With the 2019 Lok Sabha election just weeks away, the spotlight is on the voter and what makes them choose a particular party. To understand the voter’s psychology, Scroll.in turned to the psephologist Professor Sanjay Kumar. He is director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, whose electoral research wing, Lokniti, conducts surveys on elections, generating a rich vein of data on voting patterns of different castes, classes and religious groups.

Tapping into long years of experience studying voters and their behaviour, Kumar offers insights into how long before election day voters make their choice, why India’s elections are increasingly becoming battles of perception, the impact of the Pulwama attack on the election, whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has declined and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s has risen, and the impact of corruption on people’s voting choices.

Excerpts:

Apart from people who are ideologically inclined towards a political formation, how long before election day do the voters make up their minds on which party to vote for?
Voters have become more committed to vote in favour of or against a particular party now than in the past. Until the 2004 general election, a large number of people would make up their minds maybe three-four days before voting. That has changed. Our data for 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections shows that a huge number of people made up their minds long before they voted.

Could you quantify huge?
In 2014, it was more than 50%. With every election, I see more and more people making up their minds even before the election is announced. It means the percentage of floating voters has gone down from 40%-45% to 20%-22%.

Does this change show, contrary to popular perception, that voting is increasingly becoming ideological?
Yes, but it is not ideology in the textbook sense. In fact, ideology and the identity of caste or religion are getting blurred. For instance, a person will say they will vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party because it champions the cause of Hindus. Or [a person will say they will vote] for [Bahujan Samaj Party’s] Mayawati. This is especially true of regional parties, each of which has a strong support base within one caste group or another.

If people are voting ideologically, why do political parties mount such a tamasha before every election?
They make so much noise because they have to let those who are not loyal supporters know they are very much in the race. Besides, 20% [floating voters] is a large number as elections are being decided by very narrow margins.

They also have to create an atmosphere because Indian voters are not inclined to vote for a losing party.

You are right. In 2014, a large number of people told me they were assessing the situation because they did not want to waste their vote by casting it for a party likely to lose.
People in India value their votes. If you go to a locality after election results are announced, 80%-90% of the people would say they voted for the party that actually won the election. It is considered socially desirable to be seen on the winning side.

Isn’t there a contradiction there – people are increasingly voting ideologically and yet they dont want to be seen on the losing side?
It appears contradictory. When I say people don’t want to waste their vote, they are largely those who make up their minds a day or two before the election. They don’t want to appear foolish; that they mulled over their choice for a long time and yet ended up backing the wrong horse. Since others voted on the basis of their party loyalties, they [do not look foolish to themselves] for taking a wrong decision.

With 20% of the voters making their choice very late, I guess it is important for every party to create a perception that it is winning.
The 2014 election was largely contested on perception. Indeed, perception is the biggest of all factors influencing elections in India. Once a perception is created, people do not engage in a careful analysis of the government’s performance before casting their votes.

Big rallies and hoardings are aimed at creating a perception that a candidate or a party is winning. Conversely, if the party does not hold rallies, it is seen as having already accepted defeat.

'If a party does not hold rallies, it is seen as having already accepted defeat.' Photo credit: Twitter/Trinamool Congress
'If a party does not hold rallies, it is seen as having already accepted defeat.' Photo credit: Twitter/Trinamool Congress

In the battle of perceptions, the government’s control over the media would give the ruling party a huge advantage, wouldn’t it?
Media plays a very important role in creating that impression. So yes, if a party can influence what news goes in and what does not, that party can create a favourable perception for itself and adversely affect the prospects of others.

I suppose it enhances the media’s clout. But the clout itself invites interference from the ruling party, doesn’t it, as has happened over the last five years?
There is an old saying that if you repeat a lie 10 times, people would start believing it is the truth. That is why governments and political parties seek to control the media.

