The soaring prices of petrol, diesel and LPG have been regularly creating public outrage among a section of Indian society, but this issue seems to be unaffecting electoral performance of the BJP. The results of previously held assembly elections and the stunning performance of the party in local body elections of Gujarat and Rajasthan adds further evidence. This whole issue raises a pertinent question: why are electorates rewarding the BJP with electoral victory despite the inability of the party to control inflation in general and the price of petrol, diesel and LPG in particular? This question is interesting because it goes against cardinal principles of economic theory of voting.
Principles of Economic Theory Voting
The central premise of economic theory of voting is that individual is a rational agent who self-correct oneself when exposed to the proper information. While voting, the rational individual is argued to take care off her/his economic interest in the best possible way. In the language of classical utilitarian philosophy, it can be said, voters take care off their economic interest in the best possibly way by maximising profit and minimising loss. Using these premises, multiple models such as retrospective, valency, directional, etc., have been developed to explain voting behaviour of people.
Among these models, the retrospective model deals with the relation between performance of government and voters. This model suggests that electorates evaluate past economic performance of theirs as well as the country’s while voting for the incumbent party. The voters reward the incumbent government by re-electing it, if the economic situation of theirs or the country’s would have improved and punish if reverse has happened. Voters also reward the incumbent government that reduces taxation and controls inflation and punish the government that fails to do so.
The way the country has seen surge of inflation and decline of GDP in the reign of Narendra Modi, it has become very difficult to explain the voting choice of voters with the models of economic theory of voting. Therefore, it is high time to move away from these models and look into alternative theories of voting which are getting used in contemporary times.
Nowadays, psephologists all around the world have started looking into theories of voting which are driven from psychological theories. The theories look into the role of psychological and socio-psychological factors in deciding voting. With my own ongoing empirical research in the Indian context, I narrate how psychological and socio-psychological factors have been playing a role in voting behaviour of the people and how it is contributing voting for the BJP.
The role of psychological factors in voting behaviour has been relatively less explored, but these days political psychologists have been trying to look into it, especially of ego. Contrary to the economic theory of voting which assumes the individual to be self-corrective of wrong decisions including voting provided he/she encounters factual information and logic; the political psychologists argue that the ego of the individual might prevent her/him from self-correcting oneself.
In electoral democracy, one way of self-correction is accepting previously rejected leaders but doing such a thing would mean taking position against one’s own previous decision which could be hurting one’s own ego. This fear of hurting ego prevents voters from self-correction. Such voters often need an excuse for self-correcting themselves. The changing leadership in opposition parties works as a good excuse. This is one reason why political parties in the developed countries frequently change top leadership if their leadership fails to deliver victory in election. This is done deliberately to prevent voters from being caught up in the dilemma of ego hurting. The opposition parties in India have failed to change the leadership, so they have failed to satisfy the voters whose decision could be guided by their ego. This could be one of the reasons which would be pushing voters away from economic concerns.
Individual identity of voters in India is shaped by their social identities of religion, region and caste which play an indispensable role in decision of voting. The caste system has made Indian society deeply ‘hierarchal society’. Each caste and community inherit parochial values of pride and honour. The quest to protect parochial values creates social conflict, violence and competition. Under such circumstances, voters often leave out their economic interest and make voting devoid of economic logic. In her recent study, Pavithra Suryanarayan demonstrates this phenomenon by analysing shifting voting choices of the poor voters among Brahmins in 1990s. These voters shifted towards the BJP to preserve their upper social status which was challenged due to the implementation of the report of the Mandal commission.
Previously caste-based hierarchy was predominantly seen as an economic structure but nowadays there is growing literature that suggests it to be a pathological condition. It is pathological because it has hierarchised communities irrespective of religion and ethnicity. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that Indians can hardly think without imagining hierarchy. It means, the mind of the common people seems to be hierarchised. This can be understood with example of some narratives which dominated public debate in the Indian society recently.
One narrative emerged when the UPA government appointed a committee under Justice Rajinder Sachar for examining the socio-economic conditions of Muslim minorities. With the publication of this report, a narrative emerged that the socio-economic condition of Muslims is worse than the Dalits. The main concern of this narrative has been to highlight the point that the ‘situation of Muslim is worse than Dalits’, rather than highlighting the socio-economic backwardness of Muslims. This narrative could satisfy both Upper Castes and Dalits because they could collectively think of finding a new community for subjugation. This can be seen on social media debates where a section of users says that they have voted for the BJP, not for reducing inflation but for subjugating Muslims.
In my own field work, I have found that the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) in Uttar Pradesh are worried about worsening of their socio-economic situation, but their prime fear comes from the fact that their situation has been worsening more than Dalits’. The survey data of Lokniti, CSDS shows that these castes have shifted towards the BJP since 2014. This shift seems to be guided by the motive that the BJP would decelerate the growth prospects of Dalits and OBCs. Such things could provide temporary relief from going to the bottom of the Hindu social order.
Competition Against the Bottom
A bird’s eye view of contemporary Indian society reveals as if a competition against the bottom is going on. Some castes and communities seem to be voting strategically to push other castes and communities to go to the bottom of society, whereas some other castes and communities seem to be concerned about the decelerating growth of others, so that the latter can remain at the bottom of society. Such strategic decisions of voting seem to be pushing voters away from economic concerns while voting. This seems to be the prime reason why inflation is unable to deter electoral performance of the BJP.
Arvind Kumar is a PhD Scholar at Royal Holloway, University of London.