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‘People are a little unhappy but not angry with Modi’: Psephologist Sanjay Kumar on Lok Sabha polls

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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.


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.

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,........

© Scroll.in