This is indeed the worst of times for the media. It has become sharply polarised as never before over the last five years. Even common people sense this. You name a few channels to them and they will say they are sold out. You take another set of names and they will say their only business is Modi bashing. If you examine the content of the media, their allegations are not completely wrong.

The government is trying to control the media but it is not as effective as it was, say, two and a half years ago. This is because different segments are making noises – farmers, academicians, students. Media seeks to cover the unusual which is why the government’s control on the media has loosened.

Opposition parties have forged alliances in several states. They are also trying to work out a common minimum programme. How will voters perceive parties having a common minimum programme even as some of them contest against each other?
My sense is that people will have very little faith in such an alliance. That’s because they sit together one day and start criticising each other the next. People do not worry that political parties that are coming together today against Modi will be contesting against each other in another two-three years in state polls. People are more worried by the fact that even though they are trying to come together they are sniping at each other all the time. It makes people doubt their ability to form and run the government if they manage to form one.

A state-wise alliance can restrict the BJP in different states, but something called Mahagathbandhan [grand alliance] can generate counterpolarisation. It will help Modi, who will say, as he has been doing, that everyone has united against him.

Do you think it makes more sense for Opposition parties to have two separate alliances – one Congress-led and the other which can be pitched as a non-BJP, non-Congress alliance?
That would be very neat – the Congress fighting elections with, say, seven parties and another alliance, say, of 10-12 parties fighting both the BJP and the Congress. This should depend upon the relative strengths of political parties, with the Congress leading the alliance in states where it’s a bigger force [than other non-BJP parties] like Jharkhand or Haryana and in most of the Hindi heartland states. Regional parties can spearhead the alliance in states where they have sizeable presence such as Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana.

When parties combine, to what extent are they able to transfer votes to each other?
It is roughly in the range of 85%. That is why the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) won in Bihar in 2015.

The 2014 election was about “Modi Lao” (Bring Modi). Do you think 2019 is turning into “Modi Hatao” (Remove Modi) election?
Though there is a loud noise about removing Modi, the sense I get from the ground is there is no anger against him. But there is disenchantment among different sections – Dalits, Adivasis, students, farmers…There is disappointment among them largely because of the hope Modi generated.

I would put it like this: people are disenchanted, a little unhappy, but not angry with Modi. I think the alliance system is very important for 2019. A good alliance can pull down the BJP.

Narendra Modi's supporters celebrate the BJP's victory in the 2014 election in Mumbai. Photo credit: AFP
Narendra Modi's supporters celebrate the BJP's victory in the 2014 election in Mumbai. Photo credit: AFP

Forty Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in a terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir. In what ways can the attack influence voters?
If the government does not take some action, it might adversely affect the BJP’s electoral prospects. People are expecting the government will give a befitting reply to Pakistan. The BJP can gain from the Pulwama incident only if it shows it has the capacity of teaching Pakistan a lesson. People would like to see India take badla [revenge] from Pakistan. That’s easier said than done in an election year.

On the one hand, we have this incessant debate on the Rafale deal. On the other, the government is continuously raiding Opposition leaders and accusing them of corruption. Whose story will people believe?
Corruption as an issue penetrates, at best, until the upper layer of the lower middle class. Others are not bothered much about corruption as it does not affect them much. They will be bothered only if parties are able to establish connection between corruption and, say, price rise or the general misery of the people. This is what Modi in 2014 and VP Singh with his Bofors campaign in 1989 did. The Congress has not been able to do that till now.

What about the Rafale deal?
The Rafale deal has not made an impact on the common people. This is because the [Congress] party which is making the charge against Modi is not seen as an honest one. The man against whom the charges are being made, Modi, is still considered an honest man. People think he may have slipped here and there, but he could not have made money.

Do you think Modi not having a family could be a reason why the corruption charge has not stuck to him?
It adds to his integrity quotient. People will ask: why would he make money when he has no one to bequeath it to? Also, the Opposition doesn’t have a smoking gun.

