DisFact #29: Jammu & Kashmir, Article 370 and the aftermath

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Welcome to DisFact, a newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. Here is the list of all previous issues.

The Union government has scrapped the special status of Jammu and Kashmir by modifying Article 370 of the Indian constitution and bifurcated the state into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir with a legislature (like Delhi and Puducherry) and Ladakh without legislature (like Chandigarh).

Union Home Minister Amit Shah responds to the debate in the Lok Sabha to revoke Article 370 in Lok Sabha on Tuesday. (ANI Photo)

In practice, this means that Jammu and Kashmir won’t have its own constitution anymore, there will be no separate flag for the erstwhile state, its own laws will be nullified and laws passed in the Indian Parliament will be applicable, people outside the erstwhile state can buy property and invest in the region, among other things. 

These are changes in the rules. What that means for politics of the region is a matter of debate: Will it lead to further isolation and alienation of locals? Will it lead to increased unrest in the valley? Will it lead to “emotional integration”, as BJP general secretary Ram Madhav put it, of the region with India? Will it lead to better economic prospects for the citizens? We can only speculate at the moment.

Anyone who found this “unexpected” or “surprising” is merely being ignorant about history: along with introducing Uniform Civil Code in India and building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, revoking Article 370 had been one of the core planks of BJP’s cultural nationalist idea of India. The RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP, had opposed Article 370 since the 1950s. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to let go of Article 370 in its election manifesto. It delivered. 

Let’s unpack what happened.


Background

How Kashmir became part of India, a simplified version:

  • The princely state of J&K wanted to be an independent state. It did not want to India or Pakistan. An attack by Pakistani “tribesman” led the state to accede to India. 

  • But there was a condition: “The Instrument of Accession signed by then-Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir in October 1947 specified only three subjects on which the state would transfer its powers to the Government of India: foreign affairs, defence and communications,” historian Srinath Raghavan explained in The Print

In March 1948, the Maharaja appointed an interim government in the state, with Sheikh Abdullah as the prime minister. The interim government was also tasked with convening a constituent assembly for framing a constitution for the state. 

In the meantime, the Constituent Assembly of India was conducting its deliberations. In July 1949, Sheikh Abdullah and three colleagues joined the Indian Constituent Assembly and negotiated the special status of J&K, leading to the adoption of Article 370. This article limited the Union’s legislative power over Kashmir to the three subjects in the Instrument of Accession.

If the Union government wanted to extend other provisions of the Indian Constitution, it would have to issue a Presidential Order under Article 370. The state government would have to give prior concurrence to this order. Moreover, the constituent assembly of J&K would have to accept these provisions and incorporate them in the state’s constitution. 

Once Kashmir’s constitution was framed, there could be no further extension of the Union’s legislative power to the state. This secured J&K’s autonomy. (The Print)

So that’s how Jammu and Kashmir was integrated in the Indian Union.

What is Article 370: It’s a carefully drafted legislation to ensure J&K is integrated on the basis of conditions it acceded to the Indian Union. It provided special status to Jammu and Kashmir: it restricted the role of Centre in the state’s affairs and allowed the state to have its own constitution and flag. Apart from three areas—foreign affairs, defence and communications—the state would draft its own laws. 

However, Home Minister Amit Shah argued otherwise: he argued that Article 370 did not attach J&K to India—it was not a precursor to Kashmir acceding to Indian territory. The Instrument of Accession was signed in 1947, Shah said, while Article 370 included in 1949. 

What is Article 35A: Adopted in 1954, it gave the state the power to define “permanent residents”—meaning people who can vote, hold public office, purchase property and settle in the state, get the benefit of scholarships, among other things. 

Both the articles aimed to provide autonomy to J&K. The debate centers around about the implications of this autonomy.


The debate on Article 370

Arguments against Article 370 and special status for J&K:

  • The RSS has held Article 370 and 35A as the root cause for separatist sentiment in the valley. Autonomy creates conditions for separatism, they ague, and it against the Hindutva-inspired view of the “nation”. The step leads to the full integration of the state in the Indian Union. 

  • Home Minister Amit Shah said Article 370 was hurting the development of the region. It has led to people stuck in poverty, rampant corruption in the government, and lack to access the benefits of reservation hurts the progress of the state. Special status has done nothing special for the citizens. 

  • Taking off the special status will not only firmly “integrate” the region with the rest of the country, it will also yield economic benefits to the citizens of the region. Militant outfits exploit the lack of economic opportunities and plenty of unemployed youth to terrorise the region, and hence the new move is a step towards peace. 

Arguments in favour of Article 370:

  • J&K is already constitutionally integrated with India. Article 370 is not an issue of integration but of autonomy. And autonomy is integral to the identity of the state. 

  • Attempts to abolish Article 35A is viewed by some as a plan to change the unique Muslim demography of the state—it is the only Muslim majority state in India. Two-thirds of the state’s 12.5 million residents were Muslims, as per 2011 census. 

  • According to the Indian Express:

The special status guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir was not a partisan or personal decision of the founding fathers of the Indian republic. It was based in the imperative of nation-building. It was a recognition of the role a Muslim majority state — its unique demography protected by the Constitution — would play in belying the claims on which Partition had taken place, and in strengthening the secular “idea of India”.

Yesterday, the first view prevailed and sailed through, a reflection of BJP’s increasing political clout in India.


Questions that matter

The events that led to this change also raise critical questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “New India”. Here are six things I am thinking about.

First, the diminishing value of public consultation

There are valid reasons for and against this move. The issue should have been adequately debated on the floor of the Parliament. 

