Facing Off

Are there benefits to pitting prime ministerial candidates against each other?

Data from recent Indian elections suggest that parties’ prime ministerial choices have only a modest impact on how they fare at the ballot box. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP / Getty Images
01 April, 2014

IN THE LAST LOK SABHA ELECTIONS, 714 million Indians were eligible to vote, and 8,070 candidates stood for office. In principle, any one of those candidates, if elected, could have become prime minister. In the five years since, the number of eligible voters has increased by nearly a hundred million—roughly the entire population of Mexico. Given the overwhelming complexity of such a massive exercise, commentators naturally use certain filters to distil their analysis. Among the most popular is the direct comparison of individual leaders, which frames elections as a face-off between the declared or likely prime ministerial candidates of the major political parties.

The intensity of such “presidentialising” discourse has waxed and waned, depending on the idiosyncrasies of specific parliamentary elections. For example, in 2009, both the Congress and the BJP put forward prime ministerial candidates who were greying veterans on their last laps. This made for a relatively low-wattage contest. While Manmohan Singh was repeatedly pilloried for his uninspiring campaign presence, Lal Krishna Advani, nearly two decades removed from his peak as the polarising face of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was seen as being increasingly out of touch with what voters wanted.

This year’s contest features two lightning rods, and commentators are pitting them against each other with renewed vigour. Both prime ministerial hopefuls are seen to have serious and divergent flaws: Rahul Gandhi invites ridicule as the face of dynastic incompetence, while Narendra Modi invokes fear as the symbol of Hindu majoritarian intolerance. Last month, an NDTV poll of over 200,000 respondents found that the preeminent concern about Gandhi becoming the next prime minister was continued corruption; with Modi, it was increased Hindu–Muslim tensions. Analysts argue that the highly charged “Gandhi or Modi?” question—a central debate on dinnertime news shows—has polarised voters. The historian Ramachandra Guha even called 2014 “the first individual-driven election” since the heyday of Indira Gandhi.

On one level, playing up comparisons of the leading parties’ prime ministerial candidates—effectively viewing parliamentary elections through a presidential lens—suggests a fundamental misinterpretation of our electoral system. It conjures up an image of unfettered executive power that cannot be sustained once a candidate takes office. In fact, the end of single-party majorities has meant that prime ministers must be more adept at soothing coalitional tensions than ruling with an iron fist. From this angle, comparing prime ministerial candidates constitutes, at best, an irrelevant, trivialising approach to elections. At worst, it can distract the media from necessary obligations such as pressing political parties on their programmatic differences. Most disconcerting is the possibility that these comparisons cause voters to misconstrue the prime minister’s role in our multiparty system, creating a disconnect between the expectations raised during elections and the reality of executive governance.

Yet caution against such comparisons can bleed into overcorrection. Abandoning all juxtaposition of competing figureheads would prevent us from understanding how these individuals affect internal party politics and the voting public. Rather than seeking to answer whether a party’s prime ministerial choice impacts its electoral fortunes, we ought to attempt to determine how it does so and by how much, and to look for trends within the phenomenon.

In terms of voter behaviour, data from recent Indian elections suggests that parties’ prime ministerial choices have only a modest impact on how they fare at the ballot box. In surveys conducted during the 1999 and 2004 elections by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, respondents were asked open-ended questions about their preferred choice for the next prime minister. The respondents named two dozen candidates across both surveys, but over 70 percent listed their choice as either the Congress’s Sonia Gandhi or the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. These numbers suggest that in both 1999 and 2004 most respondents did have a preference in the “presidential-style” choice between the two major national parties’ candidates. However, the respondents’ preference of prime minister was not a conclusive predictor of which party they voted for: only about half of the respondents who preferred either Vajpayee or Gandhi reported voting for the party of their chosen candidate. Further, in 2004, Vajpayee led prime ministerial preference ratings by 16 percentage points over Gandhi, yet the BJP garnered 2 percent fewer votes than the Congress. In 2009, the CSDS’s post-poll data shows, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi—at 17 and 15 percent, respectively—were not much more popular that the BJP’s LK Advani, who was the preferred candidate of 14 percent of respondents. Yet the Congress won over 200 seats that year.

These examples are especially important in the wake of the commanding lead—the so-called “Modi wave”—enjoyed by the BJP’s current prime ministerial candidate in multiple recent polls. The CSDS’s polls found that Modi’s lead over Rahul Gandhi doubled from 9 to 18 percent between July 2013 and February 2014. The NDTV poll in March gave Modi a 15 percent lead. And Modi’s dominance does not diminish when using alternative measuring techniques. A poll conducted in January 2014 by the Pew Research Center asked respondents to individually rate leading prime ministerial candidates; 78 percent of respondents rated Modi favourably, compared to only 50 percent for Gandhi.

