Is Pakistan an election issue in the minds of Indian electorate for the upcoming lower house, Lok Sabha parliamentary elections which will select the new Prime Minister? This issue becomes especially important after the Indian government claimed that it targeted the terrorist camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a Pakistan based terrorist organization, through military airstrikes in response to JeM’s suicide attack which killed forty Indian paramilitary troops in the Indian administered Kashmir. On the contrary, Pakistan denies the existence of such camp and claims that Indian fighter jets retreated in haste due to scrambling and dropped their payloads in the forest. Mr. Modi and his ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ministers and leaders have boasted this issue in their election rallies.
In the past elections, foreign policy and national security have generally not been major issues and are thought not to influence the elections. Although India’s middle class is 267 million with average GDP growth of 7% since 1991 economic liberalization, it is still a lower middle-income country with 21% of its population living below the poverty line and 66% of its population living in rural areas. In such a scenario, rural and development issues such as poverty, agrarian distress, access to drinking water, roads, and jobs are important for the majority of the electorate. In addition, caste and religion trump national identity and are important factors in Indian elections. Domestic issues and socioreligious identities will continue to influence voters’ preferences in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
Domestic issues dominate
Domestic issues are more important than ‘Pakistan threat’ in influencing voters’ behavior. Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a reputed Indian research institute conducted a pre-poll survey which found that development, price rise, and unemployment were the three most important issues for the voters at 33%, 25%, and 20%. Indian air strikes in Pakistan was an important issue for only 4% of the electorate. After the announcement of 10% federal jobs quota for the low-income people from the general category (upper castes), cash transfer for poor farmers and air strikes in Pakistan, the popularity of Mr. Modi increased from 34% (May 2018) to 43% (pre-poll survey 2019). It would be unfair to assume that only air strikes increased his popularity. Air strikes combined with other announcements helped increase Mr. Modi’s popularity. Affirmative action policy is already in place for lower castes in parliament, government jobs, and educational institutes. In order to attract low-income voters from upper castes, the ruling government announced the 10% federal jobs quota. Cash transfers to poor farmers are important as BJP lost the 2018 state assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh because the party failed to ameliorate agrarian distress which not only resulted in low prices for farmers’ produce but also growing suicides.
Majority of poor reside in rural areas and therefore, form a very important vote base for any party to win elections. For poor rural families hit by the recent agrarian distress, welfare programs are more valuable than an external Pakistan threat which does not directly affect their lives. Majority of rural poor’s livelihood and location are far removed from the India-Pakistan border tensions. Seshadri Chari, a prominent journalist and member of the BJP’s National Executive Committee, recently stated in his article that the backroom boys of the BJP have realized that the airstrikes in Pakistan have limited appeal among Indian voters and as a result, party leaders are making people aware of social programs especially those targeted towards farmers and poor families. In the predominantly rural state of Uttar Pradesh which has 80 Lok Sabha seats, the highest in the country, it was found that while the airstrikes in Pakistan will help in mobilizing the core committed BJP voters, it will have no impact on undecided and non-committed BJP voters.
Elections held after the Kargil war (1999) and surgical strikes (2016) show us whether ‘Pakistan threat’ helped the ruling BJP in winning the elections. After the exit of a coalition political party, elections for the Lok Sabha were held less than two months after the end of Kargil war. Studies have shown that the constituency level vote share (in the seats BJP contested) of the BJP remained stable between 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections and it was due to political alliances and constituency level factors by which the party was able to form the government. Therefore, the Kargil war was not a game-changer as BJP’s vote share didn’t increase dramatically after the war. Surgical strikes conducted by the Indian army on terrorist launching pads in Pakistan did not affect the outcome of state assembly elections a few months later. For example, BJP won Uttar Pradesh assembly election because of social welfare programs and caste coalition.
Caste and religion
Caste and religion trump national identity in Indian elections. Mr. Chari also states in his article that the overall voting pattern in most states remains rooted in caste considerations. In his book, Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi: From Caste to Class, Sanjay Kumar shows that the semi-state of Delhi moved from caste to class politics because of high urbanization and rapid migration. In contrast to Delhi, caste identities remain important in elections as the majority of Indians live in rural areas and engage in agricultural activities. Political parties address the issues of development keeping caste considerations in mind. In the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, two caste-based parties, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party, who wield enormous political power formed an alliance so that their lower caste votes do not get divided by the ruling BJP. Caste-based parties provide support to their specific caste through patron-client relationship as rural societies are mired by caste discrimination, violence, and poverty. Pakistan does not hold prominence as people have other issues which seriously affects their livelihood.
As a developing and a predominantly rural country, caste and religion identities rather than national identity define the identity of the majority of Indians. In 2013, communal riots between Jat Hindus and Muslims in the constituency of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh polarized the elections along religious lines and benefited the political candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Political parties benefit from communal riots as it ends up polarizing the elections along religious lines and helps in diverting the focus from urgent issues. It has been suggested that BJP is raising the issue of ‘Pakistani threat’ in election rallies for another subtext, i.e., to equate it with Muslims in order to polarize the elections in their favor. The reasoning behind this is that Hindu votes which are usually divided along caste lines could be united against Muslim votes to win elections. In addition, although cell phones and social media coverage have increased in India, they are primarily used to spread fake news and provoke prejudice along caste and religion lines during elections.
Majority of the Indian population is still low income and employed in agricultural activities and informal sector. For them, domestic issues such as poverty, access to welfare programs, agrarian distress and jobs will always hold more importance than an external Pakistan threat. In addition, caste and religion cleavages take precedence over national identity.