After every poll, political commentators deploy narratives that seek to explain election results. Indian voters have been characterised as greedy, corrupt, hero-worshipping and ignorant at worst, or as pragmatic and voting for development at best. But something they are rarely called is ideological. Yet, a slew of new research shows that Indian voters are strongly ideological, and ideologically consistent over time. Moreover, these beliefs are not dictated by social group – people belonging to the same social group but with different political leanings hold different ideological views.

Political scientists Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma used data from the post-election National Election Studies conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies between 1967 and 2014 to establish that the political leanings of Congress supporters are distinct from those supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was earlier the Jana Sangh, as well as Left party supporters. And the political leanings follow the same trajectory over time. Their findings were published in a book, Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India.

Chhibber and Verma sorted various questions of the National Election Studies into two categories. The first is the “politics of statism”, which revolves around support for state intervention in the economy and in social norms, as seen, for instance, in the debate over women’s entry into the temple at Sabarimala. The second is the “politics of recognition”, implying support for reservation for backward castes, an acknowledgment that Muslims might need state support and other “preferential” measures for marginalised groups. The responses to the questions were condensed into standardised scores ranging from -2 to +2, such that a higher negative number indicated greater support for the politics of statism and recognition, and a higher positive number greater opposition.

They found that Jana Sangh/BJP voters consistently did not support a more active role for the state, while Left supporters consistently did. Congress supporters were in the middle. These ideological leanings were consistent in every election study from 1967 to 2014.

Higher positive numbers indicate greater opposition and higher negative numbers indicate greater support. Those in the bottom left corner are the greatest supporters of both, and those in the top right corner the greatest opponents of both.
Higher positive numbers indicate greater opposition and higher negative numbers indicate greater support. Those in the bottom left corner are the greatest supporters of both, and those in the top right corner the greatest opponents of both.

Most parties have committed social groups who form the bulk of their voters – “votebanks”, as they are often called. So are these findings simply a case of the political views of social groups, and not party supporters as such, getting reflected? More detailed data indicates that this is not the case.

Analysing post-2014 data from the National Election Studies, Chhibber and Verma found that people belonging to the same social group hold different political views based on which party they support. Despite being marginalised themselves, Scheduled Caste voters who support the BJP have far less support for the state playing an equalising role for backward castes and Muslims than do the Congress’s Scheduled Caste voters. The Congress’s upper caste voters, on the other hand, have some support for state intervention in the economy and in social norms, while the BJP’s upper caste voters oppose it.

Similarly, the Congress’s rich voters supported the politics of recognition for marginalised groups, while rich BJP voters opposed it. Poor BJP voters, meanwhile, opposed both the politics of recognition and statism, despite needing state support themselves, while poor Congress voters supported both.

Despite the common characterisation of vote choices as being pre-determined by the person’s social group then, the data implies ideas, and the appeal of one party’s ideas over another’s, would explain vote choice far better.

Other data sources, which have also been previously unreported on, offer support for this thesis. Comparing three rounds of the World Values Survey between 2000 and 2014, I found that Congress supporters are systematically less likely to object to neighbours of a different religion than the average Indian, while BJP supporters are consistently more likely to not want them as neighbours.

BJP supporters favour a strong leader who does not have to “bother” with parliament and elections – most of all in the most recent survey.

In the last ten years, BJP voters have been significantly more likely to advocate for greater private ownership of business (although this was not the case for the early 2000s).

Seen over a long period of time, Indian voters demonstrate remarkable ideological stability and party loyalty, the authors contend. These voters make up their minds long before voting day, a growing phenomenon in Indian elections.

In 2014, the BJP’s voteshare grew by 13 percentage points over the previous election and a far wider coalition supported it. When major changes like these take place, something significant must shift. In 2014, in addition to its usual socially conservative base, the BJP was able to put together a broad coalition of voters who opposed statism and recognition, partly because of the administrative failures of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the authors argue. The post-2014 National Election Studies shows unprecedented ideological polarisation – a great distance between the beliefs of BJP and Congress voters, and a strong ideological consolidation around the BJP. “[T]he rise of India’s post-2014 BJP-led party-dominant system is not a coincidence but is instead the culmination of a historical battle over ideas,” the authors argue.

There is now a sharper distinction between voters on economic issues than ever before, and more voters leaned rightwards on economic issues in 2014 than in previous years, the book finds using time-series National Election Studies data. The growth of India’s middle class which believes that subsidies are harmful and wants to see high economic growth contributed to this, it argues. What also made people wary of state-led development was the perception that the UPA was focused on subsidies and support for minorities, as well as allegations of corruption against it. Chhibber and Verma argue that it was against this backdrop that Narendra Modi, then BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, was able to draw voters opposed to statism with the promises of “no tokenism” and “no special privileges”.