Instead, here is what happened: Rajya Sabha MPs were given less than an hour and a half to interpret legal jargon running across 57 pages and file amendments. Then the MPs were given around four hours to discuss the bill in the Parliament before voting. 

Even if you are very sure of what you think is the right move, for a bill that is reorganising a state, concerns the future of a conflict-ridden state with geopolitical implications, is it a big ask to discuss before putting it into action?

Who’s missing: While most of the TV channels and netizens erupted with joy, one voice was starkly missing, the ones who will have to live with the implications of the decision: people of Jammu and Kashmir. The region is witnessing the worst communication blackout in a decade: no internet, no phone connection, and hence there are no reports from the valley. 

Why such a hurry? If there were genuine reasons for a hasty process–national security, as usual, will be the most likely explanation–the public was not informed. Why? (More on this later)

Second, the legality of the process

It is not clear whether the process that the Centre followed was legal or constitutional. 

Here is how the BJP pulled it off:

  1. Article 370 allows the President of India to change Article 370 but that requires the recommendation of “Constituent Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir”. But the constituent assembly was dissolved in 1957. 

  1. So the government inserted a new provision in Article 367 of the Constitution that declares that “the expression ‘Constituent Assembly of the State…’ shall read ‘Legislative Assembly of the State’”—meaning recommendation of the state legislature was required. 

  1. Now, given that J&K had no state legislature—it is currently under President's rule—the President required approval of the governor, who is appointed by the Center. 

Effectively, no approval was required. 

Did the Union government legally exploited a loophole or illegally followed an unconstitutional process? Does the Governor enjoy the power to take such decisions in the absence of state legislatures? It is not clear. 

However, as one lawyer argued, the government breached the spirit of the law: the idea to get approval from the constituent assembly meant local stakeholders get a seat on the table in deciding their fate. And that did not happen.

The process the government followed is questionable. Do the ends justify the means?

Read Madhav Khosla’s fine piece on the legal implications and constitutional questions that arise from the end of Jammu and Kashmir as a state. 

Third, what about Modi’s Sabka Vishwaas motto?

The monumental changes were introduced stealthily and secretively: overnight detention of mainstream politicians, complete communications shutdown in the state (mobile internet services, cellular network, landline/broadband connection, cable TV, everything was blocked), increased deployment of military personnel (around one lakh personnel are deployed in the valley right now). 

Unless you take the hardline view and mistakenly equate every dissident in the valley as a terror sympathiser and Pakistani agent, it should be clear that the process was unjust. The stakeholders should have been a part of the consultative process.

“Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas, Sabka Vishwaas”, huh? The last bit is merely a slogan.

Fourth, what will happen next?

At this point, we can only speculate what’s coming next. 

Here are possible scenarios:

“The lack of development is the product of chronic unrest, which has had less to do with the special status of its citizenry than the fact that it remains disputed territory, with Pakistan building its national purpose around fanning the flames of the separatists and terrorists”

  • Reduced political space for pro-India Kashmiri leaders?

    In July 2017, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said that the political fallout of removing Article 35A would reduce political space in J&K for politicians like her who owed allegiance to India—and by implication cede space to separatist leaders. 

  • Unrest: The home ministry is expecting an increase in stone-pelting incidents, more youth are expected to turn to militancy and Pakistan is expected to push terror to the valley, according to the Indian Express. The government is prepared, sources told the paper, to handle the expected law and order fallout of the decision. 

  • Handling the protests: How the large scale protests are handled will determine the long term implications. An increase in death and injuries is likely to increase anti-India sentiment. If the locals are not taken in confidence—they were not consulted during the process—and their alienation is not addressed, it might make the situation even more chaotic. 

Fifth, what about government accountability?

Were the decisions taken in response to external threats (fears of US withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan BAT attacks) as the government had hinted over the last week, or was it only about domestic politics?

The turn of events suggest that domestic politics was the trigger behind every move of the government: increased security deployment (around one lakh personnel are deployed in the valley right now), calling back tourists from the state, cancellation of the Amarnath yatra, the shutdown of NIT Srinagar and evacuation of hostels—all were, as we now know, steps to prepare for the expected backlash in the valley following the removal of the special status. The government knew that the decision would not be popular in the valley. 

The government owes an explanation of why external threats were emphasised in the runup to these decisions. The question of “how much information the government should reveal” appears in every contentious debate: air strikes, demonetisation, and others.

It appears that the public at large is okay to not have those answers.

Sixth, the implications for India’s federal structure

What we learnt in this incident is that by invoking President’s rule—meaning without the presence of a democratically elected state government—the Central government can demote a state to a Union Territory. UTs are directly administered by the Central government. In UTs with legislature, the Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Center works in consultation of the elected government. 

The fact that a Central government can dismember a State without prior consultations is a red flag for India's federal structure. Should the Central government even enjoy such power? It is J&K today, can it be West Bengal tomorrow?

Time will tell whether these actions will lead to a new beginning or the beginning of an end. I hope it’s the former.

Tell me what I missed? I will include it in the next issue.


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DisFact #28: How did the BJP win more seats in 2019 than 2014?

Hello, readers!

Welcome to DisFact, a newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. Here is the list of all previous issues.

Today’s newsletter: 2500 words; ~11 minute read.

The most likely outcome of the 2019 election, I wrote in this newsletter in March, is the return of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister without the BJP getting a majority on its own. 

The reasoning was straightforward: There was no visible decline in Modi’s popularity; BJP’s governance record was mixed; anti-incumbency in certain pockets was expected to take down BJP’s overall tally.

