“Unka program hai Indira hatao, mera program hai garibi hatao” those were the exact words uttered by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in a pre-election rally in 1971 when she unleashed the “garibi hatao” slogan that captured India’s imagination. Between 1967 and 1971, Congress party led by Indira Gandhi (along with ally CPI in 1971) managed to increase its vote-share from 41% to almost 49%. In absolute terms, while the total voter turnout remained nearly stagnant at 15 Crores, Indira managed to take a quantum leap of nearly 1.2 Crore votes from 5.9 crores to 7.1 crores for her alliance/party between 1967 and 1971 despite a vertical split in her party and a strong opposition alliance.
1971 election defied all odds; it challenged political punditry and overcame historic electoral trend to create a reverse osmosis of voters towards Indira Gandhi’s Congress. How did Indira manage to overcome a split in her party and virtual collapse of the organization in many states to still attract a larger pool of voters? The answer to that question is one of the keys to understand India’s electoral matrix.
Post-independent, Nehruvian governance mechanism had essentially evolved by building a structured mass patronage system across India which in turn managed to bring votes to the Congress party. Preceding the “garibi hatao” moment of 1971, by bank nationalization and by splitting the Congress party, Indira Gandhi had unwittingly managed to demolish the very patronage system that was bringing her party to power. Thus when the actual “garibi hatao” moment came into being, Indian masses related to it at two levels – at one level, most Indians, tired with the patronage system, immediately fell in love with this direct approach of Mrs. Gandhi without the middle men (read as the powerful Congress organization) and at another level the poor masses strongly believed that bank nationalization will eventually lead to greater wealth distribution from the rich to the poor.
“Woh kehtey hai Modi hatao, main kehta hoon bhrashtachar hatao” thundered Prime Minister Modi in that now historic million man rally of Lucknow’s Ramabai Ambedkar grounds on the 2nd of January this year. Election rallies are not great barometers to study voters’ trends, yet the sheer size and scale of that rally was something that one cannot ignore so easily. BJP and RSS have divided Uttar Pradesh into 13900 sectors having some 8-10 polling booths each and for that January 2nd rally, each sector was entrusted with bringing in some 60 odd people which resulted in a million men cheering Modi.
That Lucknow rally was actually a barometer of BJP-Sangh’s organizational strength in Uttar Pradesh today and also an adequate counter to the media narrative of “mass anger against demonetization”. Just like Indira Gandhi defied all odds in 1971, Modi is defying established political logic some 45 years later. His appeal to the masses too is a two-tiered system. The post-Mandal, post-liberalization India created its own set of patronage system wherein the powerful middle-castes and the last mile governance delivery systems (bridled with corruption) are seen as the new power centers. At a micro-level, the rise of a MBC chaiwala in 2014 was essentially India’s mass rebellion against this new patronage system. Whether it is Yadavs of heartland or Marathas of Maharashtra or Patels of Gujarat, most of these powerful middle castes find themselves defanged by Modi’s direct appeal to the masses bypassing their influential lobbies which has been his first level of appeal to voters.
Now Modi has tried to add a second level of appeal by his demonetization drive wherein he is seen as attacking the corrupt system. Once again, just like in 1971, ordinary masses expect a more equitable distribution of wealth after the demonetization drive completes its full cycle and they seem to have unshakable faith in the Prime Minister!
On the contrary, if one goes by political punditry of Delhi or by the combined opposition noise or by the overwhelming media narrative or by even some of the leaders’ opinions within the BJP ecosystem, then demonetization has caused immense public anger across India (which by the way, echoes similar sentiments before the 1971 elections vis-à-vis Mrs. Gandhi). So why did Modi take such a big political and economic risk?
In the normal political course, with opposition unable to find neither unity nor a pan-India challenger, the economy finally beginning to turnaround and many states having powerful BJP governments, Modi’s primacy in Indian politics was assured for the near future. Indeed, our own surveys and many other polls too indicated that BJP was still the numero uno political party of India. Furthermore, in most state elections following 2014, BJP maintained its pole position, though with some reduced vote-share – even in Bihar, BJP had the highest vote-share among all parties individually at 25% which is more than 6 points higher than the second placed party, the RJD. So why did Modi take such a big political and economic risk?