Do you think Modi’s authoritarian style makes a difference to people?
It makes a difference only to those who constitute the intelligentsia, people who have an opinion and wish to express it freely. Common people like having a strong leader.

Don’t you think the slapping of sedition charges against Dalits has made an impact on their community?
Generally, the euphoria Dalits had for Modi has subsided. Dalits are generally unhappier compared to some other communities. But that is not related to Modi’s style of functioning. It is because of local issues.

From your surveys, do you get a sense that the perception about Rahul Gandhi has changed?
Only a little bit. Earlier, 18%-20% would tell us they want Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. That figure has now gone up to 27%-28%. This is not entirely his own popularity; it is also because of the acceptability of the Congress going up. I say this because Rahul Gandhi’s popularity is marginally higher than the 22%-23% people who want to vote for the Congress in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election.

By contrast, 32%-33% people say they want to see the BJP’s rule but more than 50% say they want to have Modi as the prime minister. In other words, Modi contributes to the BJP’s popularity to a great extent, but Rahul Gandhi hardly does to the Congress’s.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tributes to the CRPF personnel killed in the Pulwama attack. Photo credit: PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tributes to the CRPF personnel killed in the Pulwama attack. Photo credit: PTI

Though it is still too early for you to have done any survey on Priyanka Gandhi’s impact, how do you think her active role in the election campaign will play out in Uttar Pradesh?
The Congress’ problem in Uttar Pradesh is it is lying very low, at 6%-8% of the vote. We have yet to see what kind of traction she will get. But my own perception is that in Uttar Pradesh, she can add 6%-7% of votes to the Congress, at best 10%, which would be incredible. That would take the Congress to around 15%-16% of the vote. In 2014, the Bahujan Samaj Party bagged 20% of the vote, but did not get a seat.

But whom will she damage more, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance or the Bharatiya Janata Party?
The Congress will damage the SP-BSP more than the BJP. This is because the BJP has a very loyal support base. I am not saying the Samajwadi Party and the BSP don’t have loyal supporters. But Priyanka’s presence in Uttar Pradesh and Congress’s increasing popularity will confuse Muslims, a large number of whom see the Congress as the real national alternative to the BJP. Even though people say that Muslims will vote strategically.

But strategic voting is precisely what leads to confusion.
Absolutely, my argument is that what parameters do Muslims have to accurately figure out which party is winning. This is what leads to a division of Muslim votes. Priyanka Gandhi’s entry will benefit the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

Do you see a caste divide among Muslims?
Not much, the elite Muslims have a slight tilt towards the Congress. But overall, roughly 38%-39% of Muslims voted for the Congress nationally in the last several elections. Regional parties and others get 56%-57% of the vote. The BJP gets 6%, which is largely because of the candidates the party fields. The Congress does not get much Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In states with bipolar politics, the Congress gets 75%-80% of the Muslim vote.

Won’t Brahmins be inclined towards Priyanka Gandhi?
I am not saying she won’t damage the BJP. She will. But if there is a slight drop in the SP-BSP’s votes, the BJP will benefit because it is sitting with nearly 40% of the votes in Uttar Pradesh. For all the misgovernance in Uttar Pradesh, I don’t see their vote share dipping by more than 3%. True, the Congress’s strategy is to pull Brahmin votes, but we will get a clearer picture once election tickets are distributed.

So arithmetic does trump chemistry?
Chemistry can only flow out of arithmetic. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the SP-BSP alliance without the Congress means the BJP will lose around 32-33 seats. With the Congress, the BJP’s losses would have been steeper.

It would have made sense for the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to include the Congress in their alliance, right?
The SP-BSP alliance and the Congress were invoking contrary logic. The Congress said it was a national party and had won two seats. On the other hand, the BSP did not win a single seat but was being given 38 seats. Their logic was based on the vote shares; the BSP did not win a seat but notched up 20% of the vote as against just 6% for the Congress in 2014. I think eight seats for the Congress would have been okay. From what I hear, they wanted 12-15 seats. That was just too high a demand.

