The myth of the rational voter

Some years ago, writers began to speculate about why it was that some chief ministers (CMs) were being returned to office, which was unusual at the time. These leaders were defying the Indian pattern and managing to deflect the curse of anti-incumbency, a psephological term so widely understood that it is a term of everyday use here. They included Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, among others.

The reasoning was that voters were endorsing the quality of these individuals’ governance. The state had more resources in the 2000s than it did a couple of decades before that, and the leaders were able to deploy these resources to good effect. These CMs also were more professional and focussed on delivering economic growth.

The theory was that this performance was being rewarded by the voter. Political parties in debate would call this “pro-incumbency”. I was always unsure, if not sceptical, about this, not least because this theory was not based on or backed by data. There was no survey or science to this and, of course, it is not easy to do such surveys on politics in India as is well known. Psephologists even introduce corrections based on how many people sampled are being cautious in their response instead of honest.

Also, India’s democracy went through decades of anaemic growth, great poverty and little hope but the popularity of two prime ministers remained intact for almost the entire period of their three and a half decades in power. Performance played little role in their electoral record. It is unlikely people and voters change in a dramatic fashion, and if they do it is for a reason.

Fortunately, we are about to find out if the theory is true. The elections in Bihar are around the corner and in a while after that are due in Bengal also. As is their wont, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will go to battle on the back of Prime Minister Modi’s popularity.

The conditions exist to put the theory to the test. We are likely in the middle of a recession. Assuming we can ignore the tweaking done by the government of the data, it is fair to say that we have gone through nine consecutive quarters of decline in gross domestic product growth starting January 2018.

Illustration: Binay Sinha

Unemployment is at its highest since we began recording it. Fellow columnist Mahesh Vyas of CMIE wrote in this space a few days ago of jobs bouncing back to pre-lockdown levels, but that means unemployment is still at 8 per cent, which we have never seen in pre-Modi India. I spoke to relatives in Surat a few days ago and they said that fewer than one in five of the mills were working because of a lack of demand and the absence of labour.

The nation is on the cusp of a war because of aggressive and persistent intrusion from a deadly opponent. Our response to this has been denial, which is being quite cruelly exposed as satellite images and the remnants of an independent media show. After the loss of 20 men, murdered in barbaric fashion, the desire for revenge hangs heavy on the armed forces.

Nepal is thumbing its nose at us, America has cut off access to its work visas, affecting India more than any other nation. There is trouble again with Pakistan. In Kashmir, there is an encounter every day and the long-term trend of decline in violence beginning in 2002 has been reversed.

As many have pointed out, we are the only nation to have exited the lockdown at the point when contagious growth has exploded. The government has given up any hope of containing the spread of infection and Mr Modi doesn’t have the same enthusiasm for talking about Covid-19 as he did at the beginning.

The price of fuel has been raised consecutively every day for more days than one can remember. At a point in time when crude oil prices are low, the difference between crude and petrol is at its highest. The government only a few months ago had to retreat from one of its most assertive positions on going after internal enemies through a series of proposed citizenship laws.

If there is such a thing as a perfect storm in politics, it is this. Inside and out, India is under siege and there is not a thing that is going right— on the economy, on jobs, on foreign policy, on defence, the future does not appear to be rosy on any front.

Any other leadership would have collapsed under this. The question is whether Mr Modi will take a hit based on performance or the lack thereof. If we are to go by the theory above, the answer would be yes. Voters who reward performance, it follows, will necessarily punish failure of such scale. And especially failure that touches them personally as have the events of 2020, physically, financially and emotionally.
But if the theory is wrong, then the leadership does not attract opprobrium, problems are not seen as being caused by it (or it is absolved in some fashion). To me, all the evidence points to the fact that the theory is wrong and that Mr Modi’s popularity is intact.

He is akin to a family member, and a beloved one. We do not ascribe blame to ourselves for calamity and if we do, we get over it soon. There were some astonishing polls that showed Modi’s popularity having risen during the pain of the lockdown. Again, sampling correctly is impossible in India but it rings true. Even failing on his primary pillar, national security, so visibly has not dented him much.

It is remarkable that he has garnered himself so much credibility without much performance. It speaks to his ability to communicate a particular image of himself that is attractive and remains so for a very large part of India.

And Mr Modi knows it. A leader would hesitate to let fuel prices rise 19 days consecutively unless he knew that he could absorb the damage it would cause on pockets. This is a leader who not only survived but profited from demonetisation. We are in the presence of the phenomenon and we will continue to receive evidence of his powers.

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