Event ReportsPublished on Oct 15, 2019
India, identity politics, elections and outcomes: Does Lok Sabha poll 2019 give us clues to assembly polls?

The event, “India, identity politics, elections and outcomes” was a discussion on newly devised methods and ways to quantify emerging trends in electoral politics of India. The discussions focused on grassroot sentiments being reflected in national elections and the effect of national general elections on legislative polls. The discussion panel included Pradeep Bhandari, psephologist & CEO, Jan Ki Baat; Nalin Kohli, Spokesperson, BJP and Advocate, Supreme Court of India; Sunetra Choudhary, national political editor, Hindustan Times. The session was moderated by Kanchan Gupta, Distinguished Fellow, ORF.

The discussion centered on the issue of identity politics of Indian elections. Mr. Bhandari pointed out that the end of vote bank politics has reshaped the identity politics in India. He credited three fundamental changes for the transformation: the influence of women voters on the election results, the decline in caste-based voting patterns and the rise of charismatic leadership at the center.

Mr. Bhandari stressed that there was a change in the social sphere transpiring post-2014 elections. For instance, in 2019, some sections of the voters voted on factors like delivery of tangible benefits rather than on caste. Dalit and women voters voted for BJP based on the social benefits like the construction of toilets and other governmental schemes, reaching them. Meanwhile, the young voters associated themselves with the theme of nationalism. Mr. Bhandari substantiated his arguments by citing voting patterns from three districts of UP namely Agra, Misrikh and Lalganj, where a majority of women voters voted for BJP. The rationale behind the massive support was due to the delivery of social tangible benefits at the grass-root level that improved the lifestyle and self-esteem of rural women.

The shift in caste-based political identity paradigm could be observed in constituencies, which traditionally supported parties conceived for illuminating specific caste-based issues. For instance, the Jats in the constituencies of Mathura and Baghpat, who have traditionally supported Jat based parties like RLD, were seen supporting BJP in both the 2014 and the 2019 general elections. The sense of nationalism in the community and the dissemination of tangible social benefits were the primary reasons for the shift.

“One of the central ideas ning from the debate was on the resurrected identity of women voters in India”. The change in the voting pattern could be attributed to the change in their political identity, which was no longer modelled on caste or influenced by the voting behavior of men. The phenomenon could be observed in constituencies like Shimla, Machhlishahr and northern parts of West Bengal. Women again were the swayers who voted for BJP, in spite of having a woman Chief Minister in Bengal (TMC). In North Bengal, more than 65% of women (within the age group of 30-50 yrs.) voted for BJP. In addition, women's votes were the deciding factor for the fiercely contested elections at Machhlishahr.

Micro-trends in the last two elections converge on some fascinating observations related to the identity formulation of voters and leaders at different levels of elections. For example, working for his/her constituency does not guarantee the Member of Parliament to win the Lok Sabha elections but if the electoral promises are unfulfilled the chances of losing increases. For Lok Sabha elections, the political developments at the national level shaped local electoral outcomes. However, in legislative assembly elections, a sitting member of the legislative assembly can be confident of his/her re-election if promises are delivered. However, in the case of non-fulfilment of electoral promises, the probability of loss notches up to 90%.

In addition, the voting pattern unveils how different identities & issues shape the election narrative and results, in the central and state elections. For the central elections, the persona of prime ministerial candidates outweighs the local issues, while local issues play a pivotal role in defining the state elections. Hence, outcomes of Lok Sabha and legislative elections depend on different factors. “There is a paradoxical dependence, the Prime Minister candidate decides the victory of M.Ps, While MLAs selects the upcoming Chief Minister”.

The table reiterates the fact that the face of the Prime Ministerial candidate is the prominent driver for deciding the central elections, especially in 2019. In addition, citizens tend to vote for those who deliver on their promises, rather than those who show the intent and, local factors do not play a prominent role in deciding the fortune for Lok Sabha elections.

Top Vote Drivers in Lok Sabha elections (2004-2019)

Drivers 2009 (in %) 2014 (in %) 2019 (in %)
National Leadership 27% 47% 65%
Work Done Intent of Candidate (M.Ps) 23% 20% 05%
Work Done Delivery of candidate (M.Ps) 29% 08% 10%
Local Factors 21% 25% 20%

The elections also highlighted the emergence of consciousness in the ‘majority’ votes (religious polarization of votes). This phenomenon helped the ruling party to win constituencies like Karimganj, which is equally dominated by both Hindu and Muslims (50%-50%). Although, states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were considered as outliers since the election outcomes did not follow any of the above-mentioned criteria. Moreover, election outcomes in these states were based on local issues.

Identity politics play a significant role in shaping the views of the people. Other issues that influenced the electoral politics of 2019 are delivery of services, governance efficiency, outreach to the electorate etc. It is necessary to analyze which additional factors change the political identity of certain sections of society. What are the underlying implications of the change and how does it affect social & political compositions and hence the elections at the state and central level.

There has been emergence of a series of disruptive trends since the 2014 general elections. These were also seen in the subsequent assembly elections and even in the 2019 elections where the ruling party defied anti-incumbency and scored a resounding victory. These trends include polarization of votes, realignment in social engineering with a split among the Scheduled Caste votes in UP and an expansion in the social base of the ruling party, the BJP, which has seen the support of OBCs, the middle class in Upper-caste and the lower-castes, the non-Jatav lower castes, EBCs, tribal and the Gujjar-Jats in the Gujjar-Jat belt in Western UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and parts of Punjab.