Priyanka Gandhi’s husband, Robert Vadra, has been questioned by the Enforcement Directorate. Do you think his questioning is a part of the battle of perceptions?
We have never asked questions about him, yet whenever I go for field surveys I get the sense Vadra has a very poor image. His credentials are suspect; it is thought he has made money. But the BJP’s overreaction could be counterproductive.

Just as it was in the case of Indira Gandhi, whom the Janata Party government arrested and triggered a sympathy wave for.
Yes. Particularly if Priyanka Gandhi stands by Vadra, it could help the Congress. It is about patni (wife) standing behind pati (husband). She got it right there – she did the roadshow in Uttar Pradesh and then went to Jaipur, where Vadra was being questioned.

Sanjay Kumar heads the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Credit: Via Twitter
Sanjay Kumar heads the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Credit: Via Twitter

How will Mamata Banerjee versus Narendra Modi play out in West Bengal, where there was a big political conflict over Central Bureau of Investigation officials raiding the state’s police officers?
Bengal is one state where there is a sharp polarisation. It is pro-Mamata and anti-Mamata. Those who are pro-Mamata are with her. Those who are against her are rallying behind the BJP. Voters there don’t see the Left or the Congress as being in any position to dislodge her. I see the BJP winning 10-12 seats in the state. That doesn’t mean Mamata’s popularity is declining. It is largely because of the consolidation of anti-Mamata votes.

Are voters influenced by doles handed out before every election?
If 100 people have benefited from a scheme, the tilt will be towards the government. But doles do not make as much of a difference as political parties think. Partly, it is because there is confusion about whether benefits are coming from the central or state governments.

How alienated are farmers from the BJP?
The farmer identity is very strong only when farmers march to Delhi. They are not a political entity. In villages, everyone is a farmer. Their primary identity there is not that of a farmer, but largely derives from caste and religion. In India, we are all Indians. But this identity acquires another meaning for Indians settled abroad. There they want to do something for the country.

Conversely, when agrarian distress is huge, as it is today, won’t the entire village, so to speak, be affected? Why would political parties try to appease them with doles?
Every village has different kinds of farmers – big farmers, medium farmers, small and marginal farmers. Small and marginal farmers have been affected much more by the farm distress as compared to bigger farmers. The latter have managed to diversify their sources of income – for instance, engaging in a small business in a nearby town. But such big farmers are smaller in number compared to small and marginal farmers. The doles are mainly targeted at the small and marginal farmers who are sizeable in number.

Do you think the division between Jatav Dalits and non-Jatav Dalits has got blurred?
Jatavs and non-Jatavs behave differently only in Uttar Pradesh, not elsewhere. Nevertheless, Jatavs are sharply polarised in favour of Mayawati. It is as high as nearly 85%-87%. Among non-Jatavs, her vote share goes down to roughly 65%. The shift of Dalit votes to the BJP was largely among non-Jatavs.

Is the political behaviour of first-time voters different from those who are 30 and above?
The data from 1996 to 2009 shows that electoral participation of voters in the age group of 18 and 23 was lower by 4%-5% than the average national turnout. In 2014, however, the average voter turnout was 66%, but it was 68% among first-time voters. That was because of Modi. The preference for Modi as the prime minister among all age groups was 36%. Among first-time voters it was around 45%. There would be a decline, both in the popularity of Modi and turnout, among first-time voters this time. But I don’t think it will benefit the Congress. My sense is that the turnout will dip but first-time voters will remain more inclined to Modi than Rahul Gandhi.

Also read: Scroll.in’s series on How India Votes

Indian media went crazy over Priyanka Gandhi’s roadshow – even though she didn’t speak a word

Data-grabbing, the victim card, targeted ads, fake news: How to win an Indian election