‘US-Style’ Indian Polls May Have Made Uncertain Voters Pick Modi
In mid-January this year, before each party’s Lok Sabha election campaign had entered battle mode, it was argued how the average, uncertain Indian voter’s preference may end up shaping the actual outcome of the 2019 election.
The fate of the Modi-led NDA government, then, hinged on convincing this group of voters (often called ‘silent voters’) to let it stay in power. At the same time, for the Opposition to have stood a chance – especially the Congress – they needed to have gone the whole hog, to have offered a powerful alternative to this group of voters, to dissuade them from voting for the incumbent regime.
The ‘Uncertain’ Voter & the 2019 Elections
After the exit polls, one can infer that the average uncertain voter group may have voted in favour of Narendra Modi. While in UP the incumbent may not do as well as it did in 2014, in other states in the Hindi heartland (including Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, where BJP lost a few months ago), and in states like West Bengal and Odisha (where the BJP seemed non-existent as a political opposition around 2014), Modi’s BJP is seen to have more leverage than any other opposition force.
Still, going ahead with the general trend seen here, and the assertion drawn on Narendra Modi staying on as India’s prime minister, what does this broadly reflect about the uncertain voter and the 2019 election?
BJP’s Muscular Narrative, Congress’ ‘Weak’ Campaign
Narendra Modi and the BJP said very little on social and economic issues, and instead of discussing its own track record, during its five years.
BJP’s projection, away from discussing its own track record, largely remained on national security (without outlining a coherent foreign policy with Pakistan or elsewhere), and on instilling a sense of public fear in the minds of voters against the odds of a ‘fragile coalition’ coming to the Centre, that would otherwise lack Modi’s ‘muscular’ approach. But these focal points from their campaign’s rhetoric seemed just enough for the BJP.
On the other hand, for the Congress and its nation-wide campaign, a welfare-driven agenda based on NYAY, a promise of jobs and greater social security, found little takers at the grassroots level. In a state like UP, most grassroots-level voters didn’t even know about NYAY or the Congress manifesto plans, and betted either in favour of the SP-BSP alliance, or the BJP. Some might argue that more than the agenda itself, Congress’ (and the rest of the Opposition’s) campaign was too weak to gather enough public attention and imagination.
To what one has seen, the discourse around social or economic issues hardly matter anymore (at least during campaigns); it is the personality of candidates backed with financial support of businesses that can outweigh any opposition, no matter how credible or reasonable it may seem (similar to the trend of how Trump rose to power in the US and may perhaps stay in power too).
Personality-driven politics in India too is increasingly crowding out the need to debate issues around threats to civic freedom, independence of democratic institutions (including the Election Commission itself), or ensure protective security to minority groups, all of which were critical to the Opposition’s chance.
At the same time, the distraction caused by personality-driven publicity campaigns raise concerns about longer-term issues around the functioning of the economy (especially in transitioning economies like India). While issues around agrarian distress, demonetisation, unemployment, slowdown in growth, may have a greater bearing in an assembly election, however, these may hardly remain relevant to the same extent in a national election.
Americanisation of Indian National Politics
Subsequently, the 2019 Indian elections saw another critical issue being raised, that is, on the inability of the Election Commission to ensure free and ‘fair’ elections across all the states. The deep erosion of trust and faith in an independent body to ensure the consistent implementation of the model code of conduct amongst all parties, or combat violence (in hate speeches and actions), will next raise questions on the security of the ballot and the EVM process itself.
The Americanization of Indian national politics – the way we see it – is an observed fact now, and spells a rather troubling phenomenon for the future of political discourse in India’s democratic instinct. In the 21st century’s digitised landscape and a social-media dominated discourse for attention (like the one seen in the US too), controlling the narrative via electronic media, and staying visible to capture each voter’s imagination 24X7, remains perhaps the only vital currency for candidates (and not parties) to win. Further, an increasing level of tribalism and polarisation of political preferences, seen in the current political discourse, resonates with what is also being seen in the US.
(The author is Associate Professor of Economics, OP Jindal Global University. He is currently Visiting Professor, Department of Economics, Carleton University. He tweets @prats1810. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)