In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, many political observers, including this reporter, made one fundamental mistake: of seeing the general elections as an aggregation of several state elections.
We estimated that BJP’s decline in the Assembly elections between 2014 and 2018 might translate into a reduced majority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 general elections.
In the end, the BJP ended up sweeping several states – including ones like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – which it had lost less than six months earlier.
The Opposition and political observers run the risk of making the same mistake after the BJP’s below par showing in the recent Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra as well as the bypolls in over 50 constituencies across 17 states.
The BJP’s performance may not necessarily be a reflection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
Modi Still Popular
The recent opinion poll by CVoter in Haryana and Maharashtra said that over 55 percent of the electorate in both the states wants to change the state government.
However, 72 percent respondents in Haryana and 67 percent respondents in Maharashtra said they do not want to change the central government.CVoter Opinion Poll
According to the poll, unemployment was the biggest issue for the voters in both states. But people were far more likely to blame this on the state government than the central government.
Modi’s personal popularity also remained high in both the states with 72 percent respondents in Haryana and 65 percent in Maharashtra picking him as their PM choice. No other leader could cross even single digits.
State Vs National Election
Haryana in particular reflects a clear voting pattern. A sizable chunk of voters who didn’t vote for the BJP in the 2014 state elections, voted for it in the 2019 national elections. And many of those who pressed the button on BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls chose a different party or stayed away in the Assembly polls a few months later.
This indicates that many voters may have chosen BJP at the national level mainly because they wanted to vote for Prime Minister Modi. In the state election, with Modi not on the ballot, many of them chose other parties.
This is true not just in Haryana, but in several states across the country.
The graph below shows that the BJP’s vote share in many states fell between the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the respective state election only to increase again in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The deeper the ‘U-curve’ the greater the fall at the state level and the increase at the national level. The extent of the curve possibly reflects the ‘Modi factor’ or the lack of it in each state.
Who is the ‘Modi Voter’?
At the centre of the ‘Modi Factor’ which worked for the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls but not so much in many Assembly polls is the ‘Modi Voter’.
This is a voter who says that he or she would not vote for the BJP if Modi is not the PM candidate.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS post poll survey in 2019, one in three BJP voters said that they would have voted differently if Modi wasn’t the PM candidate.
For voters of other NDA constituents, the figure was one-fourth. This means that there are a sizable chunk of Modi voters who aren’t necessarily BJP voters.
What else do we know about these voters?
According to the CSDS 2019 survey, such voters are more likely to be young, first-time voters (between 18 to 22 years).
“44 percent of all voters made their choice based on the party and only 17 percent based on the candidate, 35 percent BJP voters between 18-22 years decided based on the PM candidate and 33 percent voted based on the party.”CSDS Post Poll Survey 2019
The survey says that 23 percent of all voters said they would have voted for another party if it put up a different PM candidate but for first time BJP voters, the figure was one-third.
One of the reasons why these young voters voted for Modi was the Balakot strike. The CSDS post-poll survey narrowed down on a sample of young voters who considered unemployment as a “somewhat serious issue” and within this category, compared the choices of those who had heard of the Balakot strikes and those who hadn’t. 50 percent of those in this category who had heard of the strikes voted for the BJP. Among those who hadn’t heard of the strikes, only 32 percent voted for the BJP.
Social Conservatives vs Economic Right
There also appears to be a slight ideological difference between a ‘Modi voter’ and an average ‘BJP voter’.
In their article,The BJP’s 2014 ‘Modi Wave’ An Ideological Consolidation of the Right, Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma write that “social conservatives were more likely than liberals to say that Modi’s candidature made no difference to whether they would vote for the BJP or not. In contrast, those on the economic right indicate that they would have voted differently (i e, not voted for the BJP) if Modi had not been the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate”.
In their book Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, Chhibber and Verma argue that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, people opposed to “politics of recognition” (that is they are opposed to reservation for lower castes and concessions to minorities) were more likely to vote for the BJP irrespective of Modi’s candidature.
They say that on the other hand, those opposed to “statism” (that is those who wanted the state to retreat from regulating business and providing subsidies), were more likely to move away from BJP if Modi wasn’t the candidate.
Therefore, Chhibber and Verma argue that, Modi helped bring the anti-statism and economically right-wing voters to the BJP in addition to the party’s existing support among social conservatives.
More Enthusiastic in National Elections
Chhibber and Verma also write that in 2014, voters who said they are voting for BJP only because of Modi were more likely to turn up to vote than those who said they would vote for the BJP any way. According to their analysis of the CSDS 2014 survey, 84 percent of the ‘Modi voters’ said they turned out to vote as opposed to 77 percent among the ‘BJP voters’.
These findings about the ‘Modi impact’ are significant as it would also mean that younger voters or economically right-wing voters or those who voted for BJP mainly because of national security issues, may have chosen to stay away or vote for a different party in state elections as Modi wasn’t in the running.
The Modi factor isn’t just about voters. In the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a large chunk of people became “mobilisers” or “volunteers” for the BJP only because of PM Modi’s candidature. This includes people who campaigned for the party, donated to the party and distributed party’s publicity material.
“14 percent of those who said they would vote for the BJP irrespective of Modi, became mobilisers for the party in the 2014 elections. But among those who said they would have shifted to another party if Modi wasn’t the PM candidate, 19 percent ended up working as mobilisers for the party.”Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma in Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India
This is an important finding as it shows that ‘Modi voters’ are more likely to campaign for the party in central elections than those who vote for BJP irrespective of the party candidate.
Now, why are these mobilisers important?
The number of mobilisers is crucial in boosting the BJP’s votes in general elections.
“Modi’s success depended on his ability to attract vote mobilisers... As the number of BJP vote mobilisers increased, the proportion of the BJP’s vote share also went up”.Pradeep Chhibber and Susan Ostermann in The BJP’s Fragile Mandate: Modi and Vote Mobilizers in the 2014 General Elections,
The authors further point out that in 2014, the BJP had more mobilisers than any other party and that while the number of BJP mobilisers had increased since 2004, the number of Congress mobilisers had decreased.
What is also crucial in understanding the Modi factor, is Chhibber and Ostermann’s assertion that these mobilisers are driven by winnability and not party loyalty.
“These mobilisers, while capable of increasing both turnout and vote share for their chosen party, display little party loyalty or partisanship. Instead, they are drawn to a winning candidate or party. Since it is ‘winnability’ that motivates mobilisers, their support for a party is shallow and, potentially, fleeting,” they write.
This means that in 2014 and 2019, many people might have become mobilisers for the BJP because Modi gave the impression of being a winning candidate with a vision. They may not be as keen to act as mobilisers in state elections in which Modi isn’t the leader contesting, thereby placing BJP at a disadvantage in Assembly polls compared to general elections.