How Ideology Shapes Indian Politics

by Nicholas Haas & Rajeshwari Majumdar, Hindustani Times, December 25, 2023

The lack of attention to political ideology contrasts strongly with the recent ubiquity of ideological debates in Indian politics

In the 2014 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) notched a historic victory, becoming the first party to win an outright majority in the Lok Sabha since 1984 and only the second party ever to achieve that distinction after the Indian National Congress (INC). In 2019, the BJP repeated this feat, ushering in pronouncements that India was witnessing the dawn of a “fourth party system”. As next spring’s 2024 polls loom, debates continue about what drives the BJP’s success, and what, if anything, those factors say about the political landscape in the coming general elections.

A picture of BJP and Congress party flags.

A picture of BJP and Congress party flags.

Historically, scholarly responses to such questions make little mention of political ideology. Rather, the dominant political science discourse has long characterised India as a “patronage democracy” where political behaviour is best understood through the lenses of clientelism and identity-based parochialism. According to these accounts, politicians and their supporters primarily engage in a quid pro quo exchange of votes for expected material benefits; policy is viewed as important only insofar as it alters the perceived likelihood that an individual — or their community — will receive more government resources.

The lack of attention to political ideology contrasts strongly with the recent ubiquity of ideological debates in Indian politics. For instance, the BJP has emphasised and sought to establish ownership over cultural issues, contrasting its Hindu nationalist positions with the so-called “secular” Opposition’s policies. The BJP’s 2014 election campaign was defined by the idea of radical change. It promised potential voters an efficient, corruption-free government that would deliver ambitious development projects, generate employment opportunities, strengthen India’s position in the world through a more aggressive national security and foreign policy, and — importantly — pave the way for India’s “true Hindu identity” to flourish.

Since 2014, the BJP has further demonstrated that its ideological priorities are more than just talk. Especially in the post-2019 era, the BJP has enacted several policies in service of its Hindu nationalist agenda, including the nullification of Article 370 governing the status of Jammu & Kashmir, the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and the introduction of several statutes against religious conversions (termed “love jihad” laws by Hindutva leaders) in some states the party governs.

The BJP’s behaviour in power suggests that scholars have too quickly dismissed the role of ideology in Indian politics and that, on the contrary, the careful study of political ideology can inform understandings of the political landscape in India. Inspired by recent work pushing back against traditional narratives and arguing that ideology matters more across a wider range of contexts than previously acknowledged, this article describes a recent study scrutinising the role of political ideology in the country today.

Measuring political ideology in India

To test the salience of ideology in contemporary Indian politics, we conducted a comprehensive online study in 2022. Our sample of 2,393 Indian respondents was recruited from market research company Cint’s online panel and was representative of the nation on age and gender. To ensure diversity in geography, demographics, and state-level political configurations, we collected data on residents in 12 of India’s largest cities, across all major regions. Data was collected from August to September 2022. Although not reported here, a 2023 survey with a representative sample of respondents and an analysis of representative National Election Studies data (collected by Lokniti-CSDS) from three points in time (2009, 2014, and 2019) confirmed our survey findings.

To investigate ideology in India, the first task is to identify the key issue areas that divide citizens. Divides in Indian society occur along different fault lines than those in high-income, western countries. Studies of industrialised democracies have largely conceptualised ideology along a unidimensional scale ranging from left/liberal (favouring social change and the redistribution of wealth) to right/conservative (favouring social stability and the free market). This paradigmatic conceptualisation lends itself to a relatively straightforward measurement of political ideology in many western democracies, wherein individuals place themselves on a scale ranging from very left/liberal to very right/conservative.

However, the Indian context would likely render such a conceptualisation ineffective. The left-right scale found in many long-standing democracies does not have a ready-made analogue for India and, hence, many Indian survey respondents might find it difficult to place themselves along a conventional left-right spectrum. On the contrary, a different set of issues defines the ideological space in India. There are numerous explanations for these differences; notably, political scientists Pradeep K. Chhibber and Rahul Verma reason that the set of issues characterising the creation of the modern Indian nation-State differ from those in Western Europe (where class-based divisions were dominant). Salient topics may differ in countries such as India that are diverse, multi-ethnic polities. Drawing on this foundational work and more recent political developments, our study identifies three main issue areas around which contemporary Indian political ideology revolves: (1) the role of the State in driving economic and social policy; (2) the role of the State in addressing historical inequalities; and (3) Hindu nationalism.
While the first two issue areas were derived largely from the work of Chhibber and Verma, the third was sourced from our understanding of Indian politics today as being largely driven by the BJP, which has firmly staked out its position on the role of religion in society. Finally, to investigate whether ideology in India has different drivers than in Western contexts, the survey probed issues that are unlikely to characterise the ideological space in India but are often utilised in studies of political ideology in countries such as the US, namely, questions on abortion and military spending.

