Shashi Tharoor, an MP of India’s Congress Party, asked a pertinent question the other day: wasn’t it right for Congress and the rest of the Indian opposition to assume people would vote in their own economic interest?
Mr Tharoor meant Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s controversial economic decisions – demonetisation, for instance, when nearly 90 per cent of all high-value currency notes were knocked out of circulation overnight. This meant lots of small vendors, labourers, rickshaw-pullers and suchlike could no longer be paid.
Mr Tharoor also meant Mr Modi’s inability to boost jobs creation in India and his failure to tackle farmers’ distress.
Unsurprisingly, India’s Congress Party and much of the opposition thought voters would rebuke Mr Modi. Part of the censure would have been a reduced margin of victory.
It didn’t happen. Voters didn’t seem to care about the economy. Instead, as Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently put it, the sputtering economy didn’t sink — or even shrink — the BJP’s electoral prospects. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance clinched a whopping 352 seats, out of 543, in the lower house of parliament, improving on its 2014 tally of 336 seats.
As Mr Vaishnav points out, a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies showed “that the salience of economic issues actually declined as the campaign went on.” Indians seem to have focussed on Mr Modi’s key touted characteristics – leadership, decisiveness and muscularity – and cared little about issues of ethics, secular morality and so on. It really wasn’t the economy.
It seems to have been a determination to advance one’s own cause as India’s largest faith group.