Elections and the affluent Indian

First the good news. In a recent cross-country comparison on how people feel about political divisions — as positive and healthy for society or as divisive and therefore dangerous — India comes out as a net positive country along with Japan, Australia and Canada. Over a third of the Indians (37 per cent) polled for the survey believe good comes out of difference in political views, higher than more robust democracies in US (23 per cent), France (24 per cent) and Sweden (35 per cent). Put it down to hope springing eternal in a relatively poor country!  

Alas, the good news for India ends there in A World Apart?, a recent global report by market research firm Ipsos for the BBC Crossing Divides season. Look deeper and/or elsewhere, and it only gets gloomier. Though a majority (56 per cent) of the Indians in the Ipsos study say it is important to listen to people “different from myself”, and a large proportion (42 per cent) feels comfortable to express their political opinions around people who do not necessarily agree with their views, the findings of another study points to the gulf between talk and walk.

One in two affluent, English-speaking, highly educated Indians is afraid of voicing her political views online for fear of how friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances will view it. Again, over half (55 per cent) avoid sharing their political affiliations on the internet to stay clear of offending any “authority”, according to a recent India Digital News Report by The Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism.

Before we move ahead, a caveat on both the Ipsos and Reuters reports is in order. The sample for both is skewed towards an English-speaking, male, big city, affluent audience and therefore not representative of the total Indian population.

Are things getting better or worse? A third of the Indians in the Ipsos report believe that society is in danger because political divisions have gotten sharper in the last 20 years or so. And over half (53 per cent) say they feel more comfortable in groups of people “more similar to me”. What’s worrying here is that Indians’ growing insularity is one of the highest in the world, just lower than one-party systems in China and Russia, or behind two other countries that are hardly the beacon of openness — Turkey and Hungary!

How do Indians view others who hold a different or opposing political view? Sadly, there is little respect for the “other” as a large proportion see people holding views different from theirs as not caring about the country’s future (43 per cent) or simply as misled (48 per cent), according to the A World Apart? report. Around half say the “other” does not care about them and are inflexible, as they won’t change their opinions come what may.

Indian netizens’ reluctance to voice their opinion, as brought out by the Reuters report, is also borne out by the Ipsos study. Almost two-thirds believe social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are making conversations more divisive than they used to be, even though these platforms are also seen as empowering the voiceless and holding the powerful accountable.

Despite the negativity, another recent Ipsos March study, What Worries the World, gives the country some reason for cheer. Almost three-fourths (73 per cent) of the Indians believe the country is going in the right direction, just behind China and Saudi Arabia. In fact, India and Sweden were two countries with the “greatest month-on-month increase in positive sentiment of all 28 countries” surveyed by Ipsos.

And though it may sound counterintuitive, given the noise around the recent complaint to and about the Election Commission, a Gallup poll shows that confidence in the honesty of India’s elections remains high with a two-thirds expressing confidence, the highest that Gallup has recorded in the run-up to Indian elections, and a good 20 percentage points higher than the 2014 elections.