The outcome looked so obvious. How many seats the BJP will lose, and where it will offset those losses, remained the key question.  

That did not happen. BJP won with full majority, winning 303 seats, more than its 2014 tally, with higher victory margins. People across age groups, gender, education levels and income class voted for the BJP.

How did that happen?

We can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Modi government—which is anyway coloured by our political preferences—but it will be safe to say it was not spectacular: not mind blowing enough to make the results sound so self-evident. 

How did the BJP manage to script this historic win?

In today’s issue, I make eleven points, mostly focused on voter behaviour, based on a review of data from opinion polls, political science theories and reported differences in the campaign strategies of the two national parties, to make sense of the verdict.

This is the second of a multi-part series analysing the 2019 Indian election. In the first part, I explained the final result tally. Read it here.


1. How do voters make decisions on whom to vote?

It’s a complex question. Many factors are at play, and there is no one right answer. 

At an event organised by the Center for Policy Research analysing the 2019 elections, political scientist Neelanjan Circar discussed two models of voter behaviour: 

First, the model of political accountability: people vote for vikas. This model assumes that people are issue based-voters. They want jobs, welfare benefits, bijli-sadak-pani. If a leader delivers—or is expected to deliver in the future—people support and vote for the leader. Accountability matters. Outcome drives the vote. 

Second, the model of political mobilisation: people vote based on vishwas.

This model suggests that voters are already attached to a political party or a political leader and “have decided to vote for him, and are then looking to come up with issues to support the idea — whether it be quality of leadership, standing strong against Pakistan, or centrally-sponsored welfare schemes.” 

This explains why issues like joblessness and rural distress don’t take centre stage in elections. Carefully manufactured narratives take precedence over real performance, and the party that is better able to mobilise voters on the ground gets an edge in the election. 

Mobilisation is driven by numerous factors, Circar said, including the strength of the party organisation, control of the means of communication — traditional and social media — and direct and regular contact with the voter.  

I think the second model fits better in explaining the 2019 verdict.


2. What are the “issues” people say they care about?

Across all opinion polls, economic issues stand at the top—at least that’s what people say. 

According to India Today-My Axis India post-poll study, unemployment (33%), development (19%) and farmer-related issues (14%) were the major poll issues for voters in 2019. 

Not just in recent months: unemployment has been the biggest concern for voters since January 2015, according to the long term issue tracker of C-Voter. 


3. How do people perceive Modi’s record on managing the economy?

According to Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey, people’s assessment of their personal economic condition improved from May 2018 to March 2019. The overall assessment of the Indian economy—in terms of perception—also improved in that time period (34% described it as being good while only 25% viewed it as being bad)—clearly pointing to advantage for the BJP. 

However, people’s evaluation of “economic performance” is not always based on objective facts. It’s driven more by one’s feelings and political orientation. According to Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey:

While over half the BJP supporters were found to be viewing the economy in a positive light, among Congress and Congress allies’ supporters only one-fifth held such a view. Supporters of opposition parties were more likely to view the economy as being in average or bad shape. 

To be sure, the authors of the study are careful to note they don’t know which way the causality runs: are people deciding their political preferences based on their perception of the economy or is the perception of the economy being determined by their political preferences?

While the evidence from India is thin, there is ample literature in political psychology that shows facts really don’t matter in politics.

In the book How to win an Indian election, drawing on his experience as a political consultant, Shivam Shankar Singh argued that “a negligible number voted based on data or logic, even though most wanted to believe that they were being logical”. 

Singh, who has managed campaigns for both the BJP and the Congress, emphasised the role of messaging:

The value of short and memorable messaging can’t be underestimated in politics. Any political strategy that doesn’t account for this is bound to fail. A binder full of facts isn’t memorable, and is definitely not something the average voter would read. Most people don’t have the time or the patience to read conflicting opinions to choose a side; they choose one based on the popular rhetoric that they get to hear consistently. 


4. “The economy” is so vague. What about unemployment? How does the public evaluate Modi’s record on the jobs front?

As per Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey, “people do not seem as convinced about the government’s claim of having created lakhs of jobs”.

When respondents were asked whether employment opportunities under the Modi government had increased or decreased during the last five years, close to half (46%) said they had gone down, which is worse than the situation in May 2014, when one-third (33%) had reported a decrease in employment opportunities under the UPA. 

“The NDA fares worse than the UPA on the jobs front,” the study concluded. 


5. If people care the most about jobs, and people believe that Modi didn’t deliver, why did they vote for the BJP?

It’s a bet on the future. 

The jobs crisis doesn’t automatically translate into anti-incumbency against the ruling party. Just because Modi was unable to deliver, that doesn’t mean that people think the opposition will be able to perform better.

The same survey found that 40% of the people who feel job opportunities have decreased wanted to give the BJP government another chance. 

Simply put, most people believe that while BJP may not have delivered, it is better equipped to fix it. Meaning, It is not that most voters simply bought into the government’s spin on jobs. It is that despite the crisis, they believe that Modi is the guy who will solve their problems.

People seem to have an extraordinary faith in intentions and integrity of Narendra Modi.


6. Was 2019 an “issue-less” election? 

Look at Modi’s speeches: For India Today, I listened to five randomly selected speeches of Modi and calculated the time he spent on various themes. I found that Modi spent 53% of the time in attacking the opposition, 29% on work done, 18% on national security.

Unlike 2014, hope and development were not the primary themes of Modi’s campaign. The party focused more on conveying how terrible the opposition parties and their coalitions (“mahamilavat”) are for India than highlighting the work done by the government. 