On the matter of religious identity, shaping the electoral behavior of the voters, the issue of consolidated and tactical voting pattern amongst Muslim voters, which has been termed as ‘Muslim veto’, was discussed. Mr. Nalin Kohli remarked that the current elections have seen a counter consolidation of ‘Hindu’ votes. With the myth of ‘Hindu doesn’t cast his vote but votes his caste’ being busted in the elections post-2014, the caste-based voting pattern has seen remarkable changes. He also pointed out that apart from a reactionary counter consolidation of ‘Hindu’ votes; there is also an increasing pattern of counter caste consolidation in the face of consolidation in favor of a particular candidate or a party. The electoral outcomes are no longer based on ‘arithmetic calculation’ of vote-bank politics. There is greater dynamism in electoral outcomes due to breakage in the given caste consolidations.

Mr. Kohli stated that the Muslim vote bank is slowly breaching with a small section of the Muslim women voting for BJP. The 2014 elections saw a single-party majority after 30 years. What was significant of the 2019 general elections has been that it is also the first time an incumbent party has come to power again with a greater majority than before. Two factors that have contributed to the unprecedented results are the charismatic leadership of PM Modi as incumbent seeking reelection and the organizational preparedness of the BJP to benefit from the charisma of the leader and the work of the govt.

Speaking on the occasion Mr. Kohli identified the prime reason for the re-election of BJP in 2019 as the focused targeting of government schemes and fulfilment of what a poor family (as a complete unit) needs in terms of education, homes, toilets, bank accounts, subsidized gas connections, supplementing farmer incomes etc. The scale, speed and benefits reaching the ground level are the chief characteristics of the BJP govt. The will of the government is to target poverty eradication and elimination and not just on poverty alleviation. With the focus being on lifting the poor above the poverty line into the lower middle class, there has been a tectonic shift in the way governance is delivered to the citizens.

Another chief characteristic as pointed out by Mr. Kohli is the democratization of knowledge with people being more aware of the government and its actions and programs, in real-time. The rise in the number of mobile users has ensured direct contact with governance through digital India. Social media has also played a major role in reducing the gap between information and knowledge among citizens. It has helped in diversifying the source of knowledge for government schemes and ensured that the information reaches the grass-root level. As a leader, PM Modi has not only embraced the new media but also utilized it to reach the people directly. Through his monthly program of Mann Ki Baat, the PM has rejuvenated radio, Khadi etc. by appealing directly to the people, which has had a tremendous impact. Thus, Mr. Kohli pointed out that since 2014 onwards the traditional identities based on caste has given way to an ‘Indian’ identity.

The next issue discussed at the event was the rise of the Indian women as an influential factor in electoral outcomes and how much have issues like triple talaq and social tangible benefits influenced women to vote for Modi. Ms. Sunetra Chaudhary informed that in order to harness the support of women, the political parties have acknowledged their significance through several women-centric welfare schemes such as Cycle scheme of Bihar, Kanyashree program of West Bengal etc.

Responding to the question, Ms. Chaudhary stressed that several political parties, including BJP, are focusing on getting women voters on their side. For instance, in Bihar Nitish Kumar started the Cycle scheme for girls, making women feel empowered. In West Bengal, the UN award-winning ‘Kanyashree’ program helped TMC to attract women voters. Similarly, BJP used Triple Talak bill and worked to deliver social tangible benefits to harness the voting potential if Indian women.   She also underscored the fact that BJP was able to trickle down its electoral ideas through clever messaging strategy. They used all available platforms like rallies and social media to increase their outreach. In addition, BJP also used the prime minister's Independence Day address (2014), to garner public support on various aspects of Swachh Bharat Mission including constructing toilets to develop a narrative, which made BJP the only party that was addressing national issues. BJP’s rationale to use refined messaging strategy helped them to establish a direct connection with common citizens and their basic issues.

Ms. Choudhary noted that national outcomes do have an impact on assembly polls but there are several micro-stories within these elections that may surprise the outcome. For the upcoming Haryana elections she pointed out that being closer to Delhi, Haryana is often influenced by the Delhi politics. However, the incumbent CM Mr. Khattar is a factor himself, as he is seen in the same mould as PM Modi. Ms. Choudhary said that Mr. Khattar is an antithesis of the family-oriented politics of Haryana with parties such as INLD (the Chautala family) and Congress (the Hooda family) being the prominent players. Many observers point out that Haryana is a done deal for BJP however local issues such as law and order problems or the lack of support from the Dera (due to the arrest of Dera Chief) can upset the outcome.

Ms. Choudhary reiterated that before 2019 elections citizens were either unaware or they refrained to discuss issues like diplomacy in elections. However, the biggest thing in terms of messaging has been that the BJP has taken a complex thing like diplomacy down to the masses.  The increased involvement and a favorable narrative building helped BJP to enhance their position. The opposition on the other hand, have not developed any concrete counter-narrative to absorb the thought-process of the general masses.

The discussion ended with an engrossing question and answer session. The broad themes of the question revolved around the losing importance of MPs in the face of charismatic leadership, women representation, loss of BJP in state elections of Rajasthan and MP despite PM Modi’s popularity, replay of the concept of One Nation, One People and One Leader and why the Union Government is more popular as ‘Modi’ government and not ‘BJP’ government.

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This report was written by Shreya Mishra and Shivaang Sinha, Research Interns, ORF Delhi
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