Issues and the verdict

Print edition : November 13, 1999

An analysis of the beliefs, opinions and perceptions of the electorate that shaped the verdict of Elections '99.

YOGENDRA YADAV with OLIVER HEATH and ANINDYA SAHA

Frontline

IN the previous parts of the State-wise analyses of the verdict in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, investigators of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) looked at the mechanics of the verdict in terms of the relationship of votes to seats and voting behaviour to the voter's social background. But that does not complete an interpretation of the results, for voting is a conscious act. The results did not merely reflect the social background of voters and the mechanics of the vote-seat relationship. They constituted a verdict on the dominant political issues and disputes. But this aspect of the verdict is not self-evident. The election results tell us precisely who won and how many votes and seats were won, but they do not tell us which ideas won and why. We need to draw upon our survey to uncover the meanings embedded in the electoral verdict.

Here, we report some findings regarding the beliefs and opinions of the electorate.

A logical place to begin with is the area of foreign policy, particularly salient in this round of elections owing to, first, the Kargil War, and secondly, the Pokhran nuclear tests. At the end of November 1998, the Congress(I) swept the Assembly elections in two States and Delhi and until a few months after that opinion polls predicted a victory for the Congress(I) if a general election were to be held. But what happened? Did Kargil play a role similar to the one the Falklands war played in the British elections in 1983 (that war is widely assumed to have handed victory on a platter to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party)? To gauge the actual effect of Kargil in determining the outcome of the elections may be beyond us. What we can do is to make a tentative estimate using data from the post-election survey conducted by the CSDS.

The first thing to note is that only 65 per cent of our sample said that they had heard of the war. Although this section represents a significant proportion of the electorate, it shows that the skirmish did not penetrate public consciousness as deeply as is assumed.

Overall, 42 per cent of the respondents said that they were satisfied with the government's action in Kargil, whereas 13 per cent said that they were not. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those who were satisfied voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, at 55 per cent, and the majority of those who were dissatisfied voted for the Congress(I) and its allies, at 54 per cent. But this by itself does not indicate whether the conflict played a role in determining which party the voters favoured. It could merely be re-describing party loyalties, as the causal direction between the two is unspecified. To find this out we asked our respondents whether the events in Kargil had had an effect on their voting decision. A significant proportion, 15 per cent, responded that they had.

Of the 15 per cent who said that Kargil influenced their vote, 56 per cent voted for the BJP-led alliance and 25 per cent for the Congress(I) and its allies. This contrasts sharply with the division of vote for the parties among citizens who said that either it did not affect their vote or they had not heard about Kargil - 36 per cent for the BJP and its allies and 39 per cent for the Congress(I) and its allies.

The Kargil factor displayed both positive and negative consequences for the BJP: it elicited a protest vote from some people and a vote of endorsement from others. Of the respondents who were unhappy with the government's action and said that it affected their vote, there was a stronger tendency towards the Congress(I), both in terms of the proportion of the vote that it retained from 1998 and in terms of voters who shifted to it from the BJP. On the other hand, out of the respondents who were satisfied with the government's action and who said that Kargil had influenced their vote, there was a strong swing towards the BJP. The party retained 86 per cent of its vote; 27 per cent of the Congress(I) voters of 1998 shifted to it. However, since on balance there were more people who were satisfied than dissatisfied with the government's action on Kargil, the BJP made a net gain out of the conflict.

On the second foreign policy issue, the Pokhran tests, the findings reveal that despite the massive media coverage, the majority of Indians have not heard about them. Of those who have, there is general approval of the government's policy. There is also a high degree of approval for increased spending on the Army, even if that means hardships for the public. There is clearly a shadow of Kargil here. But, interestingly enough, these opinions do not translate into support for an aggressive foreign policy vis-a-vis Pakistan: the idea that India must make greater efforts for friendly relations with Pakistan is supported by 42 per cent of the respondents. This represents a mere three percentage point drop since 1996, which, in the light of the occurrence of the Kargil War in the intervening period, is a remarkable statistic.

The question as to whether war is the only solution to the Indo-Pakistan dispute is answered in the negative by 39 per cent of the respondents and in the affirmative by 25 per cent. Overall it would appear that the electorate wants the nation's honour and its boundaries to be protected but is not prepared to endorse aggressive militarism vis-a-vis India's neighbours.

The experience of having had a succession of coalition governments over the last few years seems to have diminished the electorate's antagonism towards coalitions. There is now wider acceptance of coalitions, with an increase in the number of those who say that there is nothing wrong with them and a decrease in the number of those who think that they should not occur under any circumstances. This is good news for the BJP-led alliance and bad news for the Congress(I). Congress(I) voters are the most opposed to coalitions; 29 per cent of them said that there should be no coalitions under any circumstances. About 30 to 32 per cent of voters of parties with a history of coalition culture, such as the Left parties and the BJP, favoured coalitions. Somewhat surprisingly, more BJP voters said that there should be no coalitions. Those who were the most undecided on coalitions were Congress(I) and BSP voters, 42 and 46 per cent respectively.