The opposition had no clear narrative. It was an ideological fight—and the BJP won it. 


7. Are ideological positions driving voter choice?

I think so.

In The Print, political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta explained that there are two types of electoral issues: valence issues and positional issues

On valence issues, “a vast majority of voters have similar views. All citizens would like development, reduction of poverty, fight against corruption and an improvement in the conditions of rural (and even urban) India.”

On positional issues, “political parties usually have divergent views and they try to convince voters about their respective positions. Positional issues include core ideological subjects, such as the BJP’s stand to do away with Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that accords special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir or the Congress’ position on secularism.”

What matters more? Let’s take national security as an example.

While many have criticised the BJP for reaping electoral gains from the Indo-Pak confrontation earlier this year, political science suggests it totally made sense for Modi to focus on national security to gain more votes. 

National security in itself is a valence issue, Verma and Gupta wrote, “but how a party chooses to approach it is a positional issue. The BJP’s ideological position, for instance, drives its stance on hard nationalism.”

While voters generally report valence issues (like economic issues) among their top concerns, positional issues often form the basis of their choice. In 2019, with heightened tensions between India and Pakistan — 53% of the people, for instance, did not want India to play with Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup at the time, according to data from Axis My India — national security rose up among voter concerns. 

It is very likely that Balakot airstrikes, which reinforced Modi’s strongman image, became the filter through which many people looked at other issues.


8. What was the impact of BJP government schemes on the women vote?

In the book The Verdict, Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala argue that irrespective of what’s happening to the macroeconomy and GDP growth, voters care about whether that translates into micro-level improvements in their constituency and daily lives. 

Did that happen during Modi’s first five years?

In 2019, the BJP was able to bridge the gender disadvantage. While traditionally, more men voted for the BJP as compared to women, the divide vanished in 2019. It’s a significant achievement. 

Modi won the women vote partly because of his schemes, many observers have noted. According to Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, Ujjwala Yojana was the most popular policy programme of the Modi government, followed by Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Jan Dhan Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao. One in three survey respondents — both men and women — reported to have benefited from the Ujjwala Yojana. 

Among women beneficiaries of this scheme, more women voted for the BJP compared to those who did not benefit from it (41% and 33% respectively). Among women beneficiaries of the Jan Dhan Yojana, 42% of women beneficiaries opted for the BJP compared to 34% of non-beneficiaries. (The Hindu)

BJP claims that there are 22 crore beneficiaries (the number is likely to be inflated) of at least one scheme of the Narendra Modi. 

Journalist Kunal Purohit highlighted the impact of schemes in this insightful Twitter thread:


9. Amplifying the message: “Modi worked for you. He will continue to do so.”

Sure, schemes helped. But the delivery of benefits doesn’t necessarily translate into actual electoral outcomes. It’s not enough to be a beneficiary: voters need to be continuously reminded of the benefit they have received, to increase its recall value when they cast their vote. 

Modi understands the political importance of these schemes. And he astutely used the resources of the political consulting firms the BJP had hired to win the perception battle of who cares and delivers for the poor.

How? Enter Jarvis Consulting. 

BJP got access to detailed beneficiary data — name, phone numbers, address and other details of beneficiaries of government schemes — and consultants at Jarvis were tasked to individually target voters (through calls, messages, WhatsApp) with messages of benefits they had received.

Jarvis had set up one call centre for two to three Lok Sabha seats. 

According to a report in the Indian Express:

The soft message to the workers was you have to say two lines. Go there and say look, Modi has given schemes to this many families in only five years. Give him another five and you can make that number even more,” a senior core member of Jarvis told The Indian Express.

Two things are worth noting.

  • First, the beneficiary data is not public. BJP got access to the data because it’s ruling at the Centre.

  • Second, conducting an exercise at this scale — reaching crores of voters through individual phone calls, and not automated calls — requires resources, meaning money. 

It is worth thinking about the question journalist Raghu Karnad has raised: In 2019, Is BJP Riding a Modi Wave or a Money Wave?


10. What are the other ways in which political consultants helped the BJP?

As I reported for the Huffington Post in April, the Association of Billion Minds (ABM) is the in-house political consulting firm of the BJP, which directly reports to party president Amit Shah. 

The consultancy played a key role in every aspect of the BJP’s election planning, along with running a fake news factory, that aimed at spreading politically motivated disinformation on social media platforms. 

The firm compiles detailed dossiers on potential candidates from each constituency, prepares poll booth-level political intelligence reports, plots out routes for teams canvassing for votes, runs polling day war-rooms, and designs and manages online propaganda campaigns.

Strictly in terms of strategy, ABM’s mandate was to speak truth to Amit Shah and provide independent feedback — devoid of the political ambitions that local party workers might have — from the ground. 

Do their services have an impact? It is difficult to say. In the absence of strong evidence, one can look at the opposition to understand the difference it could have made. 

While BJP leveraged data and technology to professionally run the campaign, Congress’s campaign faltered—presumably because of bad data.


11. How data may have derailed Congress’s campaign

Detailed reports in HuffPost India, Economic Times and Hindustan Times show the blunder that was Congress’s data analytics department.

The department played a key role in the direction and delivery of the 2019 poll campaign at multiple levels—focus on the Rafale jets deal as a sign of alleged corruption by the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership; the timing of the Nyay income guarantee scheme as a medium to woo the economically weaker sections; and even the selection of candidates in some states—as the data provided by the unit was taken as an important guiding factor. (Hindustan Times)

Rafale allegations

In an interview to NDTV, Rahul Gandhi said: “Our numbers are showing close to 67% people in India today believe that Rafale was a scam.”

