Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and co-director at its Trivedi Centre for Political Data, spoke to Open’s Executive Editor Ullekh NP on dominant ideas in India’s 2019 election campaign.
How attractive do you think is national security as a slogan (like corruption, dictatorial tendencies, etc) in an Indian election?
National security can be a powerful electoral rallying cry, in a context of crisis or in a period of threat. It cuts across caste and class cleavages, appeal to people’s sense of patriotism and pride. As a slogan, it has a catch-all appeal that makes it an attractive plank or mobilisation trope for political parties. Barring the 1971 election, after the Bangladesh war, few parties and government have been keen to use that register to mobilise voters, adhering to an ethos of separation of military and domestic political affairs. In 1999, the BJP did seek to reap benefit from the Kargil episode but without much success. The BJP performance remained uneven, and they went on to lose the next election in 2004. So the link between national security and electoral mobilisation is not as straightforward as one might expect.
Do you think the Pulwama attack and India’s aerial strikes on Pakistan will dominate the polls of 2019?
The Pulwama attack and India’s response to it will occupy space in the campaign but not as an indefinite substitute for all other issues voters care about, such as joblessness, economic uncertainty, and perceptions about the effectiveness of government schemes.
Do you expect rural distress and large-scale unemployment to hurt the BJP’s prospects in this election?
Data from recent state elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh suggest that the BJP’s vote share took a harder hit in constituencies where the population of agricultural labourers is higher. This may indicate that there is a concentration of anger in areas where the rural economy remains essentially agrarian. Unemployment, and precarious employment, are also strong factors going against the BJP, even more so since the issue tends to be widely distributed geographically. Unemployment and low-pay jobs are concerns shared by large segments of the population across the territory, and not in some pockets of unemployment.
How has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image changed between 2014 and now? Do you agree that Modi is still the most popular leader in the country?
Narendra Modi remains by far the most popular political figure in India. Various recent surveys indicate that his favourability ratings remain high and far above any other national political figure. That being said, it is not clear whether favourable views necessarily translate into votes. Since 2014, his favourability ratings have consistently been much higher than the BJP vote share, election after election. In 2014, Narendra Modi was elected on the basis of promises of change and on a particular political style – personalised, providential, populist and result-oriented. The promises and the image of the candidate perfectly completed each other. Now, voters have an opportunity to compare the image with the achievements, which is a very different thing. For most Indians, daily life has not become tangibly easier over the past five years.