Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, and co-author along with Pradeep Chhibber of Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India. Verma’s work has focused on understanding the many factors at play in Indian politics, and elections in particular, and scrutinising the conventional wisdom to see if it holds up.

Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India attempts to push back against the idea that Indians only vote on the basis of their identities, and suggests that ideology too plays a role – albeit not on the standard left-right axes that we are used to in Western polities.

I spoke to Verma about the voter confusion that may lie at the core of the coming Bihar elections, misconceptions about Indian politics that are still commonplace, and what research he would like to see done in the political science space.

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What got you into political science, and what has your work focused on so far?
I’ve been interested in elections and politics for a very long time. I don’t know when and how this fascination began. I was a very naughty kid. So my father very early on told me to read newspapers and when he came back from office, to tell him what the main news of the first page was. So I have been reading newspapers since, I think, seven or eight, when I could barely read anything. Perhaps that’s where it came from.

I’m also very fascinated by the game of cricket. So cricket and elections both involve numbers. I used to be a scorekeeper during cricket games and did the same for elections. I remember the first election when I tried to do this tally was the 1996 Lok Sabha election. I was 10 years old.

I didn’t know then that I wanted to become a political scientist. I came to Delhi from Lucknow for my undergraduate studies and I got just a BA. I wanted to be a journalist at that time – my first email address was “rahul.reporter”. But slowly, during my undergraduate days, I worked with some people, some activists, some movements, and then gradually became interested in research.

I did my masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The MA had a component of a thesis, and at this time the BSP had just won single-handedly the UP 2007 assembly elections. I wrote my master’s dissertation on the rise of the BSP and how it began. Then I did my internship at Lokniti-CSDS and basically, I found my place in political science. And then I got my M Phil from Delhi University in political science, and then went to Berkeley for my PhD.

By the time of your M Phil and at Berkeley, what area of political science were you working on
My M Phil thesis was on variations in party systems across Indian states. So I basically selected four different states, because you had a couple of states where we had bipolar competition like MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal. Then you had a couple of states where you had a coalition system – Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala. Then you had states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where you had a fragmented space. And then there were states like Gujarat and West Bengal, where one party was dominant for a very, very long period of time.

These became a case study to understand why, in the same country with the same electoral rules, we have different party systems emerging. So that was my thesis. I don’t know that I still have an answer to that question. But, elections, voting behaviour, party politics became the core of my research interests.

I went to Berkeley to do my PhD. The large idea in the PhD dissertation was to understand why some politicians manage to retain power for a very long period of time. Whereas, given our system, there is so much volatility – half the legislators lose elections – but then there are at least one-third of them, who continue for a very, very long time.

I wanted to understand power at a very local level, basically how politicians try to keep power within the family. Not just political power, but also economic resources and other instruments of power that let you influence people. So it could be muscle, it could be money, it could be controlling institutions.

The idea was to understand this debate, which is going on in the scholarly domain. There are two sets of scholars, one that has been writing about the deepening of democracy in India in the last 20-30 years. Whereas there have been scholars who have been producing evidence saying that, despite all these changes, the old power brokers still hold on to their territory.

And I also wanted to understand, you know, when you try to bring in top-down reforms, like decentralisation and the panchayati Raj system, there are going to be people who will have problems with those reforms, because it takes away their power. So what do they do to continue to hold on to power? That is where the dissertation is finally headed.

Interestingly, even before I could start work on my PhD dissertation, one fine day in the second year of the programme, perhaps in 2013, my adviser Pradeep Chhibber and I was discussing how there are certain things in Indian politics, which keep coming back. Our idea was that there is a long shadow of Partition on Indian politics. And we started thinking about this, that there are a lot of unresolved tensions from the time of Independence, which continue to shape and shadow Indian politics.

And then came the idea that there is a deep ideological conflict in Indian politics, which has shaped or influenced party systems in India, in a big way, which has been missing in the scholarly debate. That became the book, Ideology and identity: The Changing Party Systems.

It’s a fascinating book, with lots of ideas even beyond the central question of ideology, but before we discuss it, I wanted to ask where you fall on that deepening of democracy versus old power brokers question?
I would count myself in between. There are changes happening and those changes are very much visible. Old centres of authority and power have certainly weakened. But they have not gone away.

