What’s on the mind of the Indian voter? An analysis

More than half the Indian voters are satisfied with the present state of governance and future economic prospects, according to a Pew opinion polling survey, published weeks ahead of the Indian general elections.

The level of satisfaction, however, has fallen, as 58% of the adults are questioning the efficacy of the democratic electoral exercise, and only 21% are of the belief that job opportunities have increased.

The report published Monday, March 25, is based on two surveys conducted among 2521 respondents by US-based Pew Research Centre in 2018, the final year of Modi’s tenure, before his shot at re-election.

It enumerates how 900 million eligible voters in India see their elected officials and the democracy—as well as how they feel about the spread of fake news via mobile technology—in five key findings.

Notably, it confirms what Qrius earlier reported to be the most important and decisive factors that will determine the outcome of the upcoming polls: unemployment, terrorism, rising prices and misinformation. About two-thirds of the public says corrupt officials (66%), terrorism (65%) and crime (64%) are very big problems. 

Here’s what the report has to say about which way the voting sentiment largely swings.

Elected officials don’t care about common people; masses are equivocal about economy

Most Indians say that no matter who wins an election, things do not change very much; this is the predominant attitude towards elections that the majority of the masses harbour. This sentiment is shared by supporters of both the BJP as well as the Congress.

Roughly 64% consider most politicians as corrupt, and 43% hold this view very intensely.

Although inflation continues to be a raging issue, and the lack of employment poses a big challenge for 73-76% of the respondents, roughly two-thirds of the same demographic believe that the financial situation is better than it was 20 years ago. This, despite the fact that the “buried” employment survey by the NSSO revealed a 45-year-high in joblessness.

Also read: ‘Missing’ employment data confirms worst fears: A treatise on the future of work

Fewer people (10% less than the previous survey), however, think their children will be better off than them, according to the latest report. The number of voters who are satisfied with the current trajectory of the country is also down 15% from 2017.

Satisfaction with the state of India’s democracy

Only a third of the population, predominantly women and Congress supporters, are dissatisfied with the way Indian democracy is working. Most Indians also feel unsafe, agreeing with the statement: “Most people live in areas where it is dangerous to walk around at night”—describes the nation.

Most men and BJP supporters, however, are satisfied with the levels of rights and freedoms they enjoy, and believe there’s enough scope for everybody to improve their standards of living.

While there are many other independent studies to prove otherwise, the fact that socio-economic inequalities have been erased from national discourse before the polls, is a humanitarian failure that underlines the public shortsightedness exploited by politicians before the polls.

It is also heartening to note that 74% of the Indian masses, mostly young people, have faith in their judiciary system, believing that the courts treat everyone fairly.

If the past year has proven anything, it is that instances of justice delayed and denied recede to the background. Instead, historic verdicts on the Sabarimala issue, Section 377, Rafale and CBI controversies, intercaste marriage, and privacy laws, assume cosmetic importance over the performance of the overall machinery.

No compromise on national security

Most Indians (76%) perceive Pakistan as the enemy and a major threat, and heartily believe that the Kashmir situation warrants more military force at the border. This view is shared widely across genders and ages hailing from rural as well as urban populace, regardless of their allegiance to either political parties.

Of the 65% that consider terrorism as a “very big problem for India”, most are talking about Kashmir. Notably, more than half the population believes that the situation has become worse in the last five years, a time-frame that encompasses the term of the Modi government.

Flying under the radar of popular opinion are the cross-border conflicts violating the line of control, large-scale military strikes, and extrajudicial atrocities on civilians, which have been on the rise ever since, reaching a fever pitch after Pulwama.

Placing Pulwama in context

The war-mongering sentiment has further gained steam after the Pulwama terror attack, which according to the Pew report transformed a “long-running territorial dispute into a potent campaign issue” for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With the attack, the centre was presented with an opportunity to display how seriously it takes border and national security, how aggressively it can respond to its enemies and how well it can weaponise the army for electoral gains.

The post-Pulwama attack situation centered unfortunately on vested interests, as pre-emptive strikes, counter-strikes, and barbed attacks were carried out. The State’s response was blown way out of proportion by the Indian media, leaving lawmakers and civilians baying for blood. What’s more alarming is the fact that a large section of the demographic dividend seemed to care very less for the glaring lack of evidence of these strikes, or that the Modi administration did not make a call for peace the entire time, even when the country edged dangerously close to a war, or that the presiding defense ministry failed to protect its troops better.

Relation between news and politics has become more skewed

A separate Pew survey notes that with the uptick in mobile phone users and cheap data bundles, the internet has become the primary source of information for most Indians.

Social media platforms and chat apps have been maliciously weaponised for the purpose of spreading fake news, which hold great sway over Indian politics. This issue reared its head with greater vengeance in the weeks following the Pulwama attack.

According to the voter survey, partisanship plays a role in shaping public opinion on the impact of mobile technology. “Adults who support Modi’s BJP are more likely to say mobile phones have had a good influence on politics (49%) than those who support the Congress party (33%)” it notes, adding instances where the ruling party endorsed pushing fake messages glorifying the BJP over WhatsApp and other social platforms. 

A landmark BBC report last year, in fact, noted how the rise of nationalism is tied to rampant misinformation and vice versa.

Users and tech firms realise the gravity of this misuse

About 77% of the Indian population, on either end of the political spectrum,
are “concerned about people being exposed to false or incorrect information when they use their mobile phones,” especially in the wake of a spate of mob lynchings that occurred last year due to WhatsApp hoaxes.

Impact of such misinformation campaigns on election results cannot be undermined after the recent upset in Brazil’s presidential polls, and similar attempts to derail the Irish referendum on abortion.

Tech firms stationed in India, which is the country with the largest number of WhatsApp and Facebook users in the world, are taking steps to curb the spread of misinformation. The Election Commission of India has also issued stringent rules against abusing these platform for electoral gains, especially through misleading advertisements.

How the Pew survey weighs against other opinion polls

There is no mention of farmers’ issues, for one, although it has become a primary plank for various parties seeking political victory this election season. Religious issues like cow slaughter, the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and triple talaq, which drive the polarisation and partisanship, are also entirely missing.

For all the heft the Pew survey delegates to inflation and economy, a study recently published by the Economic and Political Weekly written by Nobel prize-winning economist, Thomas Piketty, along with Amory Gethin and Abhijit Banerjee, attempts to debunk the myth that Indian voters prioritise inclusive development and economic policies over caste or religion.

Caste-based vote bank politics, identity and religious-ethnic conflicts have determined India’s electoral choices and will continue to do so, claims the study which was conducted after the 2014 polls. The only social policy of import happens to be reservation in government jobs and educational institutions, which again is rooted in caste-based stratification.

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) conducted a similar independent survey of over 2.7 lakh voters across India, which showcased large scale disappointment with the Modi government’s performance on issues like jobs, healthcare, and drinking water. Employment polled as the top polling issue for nearly half the respondents, according to the report, which was published around the same time as the Pew survey findings, on Monday.

Despite glossing over some of the most significant issues and yielding very equivocal results, the Pew report does note the diminishing sharpness of concern over inequality, communal violence, pollution, and poor health, over the past five years, despite official data pointing to deterioration on all of these fronts. It has revealed that the changing structure of Indian electorates follows a worrisome global trend in tracing the declining spirit of inquiry in a post-truth world.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Lok Sabha Elections 2019