India and SA: Voter savvy, economic priorities and the politics of coalition


President of South Africa and the African National Congress Cyril Ramaphosa (C) greets a voter as he arrives to cast his vote for the general elections at the Hitekani Primary School, Chiawelo, Soweto, on May 8, 2019. [AFP]

India and South Africa held their elections recently. The results left no party with a majority in both countries. Let’s start with India, the once jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not get the magical 272 seats to form a government by itself. The Hindu nationalism and religious overtones were not enough to give it an outright majority. Voters probably saw the extreme side of BJP and moderated it by voting for the opposition.

BJP can boast of economic growth in the last ten years, with India surpassing the UK to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy. That did not sway enough voters; they may not have felt the growth, and probably need a bottom-up approach.

This is the nightmare every politician faces: as you transform your society economically, citizens become bolder to vote against you. MPs and senators who do the most for their constituents often get voted out. It does not be too good to voters. Kibaki did not get a landslide in his second term despite his economic transformation; we even got post-election violence. Economic growth is not a sufficient reason to get voted in. Equity is, and most important, money in the pocket. Call it trickle-down.

Big businesses have done well in India, but it has not trickled down to the grassroots. Politicians and economists can share all the rosy data and indicators, but it boils down to what we feel as individuals. And our pockets. That is why emotions are loved by politicians; they distract us from reality. Remember the hustler movement and the feeling that there would be an economic transformation, a Damascus economic moment? It was cross-pollinated with religion. Very close to BJP strategy.

The results in the Indian election clearly leave no doubt voters are wiser than we think; they see through political messages. Voters could also be tired of one party in India and want some change. Remember KANU?

For India, there was something more curious: the return of the Indian Congress Party, which led India from independence in 1947 till 1996. Lost from 1996-2004, then ruled from 2004-2014 before being routed by BJP.

One of the Congress leaders is Rahul Gandhi, of the Gandhi dynasty. His mother and grandfather were prime ministers. His Indian accent surprised me despite graduating from Cambridge. Are Indian voters becoming nostalgic about the Gandhi dynasty or the Congress Party? Shall we ever return KANU to power? Will the dynasties we resented in 2022 one-day return to power?

Indian elections were spread out over six weeks. Why can’t we spread out ours? Being a parliamentary democracy, parties really matter. Like Kenya since the end of the KANU era, India must be run through coalitions. It seems politically we are on par with the rest of the world.

What about South Africa? The country closely mirrors Kenya, with liberation losing its luster and economics taking over. The African National Congress, probably inspired by the Indian Congress Party, lost its majority like BJP. Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa from 1893-1914.

Thirty years after their uhuru, South Africans now want economic growth; the freedom songs have gone silent. With all the headlines on corruption, joblessness, and power outages, ANC lost its shine. Infighting between Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma did not endear the party to the voters. We have Tsuma in Kenya. Same meaning in Zulu, the bold one?

Like BJP, the voters in SA might have got tired of ANC and want a change. A surprise winner in the contest is the Democratic Alliance, seen as a party for the white minority. It got 21.81 per cent of votes this year and 1.73 per cent in 1994. Are the ghosts of apartheid slowly being exorcised?

Now South Africa must form coalitions. Fortunately, one of the election observers was our former president, Uhuru Kenyatta. I hope he gave them a few tips on how to form coalitions and the unintended consequences. Did he mention the handshake because a government of national unity is being mentioned?

SA has joined Kenya in converting political parties into matatus. Notice how the five-month-old uMkhonto weSizwe (Zulu for 'Spear of the Nation') MK party became the third largest party by appealing to Zulu nationalism. It seems ethnicity and race are key factors in South African politics.

What are the key lessons from South Africa and India?

One, voters are more enlightened than we think; after all, they deal with reality every day. The market for political ideas may be more efficient than we think. The lifespan of political lies has shortened.

Two, economic issues, matters of bread and butter, really matter in voting; other things are secondary. The beauty about economic matters is that you can’t hide them; either your financial status improves or it does not. The economy undresses politicians.

Three, the diversity of political ideas has become the norm; we must learn to live with them. The era of monolithic single parties is Gone with the Wind. Our leaders must learn to give and take.

Four, if you watch and listen to South African or Indian leaders after failing to gain a majority, you realise power is donated to our leaders by its owners: the people, the voters. Few voters realise that. That’s why failing to vote should be declared a crime.

Five, we need to have our mid-term elections. A third of MPs and senators should be elected every two-and-half years for a five-year term. We can use a lottery to select the first to go for an early election. Those who lose get paid for the remaining period. Why did the framers of the Constitution copy other parts of the US Constitution and leave out mid-term elections? County elections can also be slated as mid-term elections. Mid-term elections will keep our politicians awake and in check.

Six, politics is the same everywhere!