Did nationalism override bread & butter issues?
The Balakot episode definitely changed the election narrative in favour of the BJP.
The BJP’s victory in 2014 was described as a black swan — a rare event that is unlikely to be ever repeated. To everyone’s surprise, the party returned to power with an even bigger mandate. Exit poll forecasts on Sunday made the scale of victory at least imaginable, otherwise, the only reason I was given from my friends working in the BJP’s war room — Keep calm and have faith in Modi!! What led to Verdict 2019? Results in India can rarely be attributed to one single factor. A multitude of factors have to go right for the winner. Mythical as it may sound, but stars have to be aligned to produce such a historic mandate.
It is ironic then that a consensus emerged during the middle of the campaign that India’s response to the terrorist attack in Pulwama heightened nationalistic sentiments among the voters and created a “rally round the flag effect” in favour of the ruling BJP. To put it simply, this means that during a national security crisis, in the short run, there is increased popular support for the incumbent and a decline in criticism of the government’s economic and welfare policies.
Was the result driven primarily by the rally “round the flag effect” or did other factors such as a large segment of voters benefitting from government’s policies also play a crucial role in shaping up the verdict? Has Modi been able to create a new voting block for the BJP through his politics, policies and popularity?
It is true that for a substantial segment of voters, nationalism becomes a lens to view even everyday economic issue during a national security crisis, and various identities such as caste-community concerns, urban-rural differences, and economic class get slightly flattened. It, however, does not mean that all identity-related issues or material well-being gets sidelined; they take a back seat in the short-term.
For example, respondents to the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey conducted in March 2019 were unambiguous about the primacy of economic concerns in this election. Nonetheless, they rated Modi as a leader, the performance of his government, and chances of his re-election more favourably than in the surveys conducted six months ago.
Similarly, in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections which were conducted in the backdrop of the India-Pakistan conflict in Kargil, economic concerns remained very much part of voters’ matrix. Approximately 80% of the respondents in the post-poll survey had said that the prices of essential commodities had increased. Yet, in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections that were held a few months later, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was voted back to power.
What role did the Kargil conflict play in shaping the 1999 verdict? While there is no hard evidence to measure the effect of nationalistic sentiments on Indian voters, incumbents have an advantage at the time of a national security crisis. More than giving a bump in popularity ratings, it can actually arrest the decline. One may recount that the prices of onions had skyrocketed in 1998 and the BJP was bruising from its defeats in the Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan assembly elections held later that year. The BJP was in a slump and Kargil saved it. The party won 182 seats with approximately 24% vote share — almost identical to its 1998 tally. But this had happened with BJP contesting 40 seats less and bringing in more pre-election allies in its coalition.
The BJP government’s record on many indicators is just average. The economy is not doing spectacularly well, there is visible distress among farmers, unemployment is high and signs of tensions on caste and religious lines are hard to ignore. Yet, the opposition failed to mobilise voters against the government and the popularity of Narendra Modi across the country remains unmatched.
Incumbents most often pay a cost of ruling, i.e., they do leave several voters dissatisfied. Despite its failure on many fronts, it is hard to imagine that the BJP would have won such a historic mandate without being able to create a support base among the poor. The government launched several welfare schemes such as Ujjwala, construction of toilets, electrification, housing for poor, Ayushman Bharat, among many others. Ground reports during the campaign period do suggest that a large number of voters benefited from these schemes. And those who had not yet received the benefits thought they were next in line as their neighbours or relatives had received them. There was an element of trust in this expectation. Thus, it is not surprising that even at their worst moment of popularity in the second half of 2018, nobody had doubts over the BJP emerging as the single largest party by a wide margin.
The Balakot episode definitely changed the election narrative in favour of the BJP, blunting the opposition’s plan to target the government on economic issues such as agrarian distress, unemployment and the Rafael scam. The BJP also made efforts to control the narrative after the losses in the December 2018 assembly elections with the announcement of 10% reservations for the general category and direct cash transfer for farmers.
Indian voters are passionate participants in the electoral process, but passion alone, of any variety, does not drive their vote choice. Elections in India are about the performance of the government, the opposition’s ability to convince voters about the failure of government policies, the popularity of leaders, the reach of organisational machinery to make social coalitions on the ground, and so on. The 2019 verdict is then a sum total of competitive credibility on all these factors.
The author is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi