of the adult franchise process.

Sorry to be a party pooper but these celebrations are premature. Let’s understand why through a series of questions and answers:

1: In the 2011 elections, in a ballot paper that had a Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) candidate on the list, out of every 100 voters, how many voted for the candidate?
43 voters.

2: In the 2006 elections, in a ballot paper that had a candidate on the list, how many out of every 100 voters, voted for the candidate?
46 voters.

contested in 
% of votes polled in
contested seats in
% of seats 
won in 
2006 2011 2006 2011 2006 2011
DMK 132 119 46.1 43.1 72.7 19.3
INC 48 63 42.7 38.3 70.8 7.9
ADMK 188 160 40.8 51.7 32.4 93.8
DMDK 232 41 8.4 40.1 0.4 70.7
Source: Election Commission of India website

So, out of every 100 voters, only three (46-43) apparently qualify for this “intelligent voter” description of our expert political commentators. In other words, when presented with an option of rejecting the DMK party for indulging in corrupt and patronage politics, only three out of 100 chose to exercise that option. A sombre scenario indeed.

3: In the 2011 Assembly election, how many seats, out of every 100 seats that the DMK candidate contested, did they win?
19 seats.

4: In the 2006 elections, how many seats did the DMK win out of every 100 seats?
73 seats.

Three “astute” voters out of every 100 caused DMK to lose 54 out of 100 seats vis-à-vis 2006? This perplexing outcome is a manifestation of electoral alliances. The (DMDK) political party started by Tamil actor Vijkayakanth provides the explanation for this bizarre and precipitous drop in seats won by DMK.

5: In 2006, out of every 100 voters, 48 voted for the DMK, 41 voted for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and nine voted for the DMDK. When in 2011, the AIADMK and the DMDK came together, how many out of every 100 voters voted for the AIADMK and DMDK combine?
52 voters.

This is a telling statistic. Contrary to the media portrayal of the average voter’s scorn at DMK’s petty politics, statistics show that the average voter was not as perturbed as we would have wanted him or her to be and instead voted in similar patterns as in the previous years according to his or her party loyalties. The mere combination of the votes polled for the AIADMK and DMDK in the 2011 election ensured that the alliance emerged as the winner in 87 out of every 100 seats (the table summarises these numbers).

A further extrapolation analysis of the electoral results can lead to some startling conclusions:

1: Had the AIADMK and DMDK fought independently, then the seat tally for the DMK in the 2011 elections would have been around 83 vis-à-vis 23 in actual.

2: Had the DMK allotted fewer seats to the Congress and contested in 132 seats as in 2006 and the ADMK and DMDK fought independently, the DMK would have garnered 92 seats. Ironically, this is not very different compared to the 96 seats won by the DMK in 2006.

In other words, in econometric parlance, holding other variables constant from the 2006 election, the DMK would have lost just four seats from the 96 seats it claimed in 2006. This paints a very contrarian picture to the one that our political commentators would have us believe. Interestingly, this also explains why most of the exit pollsters may have got their predictions wrong by predicting 100 plus seats for the DMK alliance, because exit polls do not have the ability to detect the impact due to changes in electoral alliances and rightfully could not discern any large meaningful change in voting patterns from 2006.

The 2011 are no vindication of any quantum leap in the average voter’s astuteness, as is borne out in this analysis and is falsely alluded to by large sections of our society. The voter did not “punish” the DMK as it is made out to be and paradoxically, the Congress proved to be a liability for the DMK as opposed to the “neutralising” impact that everyone perceived it to be.

Winston Churchill is quoted to have said “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”. Alas, this quintessentially Churchillian-style tongue-in-cheek comment may continue to be true, at least in Tamil Nadu.

(N Gopalaswami is the former Chief Election Commissioner of India. Praveen Chakravarty is on assignment with the Unique Identity Authority of India. These views are personal)

First Published: Mon, May 23 2011. 00:26 IST