There are many lessons to be learnt from the manner in which the elites perceived the elections in India and in the US.
The emergence of Donald Trump on the US electoral scene has evoked many a parallel with the rise of Narendra Modi in India. Their positioning as political outsiders to a firmly entrenched corrupt establishment is matched with their propensity for majoritarian political pitches that alienated minorities and weaker segments of the population.
Yet there was a crucial difference in how the media and the public in the two countries projected their popularity and electoral prospects. While polls and public opinion in India were largely reflective of Modi’s impending victory, America was jolted when Trump defied projections of a Hillary Clinton presidency.
The picture is further complicated by the role that the media has historically played in the two countries. In India, it is widely acknowledged that discourses and images disseminated by television, and more recently by social media, do not impact electoral outcomes in a significant manner. Rather, it is the complex electoral arithmetic of caste, class, religion and language that play out in altogether different ways in different parts of the country.
Media-generated public opinion, at best, is an artefact of urban middle-class imagination, usually at variance with mobilisation on the ground. The 2004 general elections, which the BJP was touted to win on the back of its India Shining campaign, is a classic instance of the clash between perception and reality in the Indian scenario. A similar script played out in 2009 when predictions of an L.K. Advani-led NDA government failed to materialise.
In contrast, the media has been quite central to presidential campaigns in the US. With the advent of televised presidential debates, personality traits such as speech, mannerisms and the ability to engage an audience assumed significance. In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s win over Richard Nixon was greatly attributed to his ability to connect with a television audience watching a presidential debate for the very first time. It was a fascinating case of how one candidate won over television viewers, even as radio listeners found little difference between the two candidates.
Similarly, Bill Clinton’s charismatic, empathetic personality is often invoked to explain his remarkable victory over George H. W. Bush, a sitting president seeking reelection on the back of a major military success in the Middle East. It was similar reasoning that led pundits to believe that Trump’s open expressions of bigotry would be more damaging than Hillary’s low scores on likeability.
Was it then a mere coincidence that projections matched the actual outcome in India of 2014, while they were completely at odds in the US of 2016?
A recurrent theme in the US presidential campaign has been the appeal of Trump among non-college-educated white voters across the country. While race is being cited as the single most important variable, with 58% white voters across the board supporting Trump, education has emerged as an important variable, overshadowing gender and class.
According to polling data, 67% white voters without a college degree supported Trump, including 62% women. Conversely, college education was found to moderate the impact of race, with the number dropping to 49% in case of white college graduates. A state-wise breakdown of these numbers would no doubt reveal a skewed distribution, with Trump’s constituencies considerably underrepresented among the college-educated media elite based out of New York and Washington.
In fact, the censure of Trump spanned the full range of mainstream media, with even avowedly conservative voices such as Fox News taking issue with Trump on some occasions and adopting neutral to lukewarm stances on some others. Not surprisingly, Trump trained his guns on the American media establishment throughout his campaign accusing it of rigging the election in favour of his rival.
The power of a relatively small elite rests in its ability to propagate a value-system that permeates intermediate and lower classes, eliciting their support for a similar kind of politics. The harsh censure of Trump’s brand of politics by the Republican leadership showed that such a set of values can also transcend party lines.
In other words, the victory of Trump and the defeat of Hillary points to a complacent elite that took for granted the power and legitimacy of its own voice without gauging the public mood. This sentiment was echoed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said Trump ‘heard a voice that no one else heard’, which delivered to him such an unexpected victory.
India’s general election of 2014 upholds a very different relationship between the educated classes and the rest of society. The educated Indian middle class has been widely noted for its unease with mass politics. After its support of the Emergency in the 1970s, it was the Indian middle class, consisting substantially of upper caste segments, that enabled the rise of the BJP through its support of liberalisation and Hindutva, and resistance to reservation. It was a reactionary response to the steady rise of various lower-caste and agrarian groups in the corridors of power since the late 1980s.
In the days and months leading up to the election of 2014, the educated elite projected these political preferences unequivocally, even generating a backlash against sections of the media that asked questions of Modi and the BJP. Such projections were reinforced and amplified by conversations on social media where India’s post-liberalisation techno-managerial elite venerated Modi’s narrative of apolitical problem-solving, steamrolling the very real conflicts of caste, class and religion in Indian society.
Arguably, the masses would be minimally affected by a discourse disseminated in English by the mainstream as well as social media. While Hindi enjoys a far greater presence in national discourse than any other vernacular tongue, its impact on the masses is mitigated by the limited penetration of the Internet, or even cable television. Under such circumstances, mass support for the BJP was a consequence of successful mobilisation on the ground. While anti-incumbency and Modi’s mass appeal played a part, strategies involving communal polarisation in states such as Uttar Pradesh could hardly be underestimated.
This phenomenon is further explained by political scientist Tariq Thachil in his recent book Elite Parties Poor Voters. Thachil shows that poor, lower-caste and Dalit voters of the BJP were recruited by the social service wings of the RSS by providing them free education and other services. It helps to explain the mechanism by which the BJP has been able to increase its vote share over the last decade, without compromising its core ideology or political rhetoric.
It is possible to conclude that India called it right in 2014 in spite of its educated elite that believed it had few stakes in carrying the masses along. In the US of 2016, it was the failure of the elite to lead a larger coalition, allowing a politician like Trump to seize the momentum. Both countries have lessons to learn, though perhaps, the Indian elite, unlike its American counterpart, still has its bubble intact.