Ahead of key state elections right in the middle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) popularity appears to have slightly declined, but no Opposition party is close to taking the numero uno spot yet, a new survey has found. The BJP’s loss is nobody’s gain: rather, fewer urban Indians now identify with a particular party than two years ago, shows the latest round of the biannual YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey.
In three successive rounds of the survey in 2020 and mid-2021, around 45% of the respondents said they identified with the BJP. This figure dropped sharply to just 38% in the latest round held in November-December 2021, ahead of key state elections. Other parties could not swing this support in their favour, with the Congress still a distant second at 11%. Around 34% respondents do not identify with any party now, against 30% in April 2020.
This rising political neutrality could come with its own costs, as a past round of the biannual survey showed. But if you expect support for the BJP to be linked with how voters view the government’s performance, you’re in for a surprise. Respondents have veered away from the BJP despite being more optimistic about the economy and the government than a year ago.
The latest survey covered 12,900 respondents across 206 cities. Conducted jointly by the Indian arm of the global market research firm YouGov, Mint, and the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR), the survey series examines the aspirations, anxieties and attitudes of India’s digital natives.
The rising trend of not favouring any party is likely to have come from disillusioned BJP supporters, since other parties have not seen any notable change in support levels. The decline in the BJP’s popularity has been the sharpest among women, where it lost nearly 12 percentage points between December 2020 and December 2021.
The concurrent trend of rising non-identifiers—those who don’t identify with any party—is driven by younger citizens from small-town India. In December 2020, a third of the post-millennial respondents did not identify with any party, but this has risen beyond 40% within a year. While the biggest cities have not shown much change in the share of non-identifiers, the same has risen from 29% to 36% in Tier-3 cities.
The political distaste among the younger cohort is striking given the job losses and rise in urban poverty in the pandemic period .
Costs of neutrality
It’s true that strongly partisan citizens—those who identify with a political party strongly—have little patience for democratic processes, and often privilege their party identity over steadfast democratic values, as this survey found (see Plain Facts, 20 January). But this does not mean partisanship is inherently bad for democracy; nor is neutrality and political detachment desirable.
The tendency to identify with a political party is known to encourage political participation in a democracy, stabilize political competition, and provide citizens with cues through which they can hold governments accountable, say political scientists. On the other hand, those who remain aloof may also be less politically active. The results from a previous round of the YouGov-Mint-CPR survey supports this. Non-identifiers are half as likely to join a protest, and are also less likely to undertake activities such as signing a petition or campaigning. More worryingly, such respondents are also substantially less likely to vote.
The survey made two seemingly ironical observations about voters’ perceptions about the world around them. One, the satisfaction with the central government’s pandemic management has increased even as the BJP’s popularity has dipped. Two, non-identifiers are more likely to have a bleak outlook towards the economy and be unimpressed by the government’s performance. This suggests the root of discontent may not be economic, and it has not yet made voters shift their allegiance to other parties.
Therein lies both an opportunity as well as cause for concern. If the Opposition wants to rally support, it must utilize these cracks to galvanize the large mass of neutral citizens on its side. But if our politics continues to push more citizens towards neutrality, it could be a democratic disaster.
(Rahul Verma is with CPR and Ankita Barthwal is a PhD researcher at the University of Oslo)
This is the fifth and concluding part of a data journalism series based on the latest YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey. Read the full series here. The first part focused on the great churn in the job market last year, the second part looked at the rising trend of investing among young Indians, the third part explored the political partisanism seeping into urban India, and the fourth part was about how inflation is squeezing the wallets of Indian households)