So saying that nothing has changed is wrong. And saying that we are closer to becoming Denmark or whatever – we’re not there. Things have certainly changed in the last 70 years. During my fieldwork, I met countless number of people, some Dalits, including women, where you can see both political independence and assertion, but also people from upper caste or old landed families, who continue to consider the village their personal systems.

For the past year we have been hearing about the reassertion of “thakurwaad”. What is that? Basically the old order trying to wrestle back the power it has lost. We keep hearing incidents of a Dalit groom riding a horse during his wedding parade, and being beaten up by the upper castes. These incidents continue to take place, which means there are certain people who either command power or, at least, are not ready to give up that power. But trying to take the parade out is also a sign of change.

Just like how Brahmins or upper-castes demanding reservation shows us both that the reservation system has worked, and that the upper-castes want to reassert their power.
Right, and there is one intervention I want to make here, which is missing in research or scholarship on this area.

Whenever we have tried to understand power dynamics in the Indian case, it has always been on the basis of caste or groups. We have never tried to understand the individual basis of power. So, Indian sociology or Indian anthropology is full of deep and good case studies of how upper castes or dominant castes continue to hold on to power. But not every member of the upper caste in the village commands the same power, right?

There is, of course, a different power relationship among the members within the group, given their own economic resources, political capital, and social capital. And this also reflects or affects an upper caste or dominant class member’s power dynamics visibly. Not all upper-caste members in the village will command the same power.

The question with this dissertation was to study power, which is rooted within families or individuals rather than large caste groups.

Which brings us to the book that not everyone agrees with. I always found the way Indian journalists look at elections as pure arithmetic – this caste will vote this way, another in another way – somehow inadequate. If that were the case, predictions should be easy. I found the book interesting in examining those other factors, whether of ideology on various axes (statism and recognition) or other things, which tell us about elections.
Not many agree with the arguments in the book. Fair enough. The claim is not that Indian politics is solely governed by ideology. That is never the claim in the book, nor would I make the case. The case is very simple: That Indian politics has a structural component, a historical battle that is now almost 100 years old. And that there are a number of things that are important in Indian elections. Ideology is one among them. And we have overlooked that. In a very candid and minimalist sense, this is the argument of the book.

I believe that we have put far too much analytical weight on caste and arithmetic to explain election outcomes. I’m not arguing that if you get the ideological axes right – assuming what we have said is not right – you will be able to predict elections. There are n number of variables, and all of them have to go in one direction to be able to predict election outcomes, especially when they are so closely contested.

Think of a game of cricket. Either you score 500 runs in a 20-20 match. Then, even with poor bowling and poor fielding you still can manage to win. But if you score 200 runs, it means you will have to do good bowling as well as good fielding. That’s what happens in elections as well.

If you don’t have the arithmetic behind you, you are not in the game. So you need some sort of arithmetic for sure. That’s a necessary condition. But it’s not sufficient. For example, right now, in Bihar, the arithmetic seems to be in favour of the NDA. But even the CSDS poll that came out this week suggests that while the NDA has an edge, the game is still on.

They need the arithmetic, but also some sort of chemistry, some sort of platform to mobilise people. So many things have to go right in one direction to get the kind of election outcome you want to get.

A BJP supporter at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in New Delhi. Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP

I find that when analysis says OBCs will vote this way, or Brahmins will vote that way, they never tell us does that mean 70% of them will vote one way? Or 40%? Both would be significant, but these are different things.
When people talk about “Indians voting their caste rather than casting their vote”, I just don’t understand it. In which part of the world do you not see an alignment of a political party with a particular social group?

Even in the United States – our middle-class thinks it’s this fantasyland – there is a clear alignment of social groups with political parties. African Americans are more likely to vote for Democrats. So are the Hispanics, so are Indian Americans. White Americans are more likely to vote for the Republican Party, in every place.

Second, this is a very reductionist approach. The reason being that the current composition of a constituency or a state does not go through rapid fluctuations. But we know that elections in India are very unpredictable, right. And governments change and MLAs change and MPs change every five years.

