Why Big Themes Win Big And Social Media ‘Wars’ Hardly Affect Poll Outcome

A polling staff tallies the candidates names on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) (Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)

As the Narendra Modi government completes four years in office, there is a frantic rush to predict the results of the impending 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Surveys and evaluations are inevitable and can provide a general, directional view on how voters look at the government of day. However, too much extrapolation of these studies and making real life decisions – financial investments and career plans to name a couple – is downright counterproductive.

The constant ‘instantisation’ and projection of own views, insecurities, and preferences camouflaged as expert analysis of electoral math have made politics a spectator sports on social media. In fact, elections in India usually demonstrate these five behaviours, which are far away from the omnipresent digital anxiety.

Non-Committed Voters

National parties usually have a set of committed voters. Their opinion may be cast in stone. They are usually the active ones on social media, constantly defending their preference and mocking the opponents. But these aren’t the votes which decide the electoral outcomes. The ‘core’ voters will anyway go out and vote in general – that’s why they are the unconditional and not issue-based core.

The voters who swing the election are the ones who don’t even decide if they are going to vote or note until the election day is on them. These voters can be simply disinterested or downright lazy or can go on a holiday on the voting day or can be cynical and fed up of politics.

Motivating these non-committed voters to come out and vote is not easy. This is why politicians try and create a wide net of something for everyone (or most) common minimum denominator approach in their electoral pitches.

‘Recency’ Effect

Since a large part of the electoral battle is for the non-committed voters, the elections are also swung more by the events which happen closer to an election. On social media, especially on Twitter, there’s a fad to project daily outrage on the 2019 election. It is easy to find these types of statements on Twitter:

‘This politician said so, his party is now doomed’

‘Media channel X shows this party is losing ground, the end is nigh!’

‘Look at this beautiful picture of my MLA and MP standing in knee deep water – he will definitely be reelected’

‘What a gruesome picture of this politician abusing a dog/cat/cow/horse – he as well his party is a goner’

There’s a popular saying about how humans perceive the impact of technology. In short run, the impact of any new technology is often overestimated. But in the long run, the impact is underestimated. The politics of the country, now driven by extremely event-focused social media discourse, also follows the former part of this adage.

Political junkies active on social media want to cook two-minute instant political noodles day in and day out. They want political activity and progress to match their schedule. And in the process, they overestimate the importance of their views as well as day to day political events on the outcome of a distant election.

The reality is that even these junkies cannot remember what they outraged about a couple of days ago, let alone couple of months. Petrol at Rs 85 a litre in May 2018 won’t hurt the government in May 2019. Winning Allahabad by-poll is not an indication of a broader 2019 trend. Retaining Gujarat in a close election 2017 has little bearing on how Gujarat will vote in 2019.

If ‘recency effect’ weren’t a factor, the political parties wouldn’t invest in creating war chests of currency notes, liquor bottles, pressure cookers, saris, and mixer-grinders to be distributed before – sometimes the night before – the election.

Get Out The Vote

Since there are a fair number of non-committed voters, ‘Get Out The Vote (GOTV)’ becomes a very important strategy. Every party ensures that on the day of the voting, all their core voters step out to vote, hopefully for them.

This is where the importance of foot-soldiers of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Shiv Sena lies. This is where Congress tried to invest in Gujarat in 2017. This is why panna pramukh became an important part of Indian political lexicon.

GOTV is not an Indian phenomenon. When the British Labour Party leader Ian Mikardo gave rise to the Reading Method of GOTV in 1945, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was not yet born. Yet the Mikardo sheets – list of all supporters pinned on large central displays in party offices – now have their own equivalent in Shah’s panna pramukhstrategy in India. In Mikardo’s era, specific parts of these lists called Shuttleworth, were handed over to the GOTV volunteers, who would ensure that all potential supporters definitely voted. This is exactly what the panna pramukhs have done effectively in India.

Winning the battle of the booths is a large part of any election. This is why keeping the morale of the party workers high is always a top priority for every political party.

What Influences A Voting Decision?

A lot of social media commentary is about how people may vote in reaction to certain events. A real voting decision is actually not influenced by too many factors. This is not dissimilar to buying a house.

When one buys a house and creates a list of factors, which influence the buying decision, there may be a long list of 15-20 items. In reality, as the house hunt progresses, the final buying decision is made only on top two to three factors. Why this case?

Our brains can easily rank three to four items in an order of preference. But it is virtually impossible to rank say 20 things in order of preference. Beyond that, we can only make pair-wise comparisons (read about Analytic Hierarchy Process), but cannot rank order all the factors.

This is precisely why political parties do not use a lot of data in actual election campaign although they use a lot of it on a day to day basis outside the elections. Data is essentially a defence mechanism; it is not an offensive lever.

This factor also explains why factors like temple decontrol or Right to Education are not electoral topics. The number of people who are likely to be exclusively influenced by these factors alone and nothing else are miniscule. The day this set becomes large, political parties will respond – political parties always respond to significant stimuli, because they are wired to do so.

Since only two to three factors are going to impact a voter’s choice, often politicians rely on emotional factors – appeal of a leader, caste, religion, identity – to create that mahaul in the run-up to voting. Data is important can actually be used to create that mahaul as well. But it has to be done in abstract terms. Close to the poll, a politician is unlikely to count how many kilometers of road was constructed or number of hospitals opened. The discussion will always be, “Am I a vikas purush or not?” or “Look at this capitalist agent” and so on.

Hence, day to day Twitter battles or data supremacy fights really have very little electoral impact. They are good to keep the discussion going in the right direction, but no politician ever obsesses over very specific data points.

Marginal Thinking

Most voters think on the margin, not in absolute terms. Because ultimately they are swayed by a small number of factors and hence look at issues which are relatable and have a personal reference.

This is a big challenge for multi-term incumbent governments, which work on the development narrative. Every new election needs a development narrative against a progressively higher development bar.

If a government made roads in term one, it has to promise something else for term two. And in term three, it can’t even talk about roads, because everyone has already adjusted to having good roads. The premise that ‘before us there were no roads and we achieved this in term one’ has zero relevance for the third election. Developmental stories also hold political parties hostage to their own success.

This is why, on the one hand it is wrong when the generally well off urban Twitter crowd dismisses things like government working on electricity or gas connections. It can be taken for granted by many but for those who don’t have power or cooking gas; it may be a big deal.

However, for the same reason, a government is unlikely to convert these intervention driven developmental policies to votes too many times. Once someone gets power supply or cooking gas, it becomes a part of daily routine. There is nothing at the margin to appreciate.

The biggest problem of any election is one that combines these factors.

How to generate those two to three big issues, which are important to enough number of voters with which they personally connect? The political party, which is able to get these big themes right at a sufficiently large scale and then motivates the voters to turn up, wins big.

But because there are only two to three big themes, parties do not invest in generating this momentum months, even weeks in advance. If they do, they can falter before the finish line – Gujarat 2017 is an example for Congress.

For the 2019 Lok Sabha election, these themes will also show up around December starting with the results of the three assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. If the petrol prices are still high in January 2019, it will be a definite problem.

All in all, it is good to spar on social media for the battle of daily narrative. It keeps support networks energised and improves understanding of what’s happening in the country. But linking every small political event – political or statesmen statements, use of this word or that, appeasement of this community or that, getting some scheme right or wrong – is an exercise in ill-informed vanity.

The best answer to “as of now, who is winning 2019” is “as of now, we are in 2018 and elections aren’t happening today”.