The stereotype of India as a vegetarian land is deep. Government-funded universities often don’t allow meat and eggs in their messes, there are whole towns that are vegetarian by law and even ads for the Incredible India! campaign sell India with an ironic joke predicated on the assumption that most Indians are vegetarian.
However, recent census data released by the government has pricked the bubble of India as a vegetarian nation. In the real world, only 30% of Indians above the age of 15 are vegetarian. Seventy per cent are – to use that unique Indian-English word – non-vegetarians: a classification that includes people who eat any combination of fish, meat and eggs. That so much of Indian public life is still dominated by a small minority of vegetarians is a good example of the power of caste in India, given that vegetarianism in India is usually an upper caste trait.
Of course, the numbers have always shown India as a non-vegetarian nation – even as the stereotype persists. As the data was released, though, some users of social media decided to take a different angle: how do eating habits influence India's political choices?
The Bharatiya Janata Party has made food habits a part of its politics, with a slew of bans on the consumption of beef recently. It has also extended this to meat in general, banning meat for the Jain festival of Paryushan across five states. More damagingly, its religious puritanism on the matter means that BJP governments are even willing to ban eggs from the mid-day meal programme, denying India's malnourished children crucial protein. Of course, this puritanism means that it is fitting that vegetarian states in India should lean towards the BJP. But do they?
Scroll.in took a lead from the chatter on social media and ran through the numbers on vegetarianism and BJP governments. India has five states that could be considered vegetarian (defined as having at least half their population as vegetarian). These states are Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. Remarkably, four out of these five have BJP chief ministers and the fifth, Punjab, has the BJP ruling the state as a junior partner in coalition with the Akali Dal.
The converse holds as well: India has eight states which are almost completely non-vegetarian, that is with less than 10% vegetarians – Telangana, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar. Of these, only one currently has a BJP government: Jharkhand. In South India, the only state where the BJP has a significant presence is also, coincidentally, the only state where vegetarians have a significant presence: Karnataka with 21% vegetarians.
Correlation and causation
In fact, if we run the numbers over the past 20 years, vegetarianism and the BJP have a rather high correlation. Since 1996, the correlation coefficient of the proportion of vegetarians in a state and the number of BJP governments it has elected is a rather high 0.61*.
The correlation coefficient measures how well two variables move together and ranges from +1 (perfect positive correlation) and -1 (perfect negative correlation).
To put the 0.61 in perspective, the correlation coefficient between city population and the Barack Obama vote in 2012 was 0.34. The fact that big cities vote Democrat (the party Obama represents) is almost a truism in American politics; so the correlation coefficient of 0.61 for vegetarianism and BJP state governments is quite high.
Of course, correlation is not causation. To assume that palak paneers or aloo gobhis somehow engender in people the urge to vote for the BJP would be a somewhat weedy hypothesis. Vegetarianism, in this case, is a mask for caste as well as geography. Unlike the West, vegetarianism is rarely an individual choice in India, being dictated by identity. North and West India are far more inclined towards their veggies than the East or the South. Of course, high caste Hindus are far more likely to abstain from meat than Dalits, Muslims or Christians. Thus, as it happens, vegetarian populations are the traditional vote banks of the BJP – which rather prosaically explains the high correlation.
The Congress also, in fact, displays a small correlation of 0.11 with vegetarianism. However, the true mirror image of the BJP are state parties that have a significant correlation of 0.53 with non-vegetarianism. This, of course, is because state parties dominate in the South and the East. In South India, only one state, Karnataka is ruled by a national party, the Congress, and in eastern India, Assam is the only major state to not be ruled by a state party.
*Note: In case of coalitions, election wins are credited to a party only if it is the senior member. Only the major states have been included in the analysis, with the exception of three new states Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarkahand, due to lack of 20-year election data.