What we say and how we vote

The recent CSDS-Lokniti survey of 10,000-plus Indians throws up some odd contradictions amid some signs of hope

It is a cliché that opposites happily co-exist in this country (photo: PTI)
It is a cliché that opposites happily co-exist in this country (photo: PTI)

Uttam Sengupta

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…’

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in London and Paris during the French Revolution and first published in 1859, is oddly resonant; you might even imagine them an apt description of the India of today.

The pre-poll survey conducted by CSDS-Lokniti, among 10,000-odd Indians across 18 states, is also a good mirror of our paradoxical times. The Lokniti survey, a research programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), both confirms and challenges many of our beliefs about India, our rulers and ourselves.

The finding that an overwhelming majority of Indians still believe in the pluralistic character of the country, that they think India belongs to people of all religions and not just Hindus, took many of us by surprise.

Under Narendra Modi’s leadership, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought India to the brink of a make-or-break reckoning with its secular Constitution. We are within a hair’s breadth of becoming a Hindu Rashtra. Unless, as this survey seems to indicate, our pluralist DNA speaks in the forthcoming elections.

In the face of our inescapable reality of bigoted bilge flowing through RWA WhatsApp groups, the everyday targeting of Muslims, the hate speak of BJP leaders across the country and especially in the Hindi heartland of north India, it is hard to believe that Indians still believe in a pluralist India. But maybe we confuse the people of India for the State. Maybe.

The survey tells us that ‘nearly 8 of every 10 Hindus said they have faith in religious pluralism. Only 11 per cent of Hindus said they think India is a nation of Hindus’. As many as 79 per cent of the respondents said India must remain a country for people of all religious faiths; they apparently take religious tolerance as a given.

The sentiment was found to be stronger among younger people (81 per cent) than among older Indians (73 per cent). Not surprisingly, more of the educated respondents (83 per cent) favoured religious tolerance than among the unschooled, but even their numbers are large (72 per cent).

While the findings — a pleasant surprise, as some liberals described it — were heartening, the survey does not indicate that a majority of Hindus (or even Indians as a whole) disagree with the agenda of making India a Hindu Rashtra. They clearly do not believe that construction of a temple was a colossal waste of resources or a misplaced priority or that Hindutva is irrelevant.

Not surprisingly, therefore, only 5 per cent of even those who want to vote out this government singled out religious discrimination and worsening communal harmony as their primary reasons.

If anything, the survey revealed the importance that respondents attached to the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, a key component of the BJP and the prime minister’s election campaign and electoral strategy. In fact, 58 per cent of Hindu respondents and even 37 per cent of the Muslim respondents believed that the temple would either aid a harmonious relationship between the two communities or make no difference to communal harmony.

The survey report itself says: "As the election campaign unfolds, the temple has already become a subterranean issue that voters will carry to the polling station. And undeniably, the issue is likely to work in the BJP’s favour." Close to half the respondents felt the temple would help consolidate the Hindu identity. Asked to name the ‘most-liked action’ of the BJP government, over 22 per cent of respondents mentioned the consecration of the Ram Temple.

It is, of course, a cliché that opposites happily co-exist in this country; that if anything is said about us Indians, the opposite will also be equally true. As well-known political commentator Apoorvanand pointed out in Satya Hindi, most Indians have no difficulty in publicly condemning the practice of dowry while encouraging it in their own family circles. It is therefore quite possible that tolerant Hindus see nothing amiss in the State promoting their religion even as they maintain that all religions should be treated equally.

Strangely, very few of those who want the BJP to be re-elected cited the Ram Temple (8 per cent) or Hindutva (4 per cent) as their primary reason in the survey.

As against 44 per cent of the respondents who want this government re-elected, the survey tells us, as many as 39 per cent do not. Even more significantly, the survey recalls that in 2004, when the BJP launched the ‘India Shining’ campaign, an even higher percentage (48 per cent) wanted to re-elect the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government — but it lost.

Asked why the Modi government should be re-elected, a majority of respondents either vaguely referred to ‘good work’ (42 per cent) or cited welfare schemes (18 per cent); others said ‘Modi is a great leader’ (10 per cent). The abrogation of Article 370 motivated just 6 per cent. India’s ‘international image’ influenced 4 per cent.

The 39 per cent that do not want to re-elect this government are clearer about their reasons. Two of every three such respondents referred to the poor state of the economy. More than half the respondents (52 per cent) cited rising unemployment and inflation, while 11 per cent cited their own declining income for their vote of no-confidence.

If we add the 3 per cent who cited lack of economic growth and the 2 per cent who cited the mishandling of agriculture and farmers, a whopping 68 per cent want the government out for mismanaging the economy. The figure will be higher still if we add the 7 per cent who cited corruption, the 5 per cent who singled out crony capitalism and the 6 per cent who put it down to plain ‘bad governance’. The government’s carefully ‘curated’ data has clearly not cut much ice.

The ILO employment report of 2024 points out that about 83 per cent of India’s unemployed workforce is under the age of 30. The Lokniti-CSDS survey also captures a rising restlessness over unemployment, but says it is not sufficient to influence the election.

The survey does add a caveat: "If we compare the present findings with the 2019 post-poll study, the proportion of respondents considering unemployment as the most important issue increased from 11% to 27%... Similarly, price rise as the most important issue also witnessed a huge rise of 19% over 2019."

Satisfaction with the government was high (65 per cent) in the 2019 survey. In 2024, it has come down to 57 per cent. Accordingly, dissatisfaction with the government, which was 30 per cent in 2019, has gone up to 39 per cent.

But hold on. As political scientist Suhas Palshikar points out, “Predictably, the upper castes are most numerous in their endorsement of re-election (only one-third of the upper castes say this government should not get another chance). But it must be said that those wanting to deny another chance to the government do not have a very sharp social profile — something that might insulate the government from a possible fallout.”

Curiously, while the survey suggests that nearly half the respondents felt their life had improved over the last five years, over 71 per cent also claimed that prices had risen considerably in that time. Also, 60 per cent asserted that getting a job had become much more difficult and 55 per cent felt corruption had increased (15 percentage points higher than in 2019).

The magnitude of unemployment is certainly alarming. The survey reveals that people are struggling to find economically sustainable work everywhere: in big cities, in small towns and in rural areas. Only about 20 per cent claimed they were able to save after meeting household requirements.

Yet, the survey found that Narendra Modi is the preferred choice as prime minister for almost half the respondents (48 per cent), versus the 27 per cent who want Rahul Gandhi. Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee were favoured by 3 per cent of the respondents, and 10 per cent chose not to name any leader.

Asked to name one thing Modi did that they liked best, 23 per cent cited the Ram Mandir, 9 per cent cited employment generation and 8 per cent each spoke of poverty alleviation and India’s ‘great’ global image. Only 2 per cent referred to his campaign against corruption.

Ironically, asked about Modi’s ‘least liked’ work, 24 per cent cited failure to tackle unemployment, another 24 per cent cited failure to curb inflation, 10 per cent referred to failure to reduce poverty and 7 per cent were critical of his handling of scams and corruption. In other words, 65 per cent of respondents found Modi had failed on critical parameters. Confusing?

The propaganda that India’s image has improved internationally, that world leaders consult the Indian prime minister before taking important decisions, that the Indian passport has become ‘stronger’ has apparently worked.

The survey also confirms that trust in the Election Commission of India (ECI) has dramatically declined compared to five years ago, from more than 50 per cent to less than 30 per cent. ‘It will be interesting to see whether this declining trust will impact support for the BJP,’ noted one analysis of the survey data.

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