There has been a change in the identification of the voter with the region as distinct from the nation. The majority of the respondents, at 50 per cent, are prepared to go along with the suggestion that one should be loyal to one's own region first and then to the nation. They include 56 per cent of those who have voted for the BJP's allies and 48 per cent of those who voted for the BJP itself. This orientation does not quite square up with the BJP's ideology of nationalism but, interestingly enough, is fully compatible with its strategy of building alliances with regional parties. The voter's enhanced identification with his or her own region should not be taken as a sign of exclusivism or separatism; it rather appears to be a reasonable response to a regionalised party system where the effective locus of political choice has shifted to the State level.

In addition, voters are more interested in their State governments than in the Central Government. Between 1996 and 1999, while the percentage of interest in both the State and the Central government increased, the relative proportion between the two did not.

A look at the popular level of satisfaction with the BJP-led government, as the table indicates, shows a solid but by no means overwhelming pattern. However, opinions on this are sharply divided along partisan lines. Of the Congress(I) voters, 38 per cent are not at all satisfied; the corresponding figures for Left and BSP voters are 45 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. In sharp contrast, the figure for BJP voters is just 7 per cent.

A comparison with the ratings of the Congress(I) and United Front governments at the end of their regimes shows the BJP-led government in better light. When the voters were directly asked to compare the previous three governments and say which one of them was the best, the BJP-led government emerged the clear winner. That raises a question: what exactly did the people like about the BJP-led government?

This calls for a closer look at various spheres of the government's performance as perceived by the electorate. People do not seem to have a very positive opinion of the government on its record in controlling inflation. Overall, nearly 80 per cent of the voters felt that the prices had gone up. The partisan difference on this is as follows: 84 per cent of Congress(I) and 85 per cent of Left voters think the prices have gone up, but the corresponding figure for BJP voters is 67 per cent.

The government was also not seen to have a strong rating on the issue of corruption, with only 39 per cent of the electorate saying corruption had declined. Again, it was BJP voters who were more inclined to give a generous rating to the government's performance, with 43 per cent of them saying that the level of corruption had come down. The figure for Congress(I) voters was 22 per cent and that for the Left voters was 26 per cent.

Did Hindu-Muslim relations improve under the Vajpayee-led government? Overall, 37 per cent of the electorate thought so. This figure was significantly higher, at 45 per cent, among BJP voters than it was among Congress(I) and Left voters, the figures for whom were 33 per cent and 31 per cent respectively. Another issue related to the treatment of minorities came up in response to the survey question on whether Christians had been treated unjustly by the previous government. While the majority held no opinion, marginally more people, at 23 per cent, felt that such injustice had occurred, compared to 20 per cent who felt that it had not. Among BJP voters, only 18 per cent agreed that there had been such injustice. Among the Congress(I) voters the figure was higher, at 26 per cent. A sharper reaction to this issue was manifested in the response of Left voters, of whom 41 per cent agreed with the suggestion. BSP voters, by contrast, were relatively indifferent, with only 11 per cent of them agreeing.

Response by religion yielded an even sharper reaction to this question. As many as 68 per cent of the Christians among the respondents felt that injustices had been committed against them. This figure was substantially higher than that for both Hindus and Muslims, most of whom responded with 'Don't know'. Twenty per cent for Hindus and 30 per cent for Muslims who expressed an opinion tended to agree that such injustices against Christians had occurred.

The percentage of people who express an opinion on who should be the next Prime Minister has substantially increased over the course of the last three elections, with the number of 'Don't knows' dropping from 47 per cent in 1996 to 16 per cent in 1999. This indicates that in 1999 party leaders were more firmly rooted in the public consciousness than they had been in 1996 and 1998.

A.B. Vajpayee had more cross-party appeal than Sonia Gandhi and was named the preferred choice for Prime Minister by 10 per cent of the voters of the Congress(I) and its allies, compared to just 3 per cent of the voters of the BJP and its allies who named Sonia Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin was responsible for much mud-slinging and the formation of a new political party. The proportion of the electorate who deemed her unsuitable to become Prime Minister because of her foreign origin was 15 per cent. In the light of the media attention surrounding this issue, it is perhaps surprising that the number is not very high. On the whole, the majority of those who felt that Sonia Gandhi was unsuitable for prime ministership cited pragmatic political reasons, such as inexperience or poor communication skills. But the significant fact remains that as much as 35 per cent of the electorate would not consider her for the job.

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