If the election results made anything clear, it is that the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s messaging was strong enough to overcome marked economic distress. It also marked a consolidation of what was referred to as a “Modi wave” in 2014, with the BJP returning with 21 more seats than in the previous elections.

The next big question for political scientists and other theorists of elections is to understand what the Modi wave is. Are people voting for Modi because they admire him as an individual; are they voting with their caste identities in mind –the BJP, for instance, is traditionally referred to as a Brahmin-Bania party because of its vote bank from those castes; do they support local leaders who support Modi; if they are not threatened by Hindutva, do they actively support its agenda, or other factors entirely?

These are some of the questions that Tariq Thachil, associate professor of Political Sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, US, is grappling with.

“How does one empirically evaluate a Modi effect?” Thachil asked. “The BJP’s success of 2014 was building for a decade prior. The BJP was already making gains with Dalits and Adivasis in the years before 2014 in northern and central Indian states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.”

Thirty per cent of voters in a Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey said economic factors were important considerations for them during an election, Thachil said.

Given this and other factors such as anti-incumbency, such a large victory for the BJP on May 23 was something that needed explanation.

“The aspect that struck us in 2014 was the idea of a singular politician,” Thachil said. “As observers, we can see that something is happening, but as a social scientist, it is different.”

Adam Ziegfeld, assistant professor of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia, US, says it will be interesting to ascertain why voters in India act the way they do.

“In terms of voter behaviour, people have complex motivations,” he said. “Social psychologists also show us that people are bad at saying why they do the things that they do.”

Ziegfeld pointed to the example of asking American voters directly why they voted for Trump. “They will be unlikely to say it is because they are afraid of brown people,” he said. “But you can ask their opinions about race separately and then look at correlations.”

Voters show their inked fingers in Varanasi on May 19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the BJP candidate from the seat. (Photo credit: PTI).
Voters show their inked fingers in Varanasi on May 19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the BJP candidate from the seat. (Photo credit: PTI).

Party or person?

The scale of the victory brings the question of whether it was Modi’s personal popularity, more than support for the BJP, that led to this.

“We have a little bit of myopia when we think about elections,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi and an associate professor at Ashoka University in Sonipat. “Pre-1990s, we would have thought elections were presidential as well. The more we think about it, the 25 year period of 1989 to 2014, with its high fragmentation, was actually unusual.”

Sircar added: “A lot of people are attached to the individual first and not the party, and find issues to support them. If you think about why ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ [the Congress’s slogan against Modi] did not stick, it was because it was issue-based. If I am attracted to Modi, that is not the way I will make decisions.”

Thachil spoke of the difficulty in ascertaining what exactly brought the BJP back to power. “The question is whether it is something about Modi, whether he has personal popularity with voters or whether it is his party ideology,” said Thachil. “There is a theory that voters like him and are looking for reasons to support him. If that’s true, the main question is whether he colours everything. What are the components of that popularity? Nothing can answer that right now.”

Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Nadiad, Gujarat, in December 2017. (Photo credit:  Reuters/Amit Dave).
Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Nadiad, Gujarat, in December 2017. (Photo credit: Reuters/Amit Dave).

Social service and mobilisation

Several political scientists have written about the impact of social service drivers on voter mobilisation. Thachil’s own work, published in a book in 2014, was about how social services win voters in India.

Sarayu Natarajan, a political scientist who ran a podcast about the Lok Sabha elections, observed this at work in Bengaluru, where BJP workers would approach local leaders in unauthorised housing at the peripheries of the city and attempt to bring them into the fold through the promise of housing.

When votes were counted, party candidate Tejaswi Surya got 62.2% of the vote share in his Bengaluru South seat. The party also registered a small increase in its vote share in Bengaluru’s three Lok Sabha seats from the previous elections. It got 55.1% of the vote share in these seats in 2019, up from 53.9% in 2014.

“It is not just neoliberal elites who work for Modi,” Natarajan said. “He has a far broader base of support.” She added that this was not a zero sum game and that if a different party were in power at the state level it could undo or replicate efforts like this.

That said, it is possible that there might be a churn in coming years among lower level party workers who might feel that the BJP has no place for all of them to grow. This is something Thachil has observed in his recent work in the BJP strongholds of Jaipur and Bhopal, where at the lower level, party workers were switching sides at a relatively high rate.

A VHP rally in Delhi in December 2018. (Photo credit: AFP).
A VHP rally in Delhi in December 2018. (Photo credit: AFP).

Hindutva and caste

Another question for political scientists in 2019 is to identify the role of ideology and caste identity in motivating BJP voters. Modi’s own personal popularity might have the most impact on vote mobilisers, who in turn are motivated to seek out more voters sympathetic to their message.

This, Thachil said, is the question to be asked after the 2019 elections: “Is there an effect on vote mobilisers and if so, can we trace what is driving it?’

Thachil pointed out that studies so far have shown that upper caste people who vote for the BJP were more pro-Hindutva than not. The same did not hold for Dalits and Adivasis, who voted for the BJP in large numbers in 2014, and who are among the targets of Hindutva ideology.

“We need to do the same study in 2019 to see if there is a correlation or no association at all,” Thachil said. “Of course, you have leading politicians who use polarising and genocidal language and I don’t mean to downplay that. But we have to see whether this language mobilises the mobilisers and ratchets up the core that does the work of the election. That might be the way this is working.”

Sircar said: “I do think Hindutva matters, but in a deeper sense, there is a lot of latent Hindu nationalism in a large number of communities.”

He added: “It is not defining. Obviously the biggest effect it has is that people are not necessarily turned away by it.”

Ziegfeld is interested in examining the extent to which voters are motivated by Hindutva over other things. “There is some evidence that religious polarisation can have an effect, but it is unclear how durable it is,” Ziegfeld said.

After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he looked at the places where the BJP had done best, relative to its previous best in those states. He found that the BJP would have a previous best in, say, 1991 or 1996, and then achieved that again in 2014, only this time across all states.

“A lot of the places where its prior best had occurred was during periods of polarisation, but it hadn’t lasted,” Ziegfeld said. “The next big question is whether this is durable in 2019.”