Why leaders matter

How did the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manage to retain Gujarat despite the palpable discontent in the State? The BJP was a five-term incumbent and pre-poll surveys along with the reporters on the ground were predicting a tight race. The Congress party’s campaign was relatively well-organised, led by a newly energised Rahul Gandhi with effective mobilisation of their respective communities by Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani, and Alpesh Thakor. Their high-pitched campaign sent strong signals of an electoral upset. The attacks on Dalits in Una and other parts of the State left little possibility of the BJP being able to attract a new social group. The rural despair was apparent. And without a popular chief ministerial candidate, the BJP’s campaign managers were having sleepless nights. A loss in Gujarat would have meant a political earthquake. Yet, in the final result, the BJP managed to increase its vote share to 49.1% (1.2 percentage point increase in comparison to 2012).

Modi’s reach

An overwhelming consensus has emerged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-voltage campaign in Gujarat, that involved addressing over 30 rallies, helped the BJP win the State for the sixth consecutive time. Gujarat 2017 is not an exception to the idea that political leaders have an outsized influence on Indian elections. A wide range of opinion polls conducted around the 2014 elections showed that the BJP had received a considerably higher vote share because it had projected Mr. Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Not just 2014, previous national elections in India have also largely revolved around the persona of leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At the State level, this phenomenon is even more pronounced.

Why do political leaders in India have such a large influence on its electoral politics? In the previous column, we had pointed out that it is the leaders with ideological messages, not the middlemen and local politicians having merely transactional relationships with voters, who swing votes for their parties in India, (Read: Who swings the vote in India? ).

The scholarship on leadership puts such transactional politicians at one end of the spectrum, while the other end is occupied by leaders who project themselves as transformational. The latter have massive influence on electoral outcomes for three reasons.

First, these are the leaders who embody particular ideologies and, through their speeches and actions, are able to inspire large sections of society with their ideological messages. Apart from this, what makes these leaders popular is that they mix ideological appeals with populist promises. Populism as an electoral strategy is very distinct from patronage and clientelism. It does not involve quid pro quo and the benefits usually are not targeted in nature. In Gujarat, Mr. Modi not only hammered the majoritarian messages in his speeches but also attacked the Congress on corruption and nepotism . He also made several populist promises such as building a grand memorial for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at Karamsad, providing interest-free loans to farmers, and connecting various cities of Gujarat via sea-planes. These promises are very much part of the grand narratives that such leaders build. This gives leaders who project themselves as transformational an immense advantage over opponents who fail to offer any vision.

Mobilising voters

Second, during elections, the ideological messages propagated by transformational party leaders help motivate party workers and vote mobilisers (citizens who campaign for a party or a candidate) to carry forward the leaders’ message to voters. Vote mobilisers make monetary donations, engage in door-to-door canvassing, and distribute leaflets and posters — essentially all activities that go beyond simply casting a vote for a candidate or a party. Once drawn to a party for a particular election, they go on to help that party reach voters, particularly those in hard-to-reach places, and they use personal persuasion to do so more effectively than the party could if it relied on campaigning alone. The BJP had a significant advantage over the Congress among the vote mobilisers in Gujarat. The post-poll data collected by Lokniti-CSDS also show that a large majority of respondents (61%) were contacted by the workers of both BJP and the Congress, but the BJP had an 11-point lead in terms of vote choice. This suggests that BJP workers were much more persuasive than Congress workers.


Third, such transformational leaders also help in increasing the turnout for a party. Leaders increase turnout because they represent a particular vision and encase that vision in an ideological message which resonates with most voters. According to the National Election Study (NES) 2014 survey, there was a 7% increase in turnout among those who voted for the BJP because Mr. Modi was its prime ministerial candidate in comparison to those who would have voted for the BJP regardless of who the prime ministerial candidate was. A similar impact was seen for vote mobilisers. Mr. Modi managed to get more people to act as vote mobilisers in 2014. Likewise, in Gujarat, one can see the effect of vote mobilisers in key constituencies. Respondents in the post-poll survey were more likely to turn out to vote if they had been contacted by a BJP mobiliser in comparison to a Congress mobiliser. In fact, the voter turnout was higher in the 38 seats that the BJP won with less than 10% vote margin, in comparison to 61 seats that the party won comfortably.

Lessons from Gujarat

So what lesson does Gujarat hold for the influence of leaders in Indian elections? Given the institutional weakness of the Indian state and limited organisational presence of political parties on the ground in non-election season, the transactional role of local leaders is unlikely to fade in coming years. However, a transactional leader can rarely accomplish the task of holding together a coalition of party activists with multiple and competing interests. Leaders who project themselves as transformational find it easier to hold an organisation together because they provide an ideological glue and make populist promises, which binds cross-cutting coalitions together. These leaders also enthuse vote mobilisers who work for the party at election time, helping in increasing the turnout and thereby giving party activists an obvious incentive to align herself with someone who projects as transformational.

Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma are with the University of California, Berkeley. Harsh Shah is an alumnus of the same university

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Printable version | Sep 3, 2022 3:42:55 am |