When the caste composition is not undergoing change, and elected representatives are changing, what explains that divergence? It means that basically, you being born into a caste does not automatically mean that you are always going to vote for one party.
Of course, because there are certain policy preferences you like as a caste, and a particular party mobilises on those policy platforms, there is a closer correlation, right? So a couple of years ago, a Dalit in UP was more likely to vote for the BSP because BSP espoused the concerns and the cause of Dalits. Upper castes are more likely to vote for the BJP because BJP mobilises on those axes. So this relationship is not axiomatic. It also has some sort of policy or ideological consideration.

To move away from ideology a bit, in your piece with Sanjay Kumar in 2015, you argued that the BJP messed up by focusing too heavily on Narendra Modi in Bihar and criticising Nitish Kumar who was then with the Mahagathbandhan. This time around it almost seems to be the opposite narrative: Modi has the stronger hand, and Nitish is looking weaker.
That is correct. Not just the opinion poll by CSDS, which came out this week, but also I think there is an emerging consensus that in the third term of Nitish Kumar, not much work has been done. And so his popularity, which was at its peak in 2010, came down a bit in 2015 and is now at the lowest in 2020.

He is no longer the sushasan babu (fine ruler) he claimed to be in 2010. He is no longer as charismatic as he was considered back then. And Modi certainly in the last four or five years has gained more popularity and seems to be more accepted among the voters of Bihar. In 2015 the BJP became the main opposition party after the election, but it didn’t do well. But in 2019, the NDA swept and it seemed that Prime Minister Modi’s popularity carried the day in Bihar.

In fact, if you look at the current election, the Lok Janshakti Party – it is not even in the alliance now –leader Chirag Paswan continues to basically say, “I’m not against the BJP. I very much like Modi.” In fact, he went to the extent of saying, “Cut my heart open and you will find Modi inside.”

There is a realisation that Modi is very popular. And this is very well understood by Opposition parties. So what they are doing not just in Bihar, but in other state elections, is to focus on the state BJP leadership, focus on local issues, don’t go into national security issues or religious issues, and take on the state BJP government on its own governance record, and its leadership.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: PTI

What else do you take away from the pre-election polls?
There is some confusion within the BJP rank and file. The key question going forward in this election is whether BJP manages to resolve this confusion among BJP voters or not. If you look at the data more closely, we see that 80% to 90% of JDU supporters want Nitish to return as the chief minister, and think that his government has done well.

But only half the people who are going to vote for the BJP seem satisfied with the Nitish government and want him to return as the chief minister. Basically, BJP voters want NDA to win, but with a new chief minister.

And this confusion was created in late September, early October, because there were rumours that the BJP had propped up Chirag Paswan as a front to dislodge Nitish – so that Nitish wins fewer seats and BJP gets even more seats. And then in the post-poll circumstances the BJP can have its own chief minister.

Now, fifteen days later, there is a realisation within the BJP leadership that if those rumours, whether they are true or not, spread, they may have a tough time. So in the past week they have been trying from the top to remind voters that no matter how many seats the BJP wins, Nitish Kumar is going to be the CM. They have been attacking Chirag Paswan saying he is trying to cut votes, or that he is working with the Opposition.

So they are trying to resolve this confusion with the BJP rank and file. This will be the key to the Bihar 2020 outcome. If the BJP manages to convey this message and get its voters to turn out to vote even in JDU seats, the NDA will have a big advantage. Otherwise, this will remain a close election.

The Maharashtra result is one that clearly hangs over this, making it clear to the BJP that a party can split from it and still manage to come to power.
This is not new to Indian party politics. Whenever you see the rise of a dominant party, everyone else, including those who could be ideologically similar, can go against you. Because at the end of the day, it also matters for political parties and politicians to survive in the game of politics. They are there to pursue their ideological agenda, but they’re also there to pursue power.

Think of the 1960s, 1970s when the Congress was the dominant player. Everyone from Janata Party to socialists to communists and even Congress-O got together to contest against a dominant Congress Party. Even in 1989, when the Congress looked dominant, the Opposition Janata Dal got support both from the BJP as well as the communist side. So whenever political survival is going to be at stake, politicians will do a somersault.

