Anand Shrivastava, Associate Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, is the co-author of a research paper titled “Religious riots and electoral politics in India”, published in the Journal of Development Economics in 2018. Based on data from 16 States from 1981 to 2001, the study shows that the BJP’s vote share increased by five percentage points on average in elections held a year following a communal violence.
Your study suggests that the BJP performed better in elections following communal clashes. How long has this pattern been at play?
Our study looks at the effect of communal riots on the BJP’s vote share in Assembly elections from 1981 to 2001. The connection between communal clashes and electoral politics could be seen just before the first general election in 1951 when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed. Although its vote share in general elections grew from 3 per cent in 1951 to 14 per cent in 1971, we have not analysed the effect of riots during this period.
What have been the reasons for the riots?
The data on riots that we used were first put together by Ashutosh Varshney and Steve Wilkinson using reports of riots in the Times of India. We extended this data to the time frame of our study. The proximate reasons for riots given in these reports are quite varied and include riots happening as responses to other incidents, including previous riots. A significant share of reports is about festival activities, like processions, being the cause. We found that in the years when an important Hindu festival in a State fell on a Friday, the holy day for Muslims, the chances of a riot being reported doubled.
Does the impact of communal tension remain only in a particular area?
Our analysis is done at a district level. We found that the occurrence of riots in one district had effects on the electoral outcome of constituencies not only within the district but in neighbouring districts as well. It is unlikely that localised communal tensions can help win an entire State unless the election is a close one.
Do you think the voters are trapped into communal politics?
We found that the vote share of BJP increased by 5 per cent on average in constituencies that were in the same district where the riot took place. This may or may not be enough to change the overall result in the State. Other work, by Steve Wilkinson and Saumitra Jha in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, respectively, has found that communal clashes are more likely when elections are close and competitive.
An important finding of our study was that this polarisation is temporary. Beyond a year, the riots don’t seem to have any significant effect on elections. Hence, the idea of voters being permanently trapped in religious polarisation is perhaps not correct.
In the recent Karnataka election, communal politics seemed to have zero impact on the outcome. Are Indian voters wising up to the political agenda behind communal tensions?
I don’t think that voters are unaware that there could be political motivations behind communal tensions.
People’s reasons to vote are varied and complex. In my view, the results of one election do not indicate a change in the social realities on the ground. Just as the success of the BSP and the election of Mayawati as Chief Minister in UP did not mean that caste hierarchies in society had been upended, the BJP’s loss in Karnataka does not mean that communal fault lines in society have healed and will not be used for political gains in future elections.
Do you see a similar disturbing trend of social tensions all over India ahead of the general election in 2024?
I have not analysed the recent elections and riots since our study period ended in 2001. Going by my own, admittedly biased, reading of the past few election years, I think it is likely that there will be some incidents, especially in States where the BJP is closely matched by the opposition.