The perception problem

The challenge for the BJP is to change some perceptions and reinforce others

Updated - January 13, 2019 10:19 am IST

Published - January 13, 2019 12:15 am IST

Perceptions are problematic. For starters, they seldom match reality. But that hardly matters for most of us because what we perceive is the reality, as far as we are concerned. If we are having a good day, we think the world’s a great place. If not, we think everything is going down the tubes.

Taking advantage of perceptions

Marketers and advertisers know this well, but politicians understand this better than anyone else. They are masters at sensing public perception. When they sense the slightest change in the direction the wind is blowing, they change tack. That’s why Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated with so many voters and got him into the White House. The reality is that the U.S. is the world’s only superpower, capable of destroying any nation which opposes it. The reality is that the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy, and is likely to remain so for decades to come. The reality is that the U.S. continues to be the innovations leader in the world and is home to most of the world’s biggest and most powerful corporates. The reality is that immigrants actually add value to the American economy. But most Americans believe otherwise on all these counts.

The same holds good for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He propelled the BJP to a historic win in 2014 with his promise of achhe din (good days) and sabka saath, sabka vikaas (progress for everyone). He took advantage of certain popular perceptions of the time — that the government of the day was weak, that progress was prisoner to corruption, and that crony capitalism was helping the rich get richer while the poor got left behind. His promise of a better future for everyone also resonated because he backed it up with a proven track record of growth and development in Gujarat as Chief Minister. It was irrelevant whether these perceptions actually matched reality or not. For people who believed these claims, the perceptions became the reality.

Far from reality

There may have been another factor helping Mr. Modi. In the global research agency Ipsos MORI’s Global Misperceptions Index in 2018, India ranked 12th. The index is based on the findings of a study, called The Perils of Perception, which Ipsos MORI has been conducting for years. Now covering 37 countries, the study polls 1,000 respondents, aged 18-64, in each country on a number of issues and then stacks them up against data culled from official sources to arrive at the ‘misperceptions’ index.

Admittedly, the survey is not representative. As the footnotes explain: “Brazil, Colombia, China, Chile, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey produce a national sample that is more urban and educated, and with higher incomes than their fellow citizens. We refer to these respondents as ‘Upper Deck Consumer Citizens’. They are not nationally representative of their country.”

Upper deck and non-representative they may be, but if this is what the educated, aware, online Indian thinks and feels about critical issues, it’s little wonder that India is the fake news capital of the world or that politicians are having a field day. The findings also hint at why certain political tropes resonate with the voters and what may work and what may not when the general election takes place in six months.

Take the estimate of Muslims in India, for instance. Indians tend to highly overestimate the percentage of the Muslim population in India, according to the survey. The average guess is around 32%, but in reality, Muslims constitute only 14% of the population. So, a plank of reverse majority discrimination, where the minority is presented as a threat to the actual majority, can work when the majority overestimates the size of the problem to start with.

A headache for the government

On the jobs front, though, there is a problem for the BJP. There is a widespread perception that there are not enough jobs in the country. Most Indians overestimate the number of those unemployed — out of every 100 people of working age in India, Indians think 44% are unemployed and looking for work. The reality is that the number stands at just 4%.

This creates a different kind of headache for Mr. Modi and the BJP’s poll managers. One of Mr. Modi’s key poll promises was to create two crore jobs. In reality, the number of jobs created may be even higher, but the perception is the reverse. This is reinforced by the perception Indians have about the economy — asked to guess India’s economic ranking in the world, most guessed that it would rank around 50. The reality is that India is already the seventh largest economy in the world.

The key challenge that Team Modi faces in 2019 is to figure out how to reinforce certain perceptions and change others.

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