Perils of an easy narrative


The media and pundits discussing Indian politics have a habit of clubbing together political preferences of ethnicities in one shade. For instance, all Muslims vote for Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP, Brahmins in Bihar would ever vote for Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), so on and so forth. That is despite the fact that oftentimes the data speaks otherwise. Sure, India is witness to significant ethnic voting, where, members who affiliate to an ethnic identity (Kurmis or Yadavs or Shi'a Muslims etc.) form the base voters of one ethnic party or the other via bloc voting. For instance, Kurmis form the base votes of Janata Dal-United (JD-U) in Bihar and Jharkhand where many of them are glad to see their fellow Kurmi, Nitish Kumar, on the Chief Minister's chair. What remains unclear is which incentives should political parties offer to voters to win elections. The survey experiments are an effort to bring a floodlight to this shadowy area of scholarship. Hopefully, the conclusions have a broader range of generalisability beyond South Asia but that is a discussion for another day.


I am throwing a few personal anecdotes from the field as to why coloring everyone in the same political color for the sake of a catchy op-ed is a big mistake. Before the methodologically minded folks go "social science do not do anecdotes" or "oh sure, it is but n = 2", the anecdote is only meant to reflect what I observed consistently in the field as my team of investigators ran the experiments.


We were in an economically rough but upcoming locality in Sitapur town, headquarters of Sitapur district, about 90 kms west of Lucknow. Ethnically, the polling station (PS) area is 90%+ Muslim. The choice of the polling station, as noted in the previous post, was not deliberate. The PS came up under systematic random sampling. Towards the end of the first and a long, frustrating day of surveys, we were invited to the household (photo above) of one of our participants in the experiments. I will not identify particular details of the participant as per research ethics. After the interview, we had the opportunity to talk to him and his extended family. The participant had returned lately after long years working in a foreign country where he was trapped as his employers seized his passport. He was able to return to his family after recent intervention of India's foreign ministry. Sushma Swaraj, the minister in-charge have made a point to assist thousands of India's blue collar expats stuck in similar situations or worse.



The experiments had little to do with which parties voters prefer. In fact, only one question out of 32 dealt with parties. Nevertheless, the participant – a non-traditional BJP voter was quite enthusiastic about voting for the BJP which could be due to multiple factors, the most significant being the work the incumbent BJP government in Delhi have put to assist him and his colleagues out of a sticky situation. Moreover, there could be networking effects as I found the BJP to have significant support in the overwhelmingly Muslim community, which may come as a big surprise to political pundits. Among those whom I observed in the experiments, most were SP or Congress voters, as expected. But they, and non-participants in casual conversations were enthusiastic to the prospect of increased distribution in public goods and were quite receptive of BJP candidates offering them if the political alternatives have not delivered public goods previously or seemed incapable of delivering them. Multiple people confirmed in discussions that the BJP got significant votes, much more than they would have in the 2014 General Elections. In fact, BJP won the Sitapur parliamentary seat for the first time in 16 years, a feat that would not have been possible, given the ethnic makeup of the constituency, without increasing the Muslim share of votes. In the 2016 state legislative elections, the BJP candidate came third in a close contest that saw the top three candidates separate by 3% of votes cast.


There could be another angle, which I suspect is the prime factor but confirmation must wait till I have studied the data (which I do not have fully as of this writing): Muslims have faced little violence from other ethnicities in Sitapur which allows them to focus more on distribution of public goods, and less on ethnic or party affiliation of candidates. In fact, the local city councillor – an amiable SP member whom we had the chance to engage, is an Yadav (a Scheduled Caste, in the middle tier of India's caste hierarchy) from one of the few Hindu families in the locality. Sitapur district, however, is notorious for violent crimes against Scheduled Castes and ethnicities in the middle to lower tier of India's social hierarchy, which is why I went there in the first place (see: NCRB data). Although, facing housing discrimination, as it was clear via the homogenous ethnic distribution of households in the town, local Muslims have largely escaped violence against the community.


The lesson, therefore, is it is unwise to grab an easy narrative in India, however shiny they may seem. BJP can win on a 'development' platform, which is another way of saying efficient provision of public goods, like road, irrigation systems, electricity. That being said, significant opposition to BJP remains in the community and almost all of it is driven by fear and anger against 'beef lynchings' and recent violence against Muslims carried out by religious nutjobs affiliated to the BJP. Homeowners twice demanded to show our IDs, and I was Googled on the spot to verify my word. Participants and their family members worried my team and I belong to RSS or Bajrang Dal, surreptitiously nosing around, which, apparently have happened before in the area. It appears that a lot of the promise and goodwill that the 2014 BJP campaign generated in the area have evaporated into disappointment, mostly driven by the violence against Muslims across northern India which have gone unchecked by the law and order authorities. With the main opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh in shambles: SP with its family feud, BSP being decimated and the Congress being, well, Congress, it is unclear how the winds will shift in the 2019 General Elections. The 'Muslim patti' in Sitapur will likely be looking for candidates that provide security rather than public goods, especially if the current trajectory of ethnic crimes against Muslims exacerbate without impunity. Who is going to provide them security – a public good by its own right? It is a shame, really, because the condition of roads, sewage systems and related economic public goods in the community remains in deplorable condition.


It was a frustrating day. We had a lot of trouble finding the particular households for the experiments but I left with fond memories. The day's work concluded by having a delightful conversation with tea, snacks and Arabian dates. Imagine the scenario. We were two Brahmin boys at the household of a socially conservative Muslim in an Muslim neighborhood. Despite being strangers, we were treated like their own family. That is the spirit of India that forces inside and outside the country would like to see destroyed. The day we give in to fear and hatred is the day we lose the Republic. The idea of India, a working (so far successfully if I might add) beacon of multiculturalism and federalism in a region not used to seeing close to anything similar, is because the Founding Fathers of the constitution and the Indian people largely believe in the concept of Unity in Diversity. And I hope we the people and politicians keep believing in that above short-sighted political goals.