In the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes in February 2019, national security superseded all other issues as the No.1 priority for many Indians. In the weeks following the airstrikes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw a huge upsurge in his approval ratings, rising from 32% in the beginning of the year to over 60%.
Entering the election season on the back of that momentum, BJP was expected to comfortably win the national elections and form the government. This expectation has now been reinforced by the exit poll results, which predict that the BJP-led NDA will easily form the government.
But is this a fair estimate?
Predicting election results is difficult anywhere in the world but it is even more difficult in a country as diverse as India, where polling takes place over seven phases and more than a month. Even though exit polls suggest that the Modi led-BJP will comfortably form a government, leaving the Congress far behind, recent electoral surprises have warned us not to take anything for granted. Both Brexit and the American election results were a surprise, where exit polls, psephologists and popular media had predicted that the ‘Remain’ camp and Hillary Clinton, respectively, would win. Just this weekend, Australians were in for a surprise as the country’s ruling coalition defied exit polls to defeat the Labour party.
In fact, a comparison between exit polls and final results for India also shows that exit polls often get it wrong.
So why do exit polls get it wrong?
One reason is the ’Spiral of Silence’, a powerful theory proposed by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, which has been credited for some of the surprise results we have seen in the recent past. The theory argues that people who believe that they hold the minority view on public issues are less likely to voice them due to fear of being excluded by others. This leads to the perceived gap between the views appearing larger than it actually is.
Could we expect a similar spiral of silence to be operating in India?
Tejasvi Surya, BJP’s candidate from Bangalore South, had proclaimed in a speech a few days before he was given the party ticket: ““This election is going to be the test of a common man’s patriotism. If you are with Modi, you are with India and if you are not with Modi, you are anti-India.” Widely shared and repeated by many BJP supporters, it is rhetoric like this that pushes people into being silent and not expressing their real views. When electoral preferences become a test of patriotism, one is bound to feel worried about revealing their true preferences.
“BJP is argued to be tougher on voices that go against it, making the fear of isolation even stronger for people who don’t support it.”
Overall, I believe that there are two reasons to expect that we may be over-estimating support for BJP:
1. The noise made by Modi supporters: The spiral of silence depends on people’s perception of which view is held by the majority. People may be afraid of voicing their opinion if they believe that their belief is in the minority. Currently in India, the Modi camp is far more vocal than the Congress camp. This is because of several reasons. First, as the party in power and one with vastly more campaign funding, the BJP has more control over the narrative and what reaches the masses. Under the current government, press freedom has declined and the media has been used to spread the official line on the government’s achievements. Essentially, they have the power to amplify voices that support them, making Congress supporters feel like they hold the minority view.
Second, BJP is argued to be tougher on voices that go against it, making the fear of isolation even stronger for people who don’t support it.
“I want this government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong. Democracy cannot succeed without constructive criticism.”, said PM Modi at what was mocked as a scripted interview with Prasoon Joshi. Yet, the government has shown itself to be intolerant of dissenting voices, and common people have been arrested for merely criticising Modi on the street or posting on Facebook. In addition, cases of mob lynchings and violence have dramatically increased, and thus the fear is not only one of social exclusion but even of physical harm.
2. The reluctant Congress voter: Not only are Modi supporters more vociferous, but the people who end up voting for Congress may also be more reluctant to disclose their views. Rahul Gandhi’s long-standing image as ’Pappu’, which he has tried to shed in the recent past, makes it difficult for his supporters to openly acknowledge their preference. “If not Modi, then who?”, is a common refrain used by BJP supporters, daring people to name Gandhi or anyone else as a credible contender. Moreover, in these elections, what may be important is not only the voter who has a clear preference between BJP and Congress, but the one who doesn’t.
“Not only are Modi supporters more vociferous, but the people who end up voting for Congress may also be more reluctant to disclose their views”
In a major pre-poll survey, only 67% of respondents clearly picked either Modi or Gandhi as their PM candidate, 18% expressed support for other leaders and 15% did not respond. Who these people vote for will depend on who they dislike less rather than who they like more. This is important because this kind of voter is particularly less likely to clearly endorse one candidate and make their view public.
So, is the support for Modi and the BJP overestimated? We’ll only find out conclusively on 23 May, but BJP would do well not to take an easy victory for granted.
The author is a social scientist and lecturer at King’s College, London. Her research looks at the social outcomes of business, focusing especially on India.