Postal Ballot

How the bureaucracy votes matters

Print edition : April 23, 2021

A postal ballot centre in Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu, on April 1. Postal votes represent the bureaucratic section that is directly connected with the public, such as, to name a few, the police, teachers and revenue officials. Photo: L. Balachandar

Any party or coalition that wins in an Assembly election needs to win a majority in both the general vote and the postal vote if it wants to effectively deliver the public services it has promised in its election manifesto.

AS the world’s largest democracy, India’s elections are a mammoth exercise that the Election Commission of India (ECI) carries out effectively every time. The contribution of every single member of the bureaucracy in achieving a free and fair election is unquestionable. While appreciating their role in the conduct of elections, one needs to analyse their voting behaviour in these very elections. One presumes their voting is part of the general behaviour, but it is not as they represent a group that has worked with the incumbent government and is going to work with the new one.

The common belief among the general public is that without the aid of the bureaucracy politicians cannot indulge in corruption, nepotism and favouritism. At least, politicians are elected every five years, but the bureaucracy remains there forever. As an insider, this group is privy to the recent past and is in charge of providing continuity of good and bad practices in governance. In voting behaviour, the difference between the bureaucrats and the general public tells a story of differences in perception due to the information asymmetry between them.

An analysis of postal votes in elections can give one a better view of this. Even though postal votes are not the complete representation of the bureaucracy, they represent the bureaucratic section that is directly connected with the public, such as, to name a few, the police, teachers and revenue officials. Apart from the people involved in the conduct of elections, the privilege of postal ballots is also extended to bureaucrats serving in foreign nations and service voters (those in the armed forces, including the Assam Rifles, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Force, and so on; government employees posted outside the country; armed police forces in the States; and State government employees posted outside the State) along with other options such as proxy voting by nominated family members.

Section 60 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, states which sections of people are eligible for postal votes. Under the provisions of Clause C in Section 60, the ECI in consultation with the Central government can extend the postal vote privilege to the employees of essential services from time to time. Under this provision, the ECI opened these postal votes to electors above the age of 80 and those with physical disabilities for the Assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the Union Territory of Puducherry in April 2021. However, one expects the bureaucracy to dominate the postal votes even in this election.
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The ECI has been providing data on postal votes since 1991 and that too with reference to the constituency as a whole but not segregated by candidates. The data on each candidate’s postal votes was made available only from the 2009 general election. Here, one looks at the postal voting behaviour in the last Assembly elections in the four major States and Union Territory that go to the polls in March-April 2021. The data can explain the bureaucracy’s intentions and how public service is delivered subsequently. It is imperative to take on board the bureaucracy to fully implement the political parties’ promises in their election manifestos. With a dissatisfied bureaucracy, the continuation and delivery of public services might not be up to the mark and that might result in the State slipping in performance.

What do the data say?

The 2016 Assembly elections are interesting as Assam, Kerala and Puducherry voted for a change in government, while Tamil Nadu and West Bengal voted to continue the incumbent government.

During 2011-16, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry were ruled by the Indian National Congress (INC), the United Democratic Front lead by the INC and the All India NR Congress (AINRC) governments respectively. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the INC won the 2016 elections in Assam, Kerala and Puducherry respectively. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) were ruling Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively and were voted back to power. Interestingly, both the AIADMK and the AITC faced the 2016 elections alone without coalition partners and retained the government.

Table 1 shows the postal voting behaviour in the State Assembly elections that were held in 2016, and one can see that the bureaucracy voted against the incumbent government. However, the voting of the general public was mixed. In Assam, Kerala and Puducherry, the general public also voted against incumbent government, whereas in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the general public voted for the incumbent government. This results in two sets of governments: a new government with a satisfied bureaucracy and the continuation of an incumbent government with a dissatisfied bureaucracy. By looking at some important economic indicators, one can examine whether this impacted these governments after the elections.

In assessing the governance performance of Indian States, most studies look at classified indicators under five categories, namely, justice and law and order; quality of legislature; infrastructure; social services; and fiscal performance, to capture the performances of all three pillars of democracy, the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. Given the lack of a comparable database for each State, one compared two crucial indicators, per capita State’s own tax revenue and per capita gross State domestic product (GSDP) for 2015-16 and 2016-17, to see whether the bureaucracy’s voting behaviour impacted them.
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On the economic front (Table 2), the performance of the new governments in Assam, Kerala and Puducherry between 2015-16 and 2016-17 was far ahead of that of the incumbent governments in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. On average, the per capita own tax revenue and per capita GSDP had a growth rate of 11.3 per cent and 9.9 per cent in the new governments and 5.7 per cent and 8.5 per cent for the incumbent governments.

A simple glance at these data shows the bigger picture of the role of bureaucracy voting behaviour in government performance. Any party or coalition that wins the ensuing Assembly elections needs to win a majority in both the general vote and the postal vote if it wants to effectively deliver the public services it has promised in its election manifesto.

S. Raja Sethu Durai is a professor

of economics at the University of Hyderabad. R. Srinivasan is a professor of econometrics at the University of Madras.

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