But opinion polls suggested otherwise. 

According to data from Axis My India, in March, most people were not even aware of the Rafale deal. And among those who were, many blamed the previous Congress government for India not having Rafale planes; most people didn’t want the price of Rafale planes to be declared (which the Congress was demanding); and very few thought there was corruption in the deal.

NYAY scheme

Same goes for NYAY. Congress’s optimism did not match with ground reality. 

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Praveen Chakravarty, the head of the Congress data analytics department, said:

You will be actually very, very surprised. Awareness about NYAY has increased and when people know about it, it does become an election issue to talk about. It is very clear for me from my polls that Nyay is the central talking point in states from the third phase onwards.

But all opinion polls and ground reports pointed to the other direction: Most people did not know about the NYAY scheme—especially those who would get the most benefit from the scheme. 

Gandhi was hitting the wrong “talking points” during the campaign—thanks to the insights from the data unit. 


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DisFact #27: The return of Modi, in numbers (Part 1)

Hello, readers!

Welcome to DisFact, a newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. Here is the list of all previous issues.

This is the first of a multi-part series analysing the 2019 Indian election. In today’s issue, I focus on the final results: what happened?


Verdict 2019, explained

Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi decisively won a second term with full majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. 

The BJP won 303 of the total 542 seats that went to polls, improving its 2014 tally of 282 seats. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 351 seats. The victory is historic: for the first time in nearly half a century, the same leader has won consecutive majorities as Prime Minister. 

Here are nine key points:

1. Record vote share jump for the BJP

BJP’s vote share increased from around 31% in 2014 to 37% in 2019, a 6% point swing. This is significant: in the history of Indian elections, no incumbent government had increased its vote share at this scale

This huge jump in BJP’s vote share also led to a decline in vote share of non-BJP non-Congress parties. Their share in total votes dropped to 43%, the lowest since the 1984 election. 

Why it matters: Since 1989 to 2014, India saw coalition governments at the Centre, coinciding with the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP. The trend hinted that single-party dominance — like the Congress enjoyed post-Independence—is over and regional governments may play a pivotal role in forming government at the Centre. BJP’s two consecutive majority victories go against that trend: BJP has firmly established itself as the focal point of the Indian political landscape.

Bigger margins: Not only did BJP win more seats, but it also won them by bigger margins. BJP’s median margin of victory jumped from 16% in 2014 to 20% in 2019. 


2. BJP: India's new national hegemon

Barring South India, BJP won more than 60% of the seats in every part of the country, effectively sweeping its strongholds in the North and the West, continuing its rise in the North East, and making inroads in the East, especially West Bengal and Odisha. Here is the region-wise breakup:


3. Saffron party’s eastward expansion

Odisha and West Bengal were the most looked after states in the pre-election analysis: BJP’s gains in the two states, it was expected, would offset losses in other regions, especially in the Hindi heartland. 

That indeed happened: the saffron party significantly increased its seat share and vote share in both states. 

West Bengal: The BJP won 18 of the 42 seats in West Bengal, up from just 2 in 2014. The rise of the BJP, a right-wing party, ironically, comes at the expense of the left parties, which were decimated in this election. BJP is now the principal challenger to the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress in the state. 

Odisha: BJP won 8 of the 21 seats, up from just 1 in 2014, and has replaced Congress as the main opposition party to the Naveen Patnaik led Biju Janata Dal.


4. The decline of the Congress party

Congress increased its total tally from 44 to 52, but that doesn’t capture how bad 2019 turned out for the grand old party. Three points, from my India Today piece:

  • Congress in competition: “In 2019, the Congress was in a competing position — either winner or runner up — in 262 seats, six down compared to 268 in 2014 and 350 in 2009.”

  • Margin of victory: “In the 52 seats the Congress won in 2019, the median margin of victory was 8.6 per cent, five percentage points lower than the 13.6 per cent for the 44 seats in 2014.”

  • BJP-Congress head-on: “Look at the seats where the BJP and Congress fought head-on. In 2014, both the national parties were in a direct fight — in position one or two — in 189 seats: BJP won 166 of those seats, a strike rate of 88 per cent. In 2019, there were 192 such seats, and the BJP won 176, that is 92 per cent of the seats, meaning BJP further improved its performance in a head-on contest with the Congress party.”


5. State assembly election results didn't matter

2018 was not a particularly good year for the BJP. In December 2018, the BJP lost assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The momentum picked up by the Congress party was expected to hurt the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha election. That did not happen. BJP won 61 of the 65 seats in the three states. 

How did the situation change in just five months? The most plausible explanation is that people voted differently in state and national elections. Local factors and state-level anti-incumbency did not matter as much in the Lok Sabha election. And 2019 was primarily a referendum for Mr Modi—not local MPs. 


6. The social base of the BJP is getting transformed

BJP is no more a Brahmin-Baniya party, nor is its popularity limited to urban pockets, nor to the rich. 

Data from the India Today-My Axis India post poll study shows that the BJP got support across demographic cuts. Here is the caste-wise voting breakup:

Rural/Urban: 49% of urban respondents voted for the BJP as compared to 44% respondents in rural areas. In fact, BJP’s greatest gains and highest margins of victory came in the most rural regions, according to an analysis by political scientist Neelanjan Sircar published in the Hindustan Times

Income: Breaking down voting preference by family income doesn’t show much difference. Rich or poor, it didn’t matter: voting preference did not change with income classes, meaning BJP is no more a party that gets the bulk of the support from the rich.

