Populism, Nationalism, and Political Psychology: Analysing Contemporary Indian Voting Patterns
Written by Soumava Basu
Research Associate at Law & Order
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
India has been a significant battleground for debate on the issue of self-governance since colonial times. By denying India independence, the British had expressed anxiety over Indians’ ability to govern themselves. Even after 1947, when India finally gained independence, the Western sphere remained skeptical about India’s future (Sen, 1999). As the first Asian country to turn over a democratic leaf, India struggled with nation-building with its burgeoning population, poverty, and low levels of literacy alongside worldwide skepticism.
After the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, communal politics had pushed the nation off to a rocky start. The country carried out its first general elections in 1951, which was a step towards restoring erstwhile stability. When post-colonial democracy in Asia and Africa was trailing, India seemed to have been the first Asian democracy to have achieved success. However, Nehru's death in 1964 led to the weakening of central leadership and infighting within the Indian National Congress (INC). Finally, when the split in Congress occurred in 1969, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took control of the majority faction, and her politics turned populist. Therefore, the 1960s was a period of turmoil in Indian politics. Indira Gandhi’s left-wing populist mobilization strategy played a significant role in the INC’s election victory in 1971, further legitimizing her leadership by declaring a nationwide Emergency in July 1975—abrogating democracy and ruling by decree (Kenny, 2017).
This essay attempts to understand and explain India’s emerging trends in voting patterns, the world's largest democracy. The paper’s focus is to analyze modern trends in the Indian political ecosystem since the 2014 General Elections. This paper attempts to identify the conditions responsible for current Indian voting behavior.
Populism and nationalism: Intertwined elements in Indian democracy
Populism has turned out to be a dominant feature of Indian democracy. Across South, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, populism mixed with radical nationalist sentiment has been an effective form of political mobilization—with Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines proving to be leading examples of populist Asian leaders. Nationalism is an ideology that dictates what a state should be, whereas populism is a methodology that manipulates the masses.
As Muddle argues, "Populism is often combined with nationalism, with ‘the people' and ‘the nation’ becoming fairly interchangeable categories in their discourse" (Muddle, 2004)—precisely what is happening in India.
A pattern of ultranationalist populism has emerged recently with Narendra Modi’s 2014 landslide electoral victory. The 2014 parliamentary elections of India are a historic event on multiple fronts. First, by its voter size: out of 834 million eligible voters, 554 million voters cast their ballots on election day. Second, political experts believe that the 2014 poll was the “second most expensive election ever held, following only the 2012 US Presidential Elections” (Vaishav, 2015). Third and most importantly, for its outcome and the voting pattern. The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) victory prompted a watershed in the political behavior of the Indian voters (Vaishnav, 2015). The massive success of the BJP in 2014 represented one of the most radical expressions of populism combined with nationalism that shook the Indian political ecosystem. Modi's rise at the national level was enabled by a populist ideology centering Hindu majoritarianism that considered minorities a threat to nationhood. (Calléja, 2020).
Narendra Modi and the politics of personality
One of the central axioms of political psychology is that political actions and developments are shaped by and dependent on the voter’s personality– through individual patterned integration of processes of perception, memory, judgment, goal-seeking, and emotional expression and regulation. As David G. Winter states: “At the elite level, leaders’ styles, choices, and outcomes are affected by their personalities; at the mass level, followers' personalities constitute both affordances (or opportunities) and also limits on what leaders can do.” The intrusion of personal appetites, needs, fears, and obsessions of political actors give a quality of consequential public actions (Winter, at Sears, Huddy and Jervis, 2003).
Many pre-election polls had predicted that the BJP would emerge victorious. But very few foresaw the margin by which BJP would be victorious and side-by-side, wiping out opposition, including Congress (Vaishnav, 2015). The BJP has close ideological and organizational links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a right-wing, Hindu nationalist organization—projected itself as the messiah of Hindus throughout its 2014 electoral campaigns. Hindu Nationalism or Hindutva, the idea that Hindu people equate the nation, has been the dominant ideological motivation of the BJP. This populist and nationalist conception of the nation thus guides the party towards anti-secularist principles. Hindu nationalism as an ideology further opposes pluralism—a fundamental pillar of liberal democracy—and rejects any possible opponents of nationhood. Hence, as Calléja argues, “the BJP has been known to favor majoritarian rule that constitutes Hindus, restricting minorities from public life” (Calléja, 2020). All these perceptions of minorities as a threat to the nationhood and BJP's flagship 'Hinduism in Danger' campaign have attracted vast numbers of voters who believe in the party's ideology and has led to BJP’s landslide victory (Jaffrelot and Martelli, 2017).
