Indian women listen to Uttar Pradesh state Chief Minister Mayawati during an election rally in Ghaziabad, India, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. (Tsering Topgyal/AP)

In the world’s largest democracy, hundreds of millions of voters are delivering a powerful message to their politicians: Give us growth, give us opportunity, let us take part in the country’s economic miracle. And if you are going to line your pockets, don’t be so brazen about it.

The message, which some politicians are gradually absorbing, was underscored in state election results released last week: Deliver, and voters will return you to power. Fail, and you’ll be kicked out.

The more politicians who get the message, the better governance will become and the more democracy will help India grow, economists and political scientists say.

“The lesson is that people want delivery, and part of that delivery is growth,” said Arvind Panagariya, an economics professor at Columbia University, adding that “brazen” corruption also has increasingly swayed voters. “In India, the perception is that everybody is corrupt. The mere fact of corruption everybody accepts. But if it becomes excessive, if there is nothing covert about it, that hurts you.”

The old cliche about India is that the electorate did not so much cast their votes as vote for their caste. The fracturing of politics into caste-based parties seemed to make a mockery of democracy, and one study showed that the more people voted along caste lines instead of on merit, the more corrupt were the politicians they elected.

Democracy seemed to give poor people the power to throw politicians out of office every five years, but not to improve their lives.

But India has undergone a “revolution of rising expectations” since the economy was liberalized two decades ago and growth began to take off, Panagariya and fellow Columbia professor Jagdish Bhagwati say.

“People at all levels, especially the poor, had discovered that unlike during the first four decades of independence, rapid improvement in economic fortune was possible,” Panagariya wrote. “They, therefore, now punished non-performing governments with electoral defeat and rewarded performing ones with victory.”

‘Mandate for a dream’

Many members of India’s middle class view their democracy as deeply corrupt and dysfunctional, and some see it as a handicap in the race to emulate China. A nationwide anti-corruption movement last year gave voice to a deep desire for change.

Parliament has become a symbol more of gridlock than governance, while rising criminality among politicians and illegal campaign contributions threaten to worsen corruption.

But the poor in India value even the limited power their votes give them, and they still turn out in large numbers in election after election. Democracy has helped keep this diverse land of 1.2 billion people together as one country since independence from Britain in 1947, and it has the power to signal a brighter future.

“India has changed,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper. “Our voter is no longer confused. Nor is she a prisoner of narrow-focus prejudices and loyalties. She now reads the big picture: agendas, track records and what’s-in-it-for-me-and-my-children’s-future. That is why verdict after verdict, you get the same message. That our elections are becoming increasingly meritocratic.”

Today, politicians in many states have realized that they have to build broader coalitions of voters, cutting across caste or religious lines, to have a chance of winning power, and then govern their people better to retain it.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, calls it a “mandate for a dream.” As voters choose empowerment over patronage, he wrote in the Indian Express, “there is almost a social revolution in the making.”

“It does look like the caste factor, which in the past was so dominant in Indian elections, is lessening,” Panagariya said. “The recognition that things could actually be better seems to be cutting across caste lines, and that to me is very heartening.”

In several states, including Bihar, Gujarat, Orissa and Chhattisgarh, local governments that delivered rates of economic growth significantly higher than the national average in the past decade won reelection to second or even third terms.

In a study of the 2009 national parliamentary elections, Panagariya and co-
author Poonam Gupta of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations found that incumbent parties in high-growth states won 85 percent of the seats they contested. Incumbents in states growing below the national average won 30 percent.

‘A tipping point’

In the densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh, home to one in six Indians, Chief Minister Mayawati — who uses just one name — had delivered respectable growth rates of just above 7 percent during her five years in office. But that did not appear to satisfy voters, who tossed her out of office in the recent elections.

That rate of growth was below the national average, and slower than in most of the neighboring states, economists said. More damning still may have been the way Mayawati flaunted her vast wealth, famously accepting a huge garland made up of 1,000-rupee notes from supporters in 2010, thought to be worth between $400,000 and $2 million.

Perhaps just as significant, analysts say, the Samajwadi Party that swept her from power led the most “aspirational” campaign of all the major parties, relentlessly focused on promises of electricity, roads and even free laptops.

“I want to take the state on the path of prosperity,” said the incoming chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, 38.

In the relatively rich seaside state of Goa, the ruling Congress party had achieved strong growth but still lost power this month mainly because of a massive illegal-mining scam. In poorer states, growth often appears to be the decisive factor in electoral terms.

“Economic liberalization and development are empowering the disenfranchised and giving the poor a leg up,” said Baijayant “Jay” Panda, a lawmaker from Orissa’s ruling Biju Janata Dal party. “People do indeed benefit, and that forces us as politicians to focus on what people want.”

But if the smaller, regional parties such as Panda’s have gotten the message, the Congress party seems oblivious at the national level, Panagariya and Panda say.

Congress, whose direction is set by left-of-center party leader Sonia Gandhi, has relied on a program of social benefits and handouts — rather than economic reforms — to win over the poor in the past few years. Its performance in the recent state elections suggests that the strategy has largely failed.

Panda said India is too big and diverse for “the epiphany” to happen at the same time everywhere. Nevertheless, he said, momentum is building. “We’ll approach a tipping point in the next five years, allowing the country as a whole to shift gears.”