Speaking to Yamini Aiyar last week, we talked about the phenomenon of Modi’s popularity amid all this. She said that it’s partly to do with people believing Modi is responsible for welfare delivery, which hurts state leaders. But do you believe we understand Modi’s popularity well enough?
I think we have partial answers to this question. And Yamini is certainly right on this. She has a very interesting paper in the Journal of Democracy, and one for the Centre for Contemporary South Asia with Neelanjan Sircar. And I think both of them make a valid point, which is that most welfare policies get associated with Prime Minister Modi directly.

And so in the national election, when the Prime Minister himself is contesting, he can partly draw upon the delivery of those schemes to boost his profile and popularity. But charismatic leaders like Modi do not rely only on the delivery of services and governance.

In Modi, after a very long time, you have seen the emergence of a pan-India leader. While his popularity in 2019 certainly has an element of delivery of services and benefits, what about the base popularity which he carried in 2014? That base popularity has an element of his own ideological conviction. So, after a very long time, you have a leader who wears his ideological worldview on his sleeve.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi Photo: PTI

We have seen a lot of mistakes and blunders by his government, but there is a conviction and he and his party are ready to carry with those convictions despite opposition. So, first is his base popularity, which comes because of his ideological conviction. Second, it is what Yamini and others have pointed out about delivery and welfare and a propaganda machine, which is built around him and has given him a larger than life image.

And then many people have combined these two elements, and have argued that Modi has now become a sort of demigod, and it doesn’t matter whether he does right or wrong, because, even when suffering, people don’t criticise god, right? Even if you go through suffering, people would say, it’s god’s way of teaching you certain things. So, Modi has been, in some writings, made this demigod-like figure.

But there is a third thing which is happening, which we have not focused on enough.

Look at these elements:

  • First, how popular Modi is, which are basically his popularity ratings.
  • Second, the hardships Indians have faced, like demonetisation, or lockdown or downward economy or social and religious tensions.

You have this perplexing puzzle. On the one hand, people see all these problems. On the other, Modi is still popular.

I think there is the third piece of the data in the surveys, which people have not looked at and connected. There is the delivery of services and responsiveness of government that has increased and there is also an element in the survey, which I have recently looked at, which is aligned with aspiration and Modi delivering on those aspirations.

There is an emerging class in India, which basically wants the state not to act just as a provider, but as a facilitator of their dreams and aspirations. There is a very classic question which has been asked in surveys across the world. Pick one of these two statements: The first statement will read something like “people themselves are responsible for their poverty”. The second sentence would read like “the government is responsible for people’s poverty”.

What we are seeing is that the aspirational, middle-income or high-income categories tend to think that people should be taking responsibility of their own situations. We also see in these surveys, looking at the Gaon Connection-CSDS survey, that voters are basically not laying the blame for the pandemic on Modi.
They’re satisfied with the government’s response to the pandemic. And what we also see is that those who think there should be a strong leader running the country, have a very different expectation from the state, and a very different imagination of how the state should act in the economic sphere.

I’m not saying that we are basically going to see a classic left-right divide on state versus market. What is emerging is that the state has a role, but the role of the state is to basically act as a facilitator. And to them Modi basically epitomises those sorts of life aspirations. I don’t remember any other leader other than Modi, who said better “I’m Gujarati, money and commerce are in my blood.”

So, one aspect is delivering welfare benefits, but on the other hand Modi is also asking the upper middle classes to give up your subsidy, right? Making them participate in the governance agenda. This is the third aspect. In the last two to three decades, the size of the middle class has grown manifold.

Not just in terms of their purchasing power and other things, in terms of aspiration. So surveys have been asking this question, how do you identify yourself? Do you identify yourself as middle-class? Or the working class? The proportion of people who say that we identify ourselves as middle-class has gone up. And this is the segment supporting Modi.