For each issue, the survey asked respondents the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with an opinion statement associated with that issue. For example, on the issue of the State’s role in poverty alleviation, the survey presented respondents with the following statement: “The government should have special schemes to uplift the poor and disadvantaged.” Similarly, regarding the state’s role in addressing historical inequalities across caste groups, the survey elicited reactions to the statement: “There should be reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in schools and universities.”

Taking the aggregate set of responses to several such issue statements, we employed ideal point estimation to consider whether individuals’ issue preferences could be explained by an underlying, latent structure, or “ideology,” and, if so, around which issues ideology was organised and how much explanatory power it possessed. As part of this exercise, we estimated an individual’s relative location, or “ideal point”, in this ideological space, allowing for an examination of how individuals’ ideologies correlate with their views and behaviours.

Political ideology matters in India

Our findings strongly indicate that political ideology matters in India. First, a single ideological dimension can explain a substantial proportion of the variation in individuals’ views on issues relating to Hindu nationalism, State intervention, and minority rights. Second, individuals’ estimated ideologies along this single dimension are predictive of their stated partisan affiliations and reported political behaviours in ways that map onto public understandings.

To demonstrate the close association between ideology and partisanship in the data, figure 1 displays average ideal point estimates based on individuals’ stated partisan affiliations (elicited earlier in the survey). Individuals identifying with parties generally understood to be right-wing, notably the BJP and Shiv Sena, have, on average, ideal points on the opposite end of the spectrum from those who identify with left-wing parties, such as the Communist Party of India. Individuals identifying with parties generally believed to be in the centre or centre-left of Indian politics consistently fall in the middle of the ideological spectrum as understood through the ideal point estimates. There is a similarly strong association between the strength of an individual’s ideology and their reported level of political engagement. Taken together, these results show that individuals’ views on the identified issue areas map cleanly onto their preferred political parties and reported real-world political behaviour.

In India’s one-party-dominant system, views on the BJP and the issues over which it has long sought to establish ownership (cultural debates over Hindu nationalism) are especially likely to predict an individual’s ideological placement. To probe differences across issue areas, individuals’ latent ideologies were estimated separately for cultural and non cultural nationalist issues and later standardised for comparison. Earlier in the survey, individuals were asked to describe their levels of support for both the BJP and the Congress. A third finding underlines the BJP’s dominance on the national scene: as figure 2 demonstrates, feelings toward the BJP (left panel), but not the Congress (right panel), are strongly correlated with an individual’s ideological placement.

Fourth, it is precisely around cultural, Hindu nationalist issues that feelings toward the BJP are most predictive of ideological placement (top left panel) while non-cultural issues are least predictive (bottom left panel) (figure 3). In a related set of analyses, an endorsement from a BJP politician significantly affected respondents’ opinions about cultural issues, but not economic issues; that is, individuals appear to take the BJP’s position into account when evaluating statements promoting Hindu nationalism but not as much when evaluating statements related to economic policy. Further, figure 3 shows that feelings toward the Congress are not predictive of ideology measured either on cultural (top right panel) or non cultural (bottom right panel) issues.

Collectively, these findings indicate that ideology matters in the Indian context and that the BJP — and issues it emphasises — have an outsized role in determining ideological structure. How do these findings compare to previous explanations of political behaviour in India and around the world? Additional analyses suggest that the relationships between ideology and political behaviour detailed above hold even when accounting for variables capturing traditional explanations of politics in India: namely, individuals’ caste and religion and views on patronage politics. Further, the issues commonly used to capture ideological divides in the West, as well as the aforementioned standard question asking individuals to place themselves on a unidimensional left-right scale, do not appear to effectively encapsulate ideological cleavages in the Indian context. These results attest to the explanatory power of political ideology in India while also suggesting that it is structured differently than in other regions.

Assessing implications for India in 2024 and beyond

How might these findings shape a wider understanding of national political dynamics? First, it would be folly to overlook the central role that political ideology plays in everyday politics. Individuals’ views on State intervention, minority rights, and especially Hindu nationalism hold significant relevance for explaining their political behaviour and potentially their votes. Second, these findings point toward the possible crystallisation of a one-party-dominant system: While feelings toward the BJP are highly predictive of ideology, feelings toward the Congress bear comparatively little relevance. Additional analyses suggest that individuals who identify with no political party or do not report voting more likely have left-wing ideologies. This means that the political left in general, and the Congress in particular, has not been sufficiently successful in delineating its issue positions or establishing ownership over salient political topics.

India has long been thought to lack the urban middle class, State capacity, and established party systems to promote policy-driven politics. The results indicate, to the contrary, that ideology matters in contexts such as India, but that the issues around which it is structured — as well as individuals’ perceptions of where they stand in relation to it — may differ from those that are prevalent elsewhere. In short, ideas do matter in Indian politics; scholars and policymakers have just been looking in the wrong place.

In the months ahead, the Carnegie-HT “India Elects 2024” series will analyse various dimensions of India’s upcoming election battle — including the role of foreign policy, the electoral impact of welfare schemes, and how technology has reshaped campaigning.

Nicholas Haas is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University. Rajeshwari Majumdar is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at New York University.

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