Explore more: If you want to dive deeper into voting patterns by demographic cuts, play with the interactive graphic I made using India Today-My Axis India post-poll study. For 20 major states, the study provides a detailed breakdown of voting preferences across seven key demographic parameters: gender, geography, family income, education, occupation, community/caste and age. Click here.


7. Religious polarisation?

Many are claiming that the resounding verdict is proof that religious minorities voted heavily for the BJP. That is not true. Look at the previous chart: Only 10% Muslims voted for the BJP in 2019, according to India Today-Axis My India data—not much of a change from previous elections. 

Data from CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey reports similar figures, and authors of the study argue that the “2019 verdict is a manifestation of the deepening religious divide in India”:

If the Hindus were on one side, the minorities were clearly on the other, indicating a deeply polarised verdict. Only 8% of Muslim voters nationally ended up voting for the BJP, the same as last time. Christians and Sikhs too largely kept away from the BJP. Among Christians, 11% voted for the party. Among Sikhs, the number was the same (the Akali Dal, the BJP’s ally, got 20%).

This lack of enthusiasm for the BJP among the minority communities is also evident in the party not being able to perform too well in minority-concentrated States like Kerala, Punjab and Goa. (The Hindu)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that religious polarisation was the core reason behind BJP’s massive victory (more on that in the next issue).


8. Was there a Modi factor?

Yes—very much.

  • Vote for Modi: According to post-poll data from Lokniti-CSDS, 32% of BJP voters and 25% of BJP’s NDA allies voters said that their voting preference would have changed if Modi was not the prime ministerial candidate. That basically means: Modi won 2019. Other BJP MPs tagged along.

  • PM candidate or Local MP? Data from the India Today-My Axis India post-poll study shows that for 37% of the voters, the Prime Ministerial candidate was the most important factor while casting their vote, while 25% voted on the basis of the local candidate — indicating the Presidential nature of the contest. I don’t have historical data to check how this compares with 2014 figures. 

  • Rahul vs Modi: Wide gap in popularity of the two leaders. 53% wanted Modi to be the next Prime Minister and 28% wanted Rahul Gandhi, according to India Today-My Axis India polling data. Here is the state-wise breakup:

Political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta highlight this point in an op-ed for The Print:

It is important to note that PM Modi’s personal popularity remained high even during the learner period of 2018, with a high possibility of the 2019 elections becoming plebiscitary in nature. The opposition offered no alternative vision, no message of hope, no consistent line of attack on the Modi government, and no new credible promise. This sharpened the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor and the reports from the ground were unequivocal about “Modi ke alawa kaun hai (who other than Modi)”. During our limited fieldwork, it became evident that it is not the BJP but PM Narendra Modi who is contesting the election on behalf of his party.


9. Indictment against democratic dynasticism? No: dynasty is not dead.

“While prominent dynasts of the Congress party and other regional parties have bitten the dust — including of course Rahul Gandhi himself in his fiefdom of Amethi — the dynastic factor has not been absent in this election at all. If anything, the phenomenon has increased,” political scientists Gilles Verniers and Christophe Jaffrelot wrote in the Indian Express.

Who is a dynast: “any candidate or MP having a relative who in the past or in the present has served or serves an elective mandate, at any level of representation. It also includes candidates with relatives who serve or have served prominent positions in party organisations.”

How many dynasts in 2019? “30% of all Lok Sabha MPs belong to political families,” according to data collected by a team of researchers of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (Ashoka University) and CERI (Sciences Po).

According to another study quoted in the piece, a “quarter of Indian parliamentarians were dynastic, on average, between 2004 and 2014”, suggesting that more dynastic MPs won in 2019.

Party-wise: “Congress remains the most dynastic one, with 31% of its candidates belonging to a political family. But the BJP is catching up with 22% of dynast candidates.”

Read the full piece: Verniers and Jaffrelot explain why political parties field dynasts.


What next: In part-2 of the series, I will explore the factors that led to Modi’s victory, and share insights about voter behaviour that help make sense of the verdict.

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DisFact #26: Inside BJP's secretive in-house political consulting firm, and two other stories

Welcome to DisFact, a weekly newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. Here is the list of all previous issues.

Hello all! I have been missing from your inbox for the last two weeks. Yes, I have excuses: I was busy with final edits of my freelance assignments (all three were published last week), and was transitioning into a new organisation for a short-term assignment to cover the 2019 elections. DisFact will resume this Sunday.

Today, I am writing to share my latest work. Three stories:

  1. The first one, for HuffPost India, is an investigation into the Association of Billion Minds, BJP’s secretive in-house political consulting unit, that does everything from recommending election candidates to spreading digital propaganda.

  2. Second, for Mint, I explore the games people play in Facebook comment threads. What works, what doesn’t, how the comment section is a publishing platform in itself, and what it means for digital politics.

  3. Third, for the Atlantic, is an overview of India’s misinformation crisis. It was written for an international audience, and puts together most of my reporting on the “fake news” ecosystem in one place.

Happy reading, and as always, feedback is most welcome.


How Modi, Shah Turned A Women’s NGO Into A Secret Election Propaganda Machine (HuffPost India)

We take you inside the Association of Billion Minds, or ABM, BJP party president Amit Shah’s personal election consulting unit, that's working secretly with India's ruling party since the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections.

The story, based on a two-month-long investigation with HuffPost India reporters, dives deep into the history of the company as well as its online and offline operations. It's a long story: please read, share and think.

ABM is a big reason why most of Modi’s tenure has felt like one eternal election campaign. India’s ruling party has tasked this secretive quorum of nerds with running sophisticated misinformation campaigns to spread fake news and false claims on social media and WhatsApp and in staged conversations in public gatherings. 

