The Success of BJP and the Greater Economic Glory
By Alan Potter
Much has been made about the ‘pro-business’ policies of the BJP, or more specifically, Modi’s economic strategy in Gujarat. Many have even suggested that this is the BJP’s greatest strength heading into this year’s parliamentary elections. However, the BJP was the incumbent in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, had presided over arguably the best 5 years of economic growth India had ever seen, and, yet, lost the elections. Of course, it was more their allies who lost the elections. However, the BJP certainly didn’t perform better electorally than in 1999.
Returning to the main question of whether economic indicators affect the majority of voters in India, does the result of 2004 Lok Sabha elections suggest that the economy does not affect voting in India in the same way it does in, say, the U.S.?
Some have argued that the BJP’s failure in 2004 was due to its having pushed unpopular economic reforms that went well beyond the reform initiated by the Congress. The Congress’ post-2004 statements and actions would certainly indicate that they, at least, thought this was part of the BJP’s problem. For example, beginning in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh often stated that he would continue reforms, but with a ‘human face.’ However, there is very little empirical evidence that the BJP’s loss in 2004 was the result of reforms in and of themselves.
This question of whether Indian elections are decided or even affected by broad macroeconomic measures is one that has received a lot of attention among academics. In fact, it is part of the larger argument of whether Indian growth has benefitted the majority of Indians citizens. This question is generally related to the question of whether GDP growth necessarily improves the lives of most Indians, a view that has gotten substantial coverage in the Indian and foreign press. When we conflate these two arguments, we fail to really dissect the relation of economy to voting. No one really doubts that changes in an individual’s economic situation play some role in voter decisions in India. The bigger question is whether most Indian voters care about the economic performance on the national stage, especially in scenarios where successes and failures have no effect on their own lives.
At the risk of losing the reader in a maze of academic jargon, we must ask whether the Indian voter is, what political scientists call, a ‘sociotropic’ economic voter or a traditional economic voter. A traditional economic voter votes for the incumbent if his or her economic situation improves under the incumbent. While a host of other variables also matter for determining an individual’s vote choice in India, it would seem clear that this plays some role.
But, in and of themselves the broad macroeconomic indicators do not necessarily affect the average voter. For example, GDP growth in India has been driven by growth in urban areas. So, this growth does not clearly affect the lives of the rural people who still form the majority of the population. A disclaimer is necessary here: I am not making statements about economic development and whether growth will eventually benefit most Indians or not. That is not my area of expertise, and I have no answer to that question. I am simply saying that the Indian voters living in rural areas do not necessarily have an understanding or strong opinion on ‘trickle down’ economics and probably don’t see growth in urban areas as benefiting themselves in the long-term, whether or not it will. But, does this same Indian, who is not knowingly benefiting from factors such as GDP growth, value measures such as GDP growth for other reasons?
This is where sociotropic voting comes in. Sociotropic voting means that voters care about the wider progress of the economy and not just their own individual economic situation. For example, an individual who is in no way financially affected by broad macroeconomic indicators such as GDP growth, but still considers these indicators when voting is a sociotropic voter. In the literature on sociotropic voting, the motivations for sociotropic voting usually relate to caring how other people within the country fare, i.e. empathy with other segments of society. However, in the context of India, the more interesting factor is national pride. Do voters care if India’s GDP surpasses England’s for example? Does this provide some intrinsic value even if, for the vast majority of the population, there is no change in economic conditions when this eventually happens?
As in most of the world, military successes and failures have often affected Indian elections and not because they have affected most Indian’s lives. For example, India’s military failure in 1962 at the hands of China is said to have weakened Nehru’s almost unassailable popularity. The defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war cemented Indira Gandhi’s position at the head of the nation and her own party. More recently, and perhaps more tellingly, the BJP’s successful test of a nuclear bomb in 1998 was notoriously popular. So, many Indians appear to like when their government succeeds militarily, even when it has no real effect on their everyday existence. Does this sentiment then translate to India’s economic position in the world? Do Indians value GDP growth, for example, because it enhances the position of India?
Many of India’s elites have long been concerned with India’s economic position in the world. Immediately after Independence, Nehru and other Congress leaders chose to promote heavy industrial growth over low-skilled manufacturing growth. While some of this reflects economic theories of the time (specifically ISI), there is little doubt that it was also the result of a desire to be equal with the advanced countries in the world as opposed to becoming a mere provider of low-skilled goods or raw materials. There’s also no doubt that much of this sentiment came directly from India’s colonial experience. For example, Nehru defended his stance on opposing international trade, by stating that “International trade was certainly not excluded, but we were anxious to avoid being drawn into the whirlpool of economic imperialism.”
The BJP, and the Jana Sangh before it, promotes their own unique brand of economic nationalism referred to as ‘Swadeshi’. This policy has generally emphasized protectionist economic policies while also being very pro-business. However, it has also an important role in the rhetoric of the BJP’s economic appeal. The party often frames the faults of India’s economy under Congress rule in relation to other countries in the world. For example, the party’s 1998 manifesto states: “the Indian economy grew at a mere 3.5 per cent while most of Asia raced ahead towards prosperity” and “Indian industry, services and agriculture were largely rendered internationally non-competitive and disadvantaged.”
As recently as 2000, the influential political commentator Baldev Raj Nayar said: “Essentially, what seems to have happened is that the BJP snatched away the flag of nationalism, including economic nationalism, from the Congress Party when the latter tended to lose sight of Nehru’s national vision amidst wide-spread corruption and the pressures of the great powers.” Since that time, though, the BJP has effectively dropped those aspects of economic nationalism that relate to protectionist economic policy. They are the party that first sold Indian public-owned enterprises to foreign companies and dramatically increased foreign investment in the domestic economy, despite the Jana Sangh’s role in kicking Coca Cola and IBM out in the 1970’s.
Effectively, the BJP has dropped economic nationalist policy but still draws on the rhetoric of economic nationalism. By this I mean that they campaign on advancing India’s position in the world, as much as they campaign on helping the lives of Indians directly. The most immediate example of this was the ‘India Shining’ campaign in 2004. The party appealed to voters on the sentiment of re-creating a proud and strong India as opposed to helping the majority of the population.
The BJP has staked its reputation on being able to place India in the league of the world’s elite. Their success in the national elections will be a test of how much the average Indian cares. And, if the BJP wins, their policy will be dictated by Indian voters’ willingness to exchange for the greater economic glory of the nation. Furthermore, because of the BJP’s emphasis on economic glory, the party will be judged on the basis of growth far more than the Congress in recent years. They won’t be able to make the claim that their policies are helping the poor and that growth is only for the rich like the Congress has. This leaves the party extremely vulnerable to factors outside their control. As we saw last year when the Indian rupee came under extreme pressure as a result of the U.S. reducing stimulus spending, actions that are in no way related to the government’s policy can have dramatic effects on the economy. Effectively, if the public does care about the greater economic glory of India, then the BJP is in much more trouble if growth figures continue to disappoint in the next few years because of the very fact that these figures are so apparent and relatively indisputable. Expectations will be high and whether these expectations are being met will be easy to judge. In the case of the BJP, there will be no recourse to NAREGA, and helping the farmer in the name of leveling inequality.
Alan Potter is a PhD Student in the Department of Politics at New York University. His research studies how politicians and the public react to economic reforms in the developing world. His larger dissertation project focuses on the case of ongoing privatization of state-owned enterprises in India, however, he also has a research interest in Iran and Brazil. Email: Afp250@nyu.edu