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