ABM’s team of at least 161 full-time employees in 12 regional offices across India provides the BJP with feedback on its key political moves, helps shortlist candidates for vital elections, and manages a phalanx of paid field workers who introduce themselves to party cadre as “Amit Shah’s team”. It is not the only such firm employed by the BJP, but it is the most secretive and has the deepest relationship with Shah, the party president. But publicly, BJP denies links with this company. 

Read: https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/how-modi-shah-turned-a-women-s-rights-ngo-into-a-secret-election-propaganda-machine_in_5ca5962ce4b05acba4dc1819

MediaVigil has a Hindi translation of the key points of our piece.


Games People Play on Facebook Comment Threads (Mint)

From Pakistani propaganda to countering politicians, top comments on top Facebook pages are resetting the narrative.

I dived into the fascinating world of Facebook comments to find out what's going on in the space. Purely based on traction & audience footprint, Facebook comment thread is a publishing platform on its own.

The right Facebook comment at the right time on the right page is the new gateway to mass attention on the internet. But to cut through the thousands of comments and feature as “most relevant", the content needs to be contrarian; share a powerful personal anecdote; be witty or sarcastic; crack a joke; argue with shayari; use hashtags; post a meme. There is no fixed formula.

The story has more on the differences in English and Hindi media pages, the types of comments people write and how citizens are countering politicians.

Read: https://www.livemint.com/elections/lok-sabha-elections/games-people-play-on-facebook-comment-threads-1554228802281.html


Misinformation and India’s Election (The Atlantic)

India is facing information wars of an unprecedented nature and scale: the fake news problem is not limited to one platform, one medium, or one political party. Snigdha Poonam and I mapped out the entire ecosystem, providing a big-picture view of India's misinformation crisis, as we head to the general elections.

Read: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/04/india-misinformation-election-fake-news/586123/


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DisFact #25: Why money power still rules Indian elections

Show me the money!

Happy Sunday, readers!

Welcome to DisFact, a weekly newsletter about Indian politics, policy and the economy. I am Samarth Bansal. If you find this newsletter useful, please forward it to a friend. If you’ve been forwarded the newsletter, here is the signup link. Here is the list of all previous issues.

The 2019 Indian general election is likely to be the world's costliest. The Delhi-based Center for Media Studies estimates that it will cost around Rs 50,000 crores. Money matters in elections—a lot.

Yet, India’s campaign finance laws are ridiculously opaque: there is zero transparency in political contributions (who gave how much to whom, we barely know); audited party expenditure accounts are a joke (parties don’t report actual spending); and the Election Commission of India doesn’t have enough enforcement powers (say, for instance, to cancel candidature for misreporting personal wealth).

And there are no signs of improvement: the “electoral reforms” introduced in 2017 have made political funding even more opaque.

In today’s issue: a deep-dive into the role money plays in Indian elections

  • The rise of self-financing candidates

  • Why are Indian elections so expensive

  • How the so-called electoral reforms have made things worse


The rise of self-financing candidates

There is a massive wealth premium in winning elections. Richer candidates are more likely to win.

Of the 21,000 candidates who contested the last three general elections, the wealthiest 20% of candidates were more than twenty times more likely to win election that the poorest 20%. (Read more)

In fact, the number of crorepati Lok Sabha MPs (whose self-disclosed assets totalled at least one crore) increased from 30% in 2004 to 82% in 2014, implying the growing role of private source of campaign funding in India.

Why are Indian parties increasingly dependent upon such wealthy candidates?

There is little incentive for third-party actors — eg businessmen — to finance an individual’s campaign instead of giving directly to the party. The root cause, Neelanjan Sircar of Ashoka University argues, is the weak representative role of India’s elected politicians.

Simply put: A party’s policy decisions are made by a small coterie of party elites. The same elites also decide who gets the party’s ticket to fight elections—a signal of low “intra-party democracy”. Even if a candidate wins the seat, “anti-defection laws effectively prevent elected representatives from having much of a role in policymaking”—meaning elected politicians can rarely, if at all, vote against the party line.

That’s why it’s optimal for big donors to fund the political party rather than an individual politician. With little opportunity to raise outside funds, candidates must largely finance their election campaigns—leading to the rise of wealthy candidates. (Read more)

Why it matters: The increasing role of private funding leads to self-selection in candidates who run for office (only a small subset of the population — rich folks — can realistically win), meaning elected politicians may become worse at representing their constituents. Plus, candidates may view an election contest as an investment, leading to greater levels of corruption as elected legislators try to recover the electoral costs.


Why are Indian elections so expensive

There is no credible data on real expenses to figure out how much and where do politicians spend during the campaign. It’s an open secret that the reported spending is orders of magnitude smaller than actual spending.

Where do they spend: Logistics (material for rallies and processions, vehicles, speakers, chairs, tables, posters); paid political participation (hired crowds); paying wages of political workers, food expense during the campaign; “vote-buying” (handing out of cash to voters, distribution of alcohol, hosting large public meals).

How common is “vote-buying” or “gift-giving”? Giving gifts to voters is technically illegal, but it is still very common.

Jennifer Bussell, a professor of political science at UC Berkley, surveyed over 2,500 incumbent politicians in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh between 2011 and 2014 and found that “more than half of respondents across all levels of office—and nearly all at the state and national level—report that candidates are pressured to distribute gifts on the campaign trail.” (Read more)

Gift-giving is so prominent, Bussell found, that politicians estimate at least a quarter of voters receive a gift. Simon Chauchard, a professor at Columbia University, found in a survey that politicians in Mumbai spent anywhere between 19% and 64% of their budgets on gifts to voters.