During his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi’s reputation was indelibly tarnished by the horrific events of 2002 ethnic violence in Gujarat. But unexpectedly, the campaigns of 2014 strategically reversed this image to voters so that almost all national-level survey respondents endorsed him as a popular leader for Prime Minister. Undoubtingly, the majority of voters belonged to the Hindu ethnic group (Vaishnav, 2015).
An interesting feature that has emerged in Indian politics in recent years is the aspect of personality, as discussed above with respect to voter psychology. The personality effect on voters is an influential populist methodology.
Both 2014 and 2019 Indian Parliamentary Elections were fought as Modi versus none. Modi’s political figure represents a compelling and charismatic leader. His ‘I am new India’ slogan to equate himself and the party to the nation is one of his go-to catchphrases. Slogans are effective methods often used to connect with the population and a powerful mechanism to garner votes, in general. In this case, as Jaffrelot argues, Modi’s‘Mann ki Baat’ radio program and BJP's well-knitted social media marketing strategy networking during elections have fostered personality effects on voters, resulting in voter manipulation (Jaffrelot and Martelli, 2017).
The paradox in India’s voting behaviour
Elite parties and poor voters have become a prominent characteristic in Indian voting patterns. Disadvantaged voters routinely cast their ballots in favour of parties that represent the policy interests of wealthier citizens (Thachil, 2014). It is done across various political contexts—both in wealthy and low-income countries and in parliamentary and presidential regimes. To date, the poor voting paradox has been exclusively studied within wealthy Western democracies. The possibility of similar patterns existing outside the Western sphere has often been neglected. Historically, elite parties emerged in developing countries to defend the concerns of wealthy citizens; instances include the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) in Mexico in the 1940s or Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) in El Salvador or middle class and business communities advocating market reforms like the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in Algeria, Unión del Centro Democrático (UCEDE) in Argentina, Partido Liberal in Brazil or Movimento Libertad in Peru (Thachil, 2014).
The case of India with regards to poor voter paradoxes is quite dramatic than its better-known analogues within Western or Anglophone democracies. In India, poor voting for elite parties is not a new phenomenon. This voting behaviour has existed since India's first General Elections. But what has developed in recent years is turning this process into an 'electoral autocracy'. When the BJP was founded in 1980, it emerged 'as the electoral arm of a Hindu nationalist movement' of the 1920s. The movement was founded by dominant caste Hindus and advocated Hinduism as the basis for Indian citizenship, as seen in the notion of Hindu superiority as propagated by M.S. Golwalkar and V.D. Savarkar. Hence, by contrast, the non-elite communities were separated from the BJP's dominant caste core and often marginalized in society and politics (Thachil, 2014).
When Modi's 'Saffron wave' scored an outstanding victory in the 2019 general elections, and the BJP succeeded for a second consecutive term in parliament, the poor voter paradox was apparent in its new variant.
Why are poor voters supporting an elite party or low ranked ethnic communities backing high-ranked politicians or an ideological party winning over voters who dislike its core doctrine becoming evident in Indian politics? The answer is chronic but straightforward. The political sphere of contemporary India seems to have declining standards in multi-partisanship.
The 2019 elections were fought on the lines of Modi versus none, and personality politics had a decisive role to play in it. On the other hand, a section of Indian media covered this election from a biased perspective. Election campaigns of Modi and the BJP were their prime focus, and the campaigns of opposition parties were deliberately ignored. As a result, it created anticipation among the voters and reflected in their choices.
Criminality in candidates, political literacy, and responsiveness
One of the most confounding developments in India's domestic policy in recent memory has been the large number of politicians who are under criminal scrutiny but seeking and winning elected office (Vaishnav, 2015). The presence of parliamentarians facing criminal cases is not a new development in Indian politics, but the concern is that this problem is snowballing. A 2018 report found that over 55% of all candidates elected Parliamentarians faced criminal cases (ADR Report, 2018). Amartya Sen argues that limited information can often hinder voter's ability to hold governments accountable. Hence, it is the limited sources of information about politicians that become solely responsible for voters to willingly support politicians linked with criminal cases out of ignorance (Sen, 1981). Another line of thought opines that voters possess information about the criminality of political candidates yet choose to support them on the perceived capability of effective representation or "getting things done" (Berenschot, 2012). If the second is the case, then Indian voters face a significant lack of political literacy.
Voters have more choices in the voting room, yet there is a little qualitative change found in the candidates’ nature. Indian voters willingly or unwillingly choose candidates with criminal records both in State and National-level elections.
In any democratic society, political consciousness and responsiveness are essential elements. But there exists a lack of political literacy and education among Indian voters. According to a 2016 report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CDS) and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), which surveyed over 6000 respondents aged between 15 and 34 years, claimed that 46% of Indian youth have "no interest at all" in politics and 18% have only "little interest" (Gowda and Kumar, 2019).
In almost every election, more voters in the rural centers ignore their right to enfranchisement on voting day. Even many socially backward urban centers have been found to display less enthusiasm for voting. The non-voting behaviour in liberal democratic societies is a symbol of a lack of political consciousness and confidence. For India, high non-voting behaviour indicates ignorance, therefore, necessitating comprehensive political education.
India is the world's largest democracy and the only Asian democracy with a series of successes. However, it has slipped its rank in the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Report of 2021. Officially termed an 'electoral autocracy' in the report, it is inching closer towards becoming a 'hybrid regime' (V-Dem Report, 2021).
Even with its decaying democracy, there are undoubtedly positive outcomes that have been noticed in contemporary Indian voter psychology. There is an increase in the participation of women both in Indian politics and in voting at higher rates than ever before (Vaishnav, 2015). Second, studies suggest Indian voters are highly conscious of economic issues and "good economics can make for good politics in India" (Vaishnav, 2015).
The recent electoral trends in the 2020 Delhi State Assembly Elections or the 2021 State Elections in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were somewhat different from the patterns observed since 2014. These states showed that populist politics and communalism could be rejected even in the days of saffronisation. BJP's strategy faced its major defeat and has weakened over the non-Hindi belts. But in Indian political history, state trends are often not a determining factor at the national level. Also, these trends do not qualify to be a greater voting behaviour. Hence, it is too early to judge and too fatuous to be taken into consideration.
With the emergence of various elements in the Indian political ecosystem, India’s voting pattern has changed dramatically in recent years.
Populism is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that established elite groups disregard their concerns. A follower of populism is called a populist (See Oxford Languages).
Hindutva is a term coined by V.R. Savarkar. It is a predominant form of Hindu nationalism. It expresses Hinduism as socio-political thought and uplifts Hinduism as the supreme religion of India (See Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religion).
Electoral autocracy is the term coined by Variety of Democracy (V-Dem), Sweden. It refers to a political condition in which a political party assumes de-facto ruling in a country using every form of political and electoral malpractice (See V-Dem).
The Saffron wave is the rise of a strong Hindu nationalist movement in the Indian subcontinent (Hansen, 1999).
Sen, Amartya. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press.
Sen, Amartya. (1999). Democracy as a Universal Value. Journal of Democracy.
C, Bipan., M, Mridula., & M, Aditya. (1999). India Since Independence. Penguin Books.
Muddle, Cas. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition.
G, Chandan., & K, Vikas. (2019, April 4). Millennials don't have a taste for politics. Live Mint. https://www.livemint.com/elections/lok-sabha-elections/millennials-don-t-have-a-taste-for-politics-1554348308033.html
J, Christopher., & M, Jean Thomas. (2017, August 15). Reading PM Modi, Through His Speeches. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/reading-pm-modi-through-his-speeches-independence-day-4796963/
W, David G. Personality and Political Behavior, et al. S, David O., H, Leonie., & J, Robert. (2003). Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Oxford University Press.
Calléja, Lucie. (2020, February 9). The Rise of Populism: a Threat to Civil Society. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/2020/02/09/the-rise-of-populism-a-threat-to-civil-society/
Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions. (1999). Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.
Vaishnav, Milan. (2015, June 23). Understanding the Indian Voter. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/06/23/understanding-indian-voter-pub-60416
Vaishnav, Milan. (2018, November 8). Indian Women are Voting More Than Ever. Will They Change Indian Society?. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/11/08/indian-women-are-voting-more-than-ever.-will-they-change-indian-society-pub-77677
Oxford University Press. 2021, July 21. The Oxford English Dictionary, Retrieved 2021, July 20.
Wallace, Paul ed. (2020). India's 2019 Election. Sage Publications.
Kenny, Paul D. (2017). Populism and Patronage. Oxford University Press.
Thachil, Tariq. (2014). Elite Parties and Poor Voters: Theory and Evidence from India. The American Political Science Review.
Hansen, Thomas Bloom. (1999). The Saffron Wave. Princeton University Press.
Sastry, Trilochan. (2018). Civil Society, Indian Elections and Democracy Today. Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
Variety of Democracy (V-Dem) Report of 2021.
Berenschot, Ward. (2011). Riot Politics. Rupa Publications.