Indeed, one of our most popular pieces at Scroll.in is a quick one from many years ago about how everyone in India now thinks they’re middle-class, whether rich or poor. What misconceptions about Indian politics do you find yourself correcting all the time?
There are lots of them. Lots of them. Despite contrary evidence and good evidence in the public domain, people continue to work with the old wisdom, which has been challenged. As we discussed in the beginning, take this whole relationship between caste and vote. Just open your eyes. Across the world, this happens. I’m not saying that there are no bad effects and elements of this caste-vote relationship in India. But why do you get so worked up? Think deeply why this exists.

This conversation is loaded against the lower class and the marginalised. Upper castes also act as a voting block for the BJP in many parts of this country, or dominant castes do for regional parties in many parts of the country, but the conversation is always about some Yadav-OBCs, some Dalits and some Muslims, right? So this misconception has another layer of misconceptions loaded towards one group.

Take the silent voter theory [to explain polling errors]. This is one of the most bogus theories of Indian politics. This has no basis. But in every election you hear, “we went there, the voters are not speaking up.” Yes, some people are actually strategically silent. They don’t want to be seen. But a lot of them actually don’t know what to do. And they are looking for cues. They’re trying to talk to their relatives, they’re trying to talk to their family members. They’re trying to talk to their village elders.

There is a section of voters who decide whom to vote for while standing in the queue. The “hawa” at the polling booth.

Then, many people, including Milan Vaishnav ,have given evidence on this relationship between turnout and anti-incumbency, that there is no relationship. But it keeps coming back in election after election.

Then this whole business about factionalism. I grew up reading in the newspapers someone always blaming “gutbaazi”, factionalism, for losing. So when you lose, it’s basically anti-incumbency and factionalism. And when you win, these two things don’t matter.

See, parties are made up of factions. There are always going to be competing power interests. The degree of factionalism may make you win or lose an election, but that does not happen in every election.

Some of these things show up in our analysis and election journalism without being questioned.
There are more. Like how many people are sitting in a rally. There is a camera showing a big crowd. And then there are ones showing empty chairs. Of course it is an indicator of popularity of a party or a leader. But this is not going to tell you much about who’s going to win elections.

The sum total of my frustration is that everyone wants to predict the election outcome. But everyone also hates the game of prediction. If someone else is doing it, then they will curse them but continue with their own game of who is winning how many seats, just based on some hearsay, some WhatsApp/Twitter forward.

In this game of trying to predict election outcomes, we have forgotten the most important things which we should be doing during elections, as reporters, as journalists, as scholars, as activists: Trying to understand both the health of democracy, the deepening of democracy, and the issues of voters, what churning in the society is going on, among other things.

Think of this 10 years, 25 years, 40 years later down the road. What we are doing is basically recording present history. And if the present history is going to be recorded only in terms of who may win or who may lose, it will not have any value in Bihar after November 11. Yeah, and it certainly will not have any value five years down the line.

What research would you like to see being done to understand the Modi Moment?
I can list at least a dozen things, ranging from party politics to changes in political culture, the political economy, and social churning, to institutional set-ups, but allow me to focus on the party-politics part.

  • How does the BJP/ RSS work on the ground, especially during the non-election period? What is their organisational strength? We have far too many discursive accounts, but not empirical and deep fieldwork accounts of their function, organisational set-up, etc, especially post-2009.
  • Various strands within the BJP or India’s right-wing: There are at least 4-5 traditions, but all get lumped together – RSS/ BJP, Hindu Mahasabha/RRP, Swatantra Party, Congress(0)/Patelites.
  • Reasons for the structural decline of the Congress party, especially post-1990s. Similarly, many regional parties are undergoing a generational transition – how is that changing the social-political arrangement established in the 1990s?

What recommendations do you have for those interested in the Bihar elections?

  • Arvind Das, The Republic of Bihar, Penguin 1992
  • Ashwani Kumar, Community Warriors: State, Peasants, and Caste Armies in Bihar, Anthem Press, 2008
  • Jeffery Witsoe, Democracy against Development: Lower-Caste Politics and Political Modernity in Postcolonial India, The University of Chicago Press, 2013
  • Sankarshan Thakur, The Brothers Bihari, Harper Collins 2015 (combines the two separate biographies of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar)
  • Sanjay Kumar, Post-Mandal Politics in Bihar: Changing Electoral Patterns, Sage, 2018