Yet as previous elections have revealed, such leads are not solid indicators of a BJP triumph. Beyond preferences for one top candidate or another, voters’ decisions also take into account a number of other concerns—longstanding party affiliations, a party’s local candidates and alliances, promised material incentives, and much else. Moreover, unlike in US-style presidential elections, India’s prime ministerial hopefuls do not directly compete against each other. The ratings of the prime ministerial candidates will only affect electoral behaviour if voters specifically prioritise their preference of prime minister over other factors. However, even in this supposedly personality-driven election, only 16 percent of voters in a CSDS poll in February rated a party’s choice of prime ministerial candidate as more important to them than its choice of local candidate and record in their constituencies.

But poll data may simply be poorly suited to capturing many of the important mechanisms by which prime ministerial candidacies can affect electoral behaviour. Instead of focusing so much attention on voters, it may be more helpful to look closely at political parties. How a party’s top brass perceives the person leading them can shape that party’s actions. For example, Vajpayee’s popularity in pre-election opinion polls in 2004 contributed significantly to his party’s decision to call early elections that year.

The choice of a frontman also matters to the party rank and file, the workers who are the connective tissues between candidates and ordinary voters. Modi’s popularity with the BJP cadre at party conclaves, and also in assembly election campaigns in 2012 and 2013, was crucial in vaulting him over other successful BJP chief ministers. This implies that despite being wary of Modi’s limitations as a manager of coalitions, BJP leaders recognise the electoral value of a “presidential” candidate who inspires grassroots workers. While it is true that local political conditions are more important to election outcomes than a top candidate’s popularity, the two may be indirectly connected through the canvassing efforts of especially motivated party workers, especially since, as CSDS data has consistently shown, half of all Indian voters are visited by at least one party worker during Lok Sabha campaigns.

There are also reasons to believe that the salience of parties’ prime ministerial choices in voters’ minds will intensify in future polls. Technological advances and economic growth may allow party leaders to increasingly circumvent party machinery when communicating with voters. Scholars of Western political systems have noted that, over the last four decades, many political parties have transitioned from sprawling, mass membership-based groups to sparer, more professionalised outfits, whose candidates can engage with potential voters more cheaply and directly. For example, Britain’s Labour Party shifted under Tony Blair from a mass membership organisation to a party whose message was tightly controlled by its top leadership, and developed policy through extensive consultation with pollsters rather than local party leaders.

Modi’s campaign strategy has shown signs of a similar centralisation of control. He has invested effort and money into crafting an image of presidential authority, with a campaign that trumpets self-reliance (tea vendor to chief executive) and physical vigour (the vikas purush with a chhappan-inch chest). These ideas have been disseminated via elaborate campaign rallies orchestrated by expensive public relations firms. As part of his effort to build a cult of personality, Modi has also willingly incurred the anger of elites within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar, as was recently illustrated when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat discouraged his cadre from chanting Modi’s name at rallies.

Modi’s ability to bypass his party may reflect broader shifts within the Indian electorate that could facilitate increasingly prime minister–oriented campaigns. Literacy has steadily increased, from 65 percent in 2001 to 74 percent in 2011. The percentage of Indians who never read the newspaper declined from 62 to 53 percent between 1999 and 2009, according to national election surveys by the CSDS. Mobile phone penetration is also expanding, providing new (if not always reliable) ways of communicating with voters.

Yet the pace of inclusive development has been slow, and levels of deprivation remain exceedingly high. Poverty and illiteracy hardly make voters unsophisticated, but they do render citizens less accessible to centralised, media-driven campaigns. They may also limit a voter’s political horizons. The political scientist Pradeep Chhibber found that in India, the poorer the voters are, the less likely they are to believe that the central government has an impact on their lives. By extension, poorer voters may pay less attention to a party’s choice of prime ministerial candidate than more privileged ones.

Over the long term, improvements in education and technological access will allow top-down campaigns to more easily reach the Indian electorate. This does not mean Indian elections will focus entirely on parties’ choices of prime ministerial candidates, but it could lead to the increased importance of those choices relative to other factors. However, given our sluggish record of human development, only equally incremental conclusions about shifts in the political landscape are defensible. For now, we must remain wary of constructing presidential yardsticks to measure the worth of prime ministerial aspirants.