Does it actually help? Opinion is divided. Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma of UC Berkeley argue that the influence of cash and goodies distributed during elections on vote choice is marginal. Secret ballot ensures there is no direct method of purchasing support or votes: a citizen can take gifts from one political party — or from every party — and still vote independently.

Read more: “Money can’t always buy votes”; “Death of patronage?”

Why is campaign cost increasing?

While gifts and bribes are prominent, that’s not the sole cause of rising campaign costs. Here are two other reasons:

1. Increase in constituency size: Indian constituencies still represent populations based on the 1971 census. In 1971, each Lok Sabha MP represented around 7.24 lakh people in 1971; now, the figure stands at 17.11 lakh people, as per 2011 census. From the IDFC institute:

Larger populations, obviously, require candidates to spend more.

2. Rise in political competition: “A steady rise in political competition and in the number of candidates has sparked an arms race in campaign spending. More candidates automatically mean more uncertain elections, and hence costlier contests for candidates who are forced to match the expenses of their competitors.” (Read more)

What this means: According to Simon Chauchard, “costlier elections may not result from lower levels of morality in the political class or from a surge in bribe giving. They instead likely flow from rising levels of political competition, which may be doing harm as well as good.”


How the so-called “electoral reforms” have made things worse

(Chart from Bloomberg Graphics)

India witnessed major changes in campaign finance regulation in 2017.

  • Limit for cash donations to political parties: reduced from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 2,000.

    That won’t help as much: “Parties now will resort to multiple receipts of Rs 1,999 each like they did to evade the old limit of Rs 20,000 cash donations, issuing multiple receipts of Rs 19,999,” Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms told Scroll.)

  • The cap on corporate donations removed: Earlier, the maximum a company could donate was limited 7.5 percent of a company’s average net profits over three years and had to declare the recipient. Now, there is no limit on donation, and there is no requirement to declare how much they donated and to which party.

  • Shell companies: the change also permits new companies to donate to parties, opening the door for shell companies — bogus and inactive entities that exist only as a postal address —  to be set up just to route money for this purpose.

  • Parties can now get foreign funding: “Previously, all subsidiaries of international entities were treated as overseas donors and not allowed to make political contributions. Now, if a foreign firm has a stake of less than 50 percent in a company operating in India, that unit can fund Indian elections.”

  • Electoral bonds: The Finance Bill 2017 enables the creation of a new financial instrument called an ‘electoral bond’ which can be “anonymously bought and deposited in the account of the beneficiary political party.”

    Anyone can buy an electoral bond at the government-owned State Bank of India in denominations ranging from 1,000 rupees to 10 million rupees ($14 to $140,000). Afterwards, they are delivered to a political party, which can exchange them for cash. They don’t carry the name of the donor and are exempt from tax. (Read more)

    What the government says: electoral bonds will increase transparency as the money will go through the banking system and political parties have to declare how much they have received. Anonymity is essential, they argue, to protect donors “against India’s ‘vindictive’ political culture in which parties could penalise donors for funding rival political forces.” (Read Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Facebook blog for more details)

That’s just another spin from Mr Jaitley. Take all the changes together, and there is absolutely no way that the new rules make the system more transparent—far from it. In fact, it’s even more opaque. Milan Vaishnav, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote: “the floodgates are now open for limitless, anonymous political giving.”

So now, it’s more difficult to know who is funding whom, and the favours corporations receive in return when government policy is formulated or resources are allocated.

Electoral trusts: Electoral bonds fall in line with other “reforms” introduced in the past to protect anonymity of donors. Back in 2013, while companies were still required to report political contributions, the then Congress-led Central Government created another layer of opacity in the process by recognising Electoral Trusts: “secretive entities that collect donations on behalf of India’s biggest corporates” and disburse the money to multiple political parties—so again, you can’t trace back which company gave money to which party. (This Hindustan Times graphic explains everything about electoral trusts.)

Who is receiving the most money from electoral bonds: BJP. 95% of the electoral bonds purchased in 2017-18, a little over Rs 210 crore, went to India’s ruling party. According to Factly, this accounts for around 20% of the total funds raised by the BJP during the year.

Who is buying the electoral bonds: In terms of value, bonds of Rs 1 crore and Rs 10 lakh denomination accounted for close to 99.9% of the total value of bonds purchased till October 2018, Factly reported. It is highly likely that these bonds are purchased by corporates rather than common citizens.

What was demonetisation’s impact? In an interview with the Indian Express, OP Rawat, the former Chief Election Commissioner (he retired in December), was asked if the note ban “had any effect on black money” and its role in elections. No impact, he said.

Absolutely nothing. After demonetisation, we seized a record amount of money during elections. Even in elections to these five states, seizures have been close to Rs 200 crore. It shows that money during elections is coming from sources which are very influential and are not affected by such measures.


More

1. What to do? In the Hindustan Times, Devesh Kapur, E Sridharan and Milan Vaishnav, the editors of the book ‘Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India’, laid out an alternative approach to reform political finance. It’s worth a read. (Read here)

2. How a legal loophole allows BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar to hide his full wealth from election panel: A Scroll investigation published this week shows how Chandrasekhar—the major investor in Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV—did not reveal the largest company he controls in the election affidavit, and a regulatory loophole that makes it okay.


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Comments? Feedback? Suggestions? Write to me at samarthbansal42@gmail.com or hit reply to this email. And if you find this helpful, please spread the word. Thank you!

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