Understanding the Mind of the Indian Voter

The formation of political opinions is not limited to how one accesses and consumes information. Familial and caste affiliations play a big role too.

Come the assembly elections and ground reporter Ravish Kumar is out with his mic in villages of Uttar Pradesh. This time it is not his trademark laal mic though. His skill combining informal political ‘talk’ with socio-economic details from the villages he visited is highly commendable. For instance, one a perceptive journalist can spot that stalls selling chowmein are a death blow for samosa sellers.

For those of us who don’t have much connection to rural India, this combination of the political and the everyday was a window to the places and the people. One also noticed how things have not changed, or rather how change and continuity have combined to define multiple aspects of social and political lives.

For instance, thanks to the panning cameras we saw that a village of around 4,500 people had a good number of Swachh Bharat toilets, a change that, according to the villagers, is a matter of political contest. When Kumar inquired about these toilets, some said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was responsible, other credited UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. What was more interesting, however, was the commemorative text on the front walls of these toilets. Besides a name and date, the text also had the caste of the beneficiary.

Toilets built under the Swachh Bharat initiative are symbols of change. Panegyrics on this ‘silent revolution’ are seen and heard on TV, in print and on the radio. But the public display of caste name reminds us how easy it is to assimilate even toilets into structures of caste. Was the caste name added for public information or to regulate the use of the toilet. If indeed it was the former, was there any need for the caste to be displayed at all?

What constitutes a political view?

Such conversations are entertaining and informative, but the political context is of importance. As a neutral journalist, Kumar is not interested in knowing who the people vote to but wants to learn about how they vote. How do they make their choices about political parties and candidates? What do they think of before voting, as the title of the show asks.

Kumar asked two questions to everyone he spoke to – his respondent ranging from a 90-year-old man to a young girl. First, do they read the newspaper? He rephrased this question when speaking with families – do they subscribe to any newspaper? Second, do they watch TV? Once again, this question was rephrased when speaking to families –do they have a TV connection?

Through these questions, Kumar was trying to understand how political views are formed and what role these plays in deciding whom to vote for.

But a vote need not be a direct expression of the political view. In fact, in many cases it is the absence of a political view that led to the choice. The 90-year-old hookah smoking man and the young girl Kumar spoke to do not read newspaper or watch TV. But they vote. Does the absence of engagement with the media mean an absence of a view?

In the case of women, this lack of causal relationship between the view and the vote is most conspicuous. A majority of women Kumar spoke to exercise their right to vote but seldom as an expression of their individual political view. Mostly they follow what is being told to them by the male members of their family. We may never know for certain if this was simply a response to a journalist or if it is actually indicative of the absence of individual independent political thinking. Assuming the latter would be a hasty decision, as the women’s vote in the Bihar election showed.

By the end of Kumar’s tour, it was clear that soochna (information), jaagrukta (awareness) and jaankari (understanding) should be crucial to the decision making process where voting is concerned. Apart from one reference to WhatsApp while talking to a group of young boys, Kumar concentrated on understanding the impact of newspapers and TV, making it clear that these are still the most accessible and reliable ways in rural India to acquire information and cultivate political understanding.

A rational choice?

Information consumption in the formation of political opinion is crucial, which is why most political parties now set up ‘media rooms’, or ‘war rooms’, during their campaigns.

In the era of ‘alternative facts’, will asking about newspaper and TV consumption habits alone tell us the process of how political views are formed? A problem arises if the formation of political view is reduced to the medium of communication.

If access to the medium of communication is exclusively taken as something that would determine the nature of a vote, this would mean taking for granted that a voter is a complete individualised entity. It is purely an assumption, or at best an ideal expectation, that through the act of reading the newspaper or watching TV news an individual would make a ‘rational’ decision by weighing the pros and cons, and will exercise this decision without the mediation of family or community. But is it logical to assume or expect voting decisions to be made independent of social mediation in places where even the toilets are not free of caste labels?

The incessant emphasis on newspaper and TV present these as repositories of ‘objective’ information. But is this necessarily true? At one point during the show, Kumar asks someone why they should believe what their family says. In the age of paid news and fake news, and with many media houses increasingly controlled by corporates, the question to be asked is – why should people believe in what is written in newspapers and presented on TV shows? Kumar’s own take on TV programmes and how he has stopped watching TV goes against the grain of objectivity that his questions purported.

The issue of loyalty

In his quest to understand the voter mind, Kumar constructed the image of an ideal and rational voter. In all probability, he did it deliberately to provoke people, especially women, to exercise their ‘independent’ thinking.

But it in this moment of provocation that something was lost. It seemed that Kumar failed to relate to what people were actually saying. Some openly said they were traditional/loyal BJP or SP voters, while others said their whole family votes for one party. Some very strongly reiterated that come what may, they would continue voting for one particular party, while some others said they had switched loyalties.

Political view is not a function of information and awareness alone. It is formed and nurtured over years through the idea and practice of loyalty, and is often spread across members of the family and caste. We hear people say ‘yes there are problems but I will still vote for so and so’. What is that keeps their faith and loyalty intact?

Such political loyalties are not limited to the villages but is also deeply pervasive among the urban middle class. It would be unwise to credit caste affiliations and elections doles as explanations for such political loyalty. The political view driving this loyalty is not necessarily ‘uninformed’. Even at chaupals, temple grounds and small shops, people actively and cleverly manipulate, adapt and articulate their preferred views based on select information and awareness.

Of course, loyalties shift, determining the fate of political parties in elections. A more engaging exercise would be to seek to understand the formation of political loyalty. The pursuit of information, and its intelligent and selective processing is part of how loyalties form and change.

Globally in last few years, pollsters have failed to read the voter mind. But one thing we can be sure of is that the voter is not a tabula rasa on which the objectivity of information can be scripted. While that may be ideal for a healthy democracy, it may not be the best approach to understand the voters’ minds. A socially embedded journalistic ethnography of the voter-mind requires moving beyond the mechanical understanding of the ‘information age’.

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin.