With reports of joblessness being at a four-decade high, a deepening agrarian crisis and a recent spike in food prices, it was widely expected that economic issues would end up mattering the most to Indians when they vote in the Lok Sabha election.
This expectation was not misplaced given that there is a fairly large body of work in Western democracies that is centred on the effect that the state of the economy has on election outcomes.
However, a nationwide post-poll survey, conducted by Lokniti during the past one month after each phase of election, has thrown up data that seem to be somewhat at odds with this presumption.
Only 12% of the voters interviewed across the country (see methodology) in the post-poll exercise spontaneously said in response to an unprompted question that when they finally went to vote, the issue of unemployment is what decided their vote the most. It is only on being asked a specific close-ended question on joblessness did most say that it was a serious issue for them.
Similarly, price rise or inflation was reported as being the most important voting issue by merely 4% of the voters.
Both these figures pale in comparison to those that were recorded in the pre-poll done by Lokniti just before the start of the election in late March. Back then, 21% of the voters interviewed in 19 States said that lack of jobs was going to be the most important voting issue for them. Price rise was a top-of-mind issue for 7% of the voters.
Clubbing all economy-related answers such as unemployment, price rise, poverty, wages and salaries, GST and demonetisation together, then, overall, economic issues seem to have mattered most to 25% of the voters, a sharp decline of 13 percentage points from the 38% who reported in the pre-poll survey that economic issues was the first priority.
It must be pointed out here that the post-poll data being reported here are of only up to the sixth phase of elections and do not include the last phase of voting. However, it is very unlikely that these figures will change drastically once the seventh phase data get added to our national data set.
Ayes for infrastructure
Displacing unemployment as the number-one voting issue for voters was the issue of development, or vikas . In the survey, 17% of the respondents reported “development” and 9% matters related to development (roads, water, electricity, schools, hospitals and so on) as being the single-most important issue that determined their voting choice.
Hence, clubbed together, development issues mattered to 26% of the respondents. This number is slightly higher than the one recorded in the pre-poll survey.
Interestingly, 17% or one in every six voters did not answer the open-ended question, which is a two-fold increase in non-response to the question since the pre-poll survey.
This sudden shift of voter priorities from the specifics of the economy to either the general idea called “development” or to a refusal to answer the question is significant because not only does it highlight voter volatility but also may indicate voters identifying issues in tune with their vote choice.
In other words, the crucial question we confront is: do perceptions of issues drive vote choice or vice versa. For those who identified “development” as the most important issue, the BJP or the NDA were more likely to be the vote choices.
On the other hand, the NDA’s lead over the UPA among those for whom economic issues mattered a lot was relatively much smaller. Similarly, supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi were far more likely to report development as their main voting issue, whereas supporters of Congress president Rahul Gandhi were more likely to report economy-related issues.
While we cannot be sure about the direction of causality, we suspect that many voters may have ended up looking at the matter of issues through the lens of their own political preferences than the other way round.
A State-wise look at what mattered to voters reveals that the issue of development trumped economic matters as the single most important voting issue by a large margin in West Bengal, Odisha, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Economy-related concerns appear to have been far more important in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu. The issue of unemployment, in fact, was found to be a much greater concern in the Hindi heartland States than in the rest of the country. The survey also indicates that problems related to farming seem to have mattered far more to voters in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand than in other States.
As far as the issues of national security, the Pulwama terrorist attack and India’s air strikes in Pakistan are concerned, merely 2% of the voters interviewed spontaneously reported the three issues as having been most important to them while voting. This is the same percentage as the one recorded in the pre-poll.
Among this tiny minority however, the NDA, not surprisingly, seems to have scored hugely over the UPA. In a bitterly polarised election that may see narrow victory margins in many seats, a big lead even among a small section of voters may end up being decisive.
Moreover, this small section of voters that put national security over everything else while voting may actually have been much larger in number. We say this because for the second straight survey we find the Balakot strikes issue to have had an impact on voter attitudes at the subliminal or subconscious level (though the effect did wane a little).
Nearly four of every five voters were aware of the Balakot strikes, almost the same proportion as the pre-poll done in 19 States, and among them the opinion that the Modi government should get another chance was far greater than those unaware of the Balakot strikes.
Awareness of the strikes was also, once again, found to be subduing the negative impact that issues such as price rise and joblessness may have had on the BJP’s chances. Over two-fifths of the voters who said that price rise or unemployment were the most important voting issues for them but had heard of the Balakot strikes were in favour of giving the Modi government another chance as opposed to over one-fourth of those voters for whom the two issues were most important but had not heard of the Balakot strikes. Bottom-line, bread-and-butter issues seem to have mattered less to voters in the election than they did a few months ago, and even if they did, many voters do not seem to have spelled them out as such, perhaps because they may have viewed the whole question of issues through the prism of their political choice.
Many of the issues that voters finally voted on do not seem to have been the same as the issues they had been emphasising to surveyors/pollsters for a long time, most probably because of the sudden surge around the nation’s security post-Balakot, a factor that seems to have had a covert effect on voting behaviour.
The other factor that overshadowed the perception of issues as relevant to vote choices was probably the leadership of Narendra Modi. We shall report on this tomorrow. In a sense, an election that had promised to be issue-laden at the start of the year may just have ended up bypassing the real issues under the garb of “vikas” and nationalism — both identified with Mr. Modi’s leadership.