Praful Goradia, former BJP MP, in his autobiography describes Modi thus, “There is no one I have met who is as wholly focused on the future and does not appear to dwell on the past.” In that description lies the answer to why Modi took such a big risk. For Modi, his 2014 victory is now a thing of past. Unlike other politicians who would have been happily ensconced in their position of power and let stasis to perpetuate their power, Modi is singlehandedly focussed on changing the future.
In 2014, Modi as the face of the NDA fetched some 21 Crore votes to win an outright majority for the first time after 3 decades. Since then, BJP has been losing a small percentage of vote-share in each subsequent election giving an impression that 2014 was the NaMo electoral peak. A class-caste analysis of the Modi vote of 2014 shows an interesting picture. While his top performance was in the middle class and neo-middle class in terms of economics, in terms of caste arithmetic Modi got the best numbers from upper/middle castes and OBCs. Modi’s weakest numbers came from Dalits in terms of caste and the poor in terms of class – both amazingly coinciding statistically at 22%.
A deeper analysis of the largest chunk of voting blocs – OBCs in terms of caste and neo-middle class in terms of economics – reinforces this logic of a top and middle heavy Modi vote further. Among both the OBCs and the neo-middle class (NMC), the lower rungs of MBCs (Most Backward Castes) and the bottom 3rd of the NMC voted 15-18% lesser for BJP than other segments of their subdivision. Thus the electoral logic for the future is very clear; the highest Modi growth potential lies among the poor, lower 3rd of the neo-middle class, MBCs and Dalits. This is where demonetization comes into picture.
We have heard a lot of stories from the media about long queues in front of ATMs and banks, about massive job losses, about huge agrarian crisis and about people’s savings being wiped out, but not one media story actually puts any numbers to this reportage. The reason is simple, most of the MSM, especially the English language variety, addresses only the echo chamber of the top 10% of India while the real numbers emanate from the bottom 90%.
Let us consider some simple math. By all calculations, less than 6 Crore Indians have large (more than a week’s need) liquid cash with them at any given point of time, now even if we expand this number to 35 crores to include family, friends and other people in the value chain, the remaining 90 Crore Indians were almost totally unaffected by the demonetization exercise beyond the initial 2-3 weeks of cash crunch.
We at 5Forty3 have been conducting demographic research since the last week of December among both the sets of population – affected and unaffected by demonetization. The sample size of this research is 2359 respondents spread across 4 states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Representative population subsets were carefully chosen using VWISM with an additional parameter of impact of demonetization along with regular variables like gender, age, caste and class etc. (Since this was a study conducted at a specific request of a client, the full research paper would be published later). This research has thrown up 3 broad findings relevant to the NaMo peak of 2014;
• Among those directly affected by demonetization (including traders, small businesses, urban middle class housewives, richer farmers etc.), 42% still support it and 46% oppose it. A deeper analysis shows that 83% of those who voted for Modi in 2014 support it while only 34% of those who oppose it had voted for Modi in 2014. Not surprisingly, 91% of minorities oppose demonetization.
• Among those not impacted by demonetization, 77% support it while 20% oppose it. Furthermore, the highest support for this comes from Dalits, MBCs, neo-middle class and the poor. Significantly, 39% of those who support it had not voted for Modi in 2014 while a vast majority of those who oppose it belong to minorities.
• Among those temporarily affected by demonetization like daily wage workers, marginal farmers etc., the support for demonetization is still pretty high at 64%
(One caveat here is that respondents tend to exaggerate their past voting behavior post-facto by claiming that they had voted for the winning party (in this case Modi) because of inherent human nature wanting to show off political acumen and also because most neutral, non-partisan Indians hate to waste their votes on losing parties which further adds to the possible future NaMo peak)
Essentially what Modi has done by refusing to enjoy political stasis and by taking a bold initiative like demonetization is that he has increased his voter pool by more than 10 crores without losing much of what he had already acquired in 2014. If his government manages to create even a semblance of redistribution of “black money” through the February 1st budget, that voter pool may further double within no time. Thus it is becoming increasingly clear that 2014 was not the NaMo peak, that peak is yet to come and maybe 2017 and Uttar Pradesh might see the beginning of the rise of that new NaMo Mount Everest!