Does terrorism influence voter decision?

Recent results of the state assembly elections led most observers to conclude that terrorism can hardly be an election issue and that it was wrong to expect that the Mumbai mayhem, coming close on the heels of the assembly elections, was most likely to benefit the BJP rather than the Congress. Some analysts pointed out that though voters are highly sensitive to terror incidents, the Mumbai carnage did not benefit the BJP because, in the voters’ eyes, both the major parties, the BJP and the Congress were equally guilty of being soft on terror while in power. However, the recent assembly election results evoked much interest in the media precisely because the BJP used the Mumbai attack as the campaign theme. Only a post-poll survey, usually carried out by Yogendra Yadav of Lokniti, can bring out the truth regarding whether Mumbai attack really influenced the voters’ decision. The Lokniti site does not carry any such findings so far.

Curiously, a study on Israelis’ voting behaviour and published in the recent American Political Science Review has provided strong empirical support for the hypothesis that the electorate is highly sensitive to terror fatalities. Notably, it presented solid evidence that terrorism causes an important increase in the support for the right bloc of political parties. This effect, according to the study, is of a significant political magnitude, to the extent that the occurrence of a terror attack before an election (or the lack thereof) can clearly determine the electoral outcome. The study simply multiplied the estimated effects of terrorism by each locality’s valid ballots and the actual distribution of terror attacks to calculate the number of voters that switched alliances between the two major contending blocs.

The authors of this study conclude that terror attacks affect the electorate, substantiating the hypothesis that democracies are especially susceptible to being targetted by terror organisations. In general, they say that implementation of counterterrorism policies is accompanied by an increase of the salience of terrorism, due partly to public statements made by policy makers. Their results implied that an increase of the salience of terrorism as an important issue dimension has a negative effect that may encourage terrorists to intensify their campaign. Policies that diminish the electorate’s sensitivity to terrorism, on the contrary, may also be very efficient in lowering its threat, the study reveals.

Granted that India is not Israel, is it not time to carry out similar empirical studies in India to determine the salience of terrorism as an election issue, whether counter-terrorism policies, with an emphasis on stringent measures, intensify terrorism-related incidents in the run-up to the elections? The Lokniti has been in the forefront in conducting issue-centric election surveys before and after the elections. This time, however, we have not so far seen similar studies in the media after the recent assembly elections, which is unfortunate. In this lecture at MIDS, Yogendra Yadav reflects on the state of survey research on politics in most of the world.

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  • Dear VV,

    From my “fly on the wall noticing”, it seems that the surveys were not commissioned because of a funding problem owing to the general downturn in the economy these days. Neither news channels nor marketing agencies were in a position to fund the surveys.

    Having said that, surveys with a purpose of determining voter allegiance and voter interest in particular issues are generally okay, but identifying them as a trend to determine poll winners is a different ballgame altogether. I for one feel that the fragmentation in the Indian polity overall (despite polarisation and formation of some form of a rudimentary two-pole Duvergian division in state elections as pointed out by Pradip Chibbher in his paper) has only made the pseudo-science of psephology even more like the obtuse predictions in the stock market.

    Getting to this topic, I suppose a post poll survey has indeed been done by Lokniti and they would be releasing information pretty soon (please watch the space in EPW). What is interesting though is that in the states that were supposed to render the greatest swing in party preferences owing to the issue of terrorism as a poll issue- Delhi & Rajasthan (both of whom were affected by debilitating bomb attacks in their capitals); the BJP which raised the highest pitch over the issues came a cropper.

    That suggests two things – a) Either the issue of terrorism didn't quite catch the imagination of the voter enough to affect his choice- which in turn was governed by issues of development and perception of the opposition
    b) The voter saw terrorism and the failure to curb a collective political problem and refused to buy the BJP's theory that it was the party that had the better capability to solve the issue. This was besides other important issues of the day- primarily got to do with development, grassroots work of the parties and of course, identity considerations in terms of caste etc.

    I think it is more of the latter for Delhi & Rajasthan. And hence this was my diagnosis

    — Srini

  • VV,

    Thanks for pointing to a detailed and fascinating study. Table 9 and its explanation on pg. 292-3 are probably most pertinent to us. One of the points they make is that the rightward shift occurs in right-leaning localities and those left-leaning localities heavily affected by the terrorist attack but in the remaining left-leaning ones, support for the right bloc of parties is decreased. Based on their test to assess the terror impact on the particular locality for it to shift one way or the other, they estimate the numbers for the urban areas most hit by terrorist attacks as being a quarter of the population residing in those localities tilting rightward with the rest residing in other localities increasing their support for the left-bloc of parties. If this analogy holds true for India, this may be one explanation for the recent victory of the Congress in Delhi.

    For other states such as Rajasthan where terrorist attacks have been limited to a small part of Jaipur, apart from the affected parts of the city, their overall impact would be expected to be positive in right-leaning constituencies and possibly negative in left-leaning ones (excluding any hit by the violence). The same would be true for the other large states. The outcome could therefore still go either way in these states. The effect of terrorism could probably be expected to have a greater effect as more and more areas get hit over time – in that case, some of these areas which may be left-leaning could be expected to turn to the right and those that are already right-leaning would be additionally reinforced.

    Finally, why the decrease in support for the right-bloc in less-affected/non-affected left-leaning localities? The authors say: "Terror fatalities elsewhere appear to reinforce preexisting views of the electorate leading residents of left-leaning localities to emphasize non-violent solutions to the conflict instead of an increase in security and deterrence." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

  • I am not sure with taking Israel as an example or a base to understand what is the underlying dynamic in voter behavior in India. For one, Israel is a highly "Spartanised" and militarised nation, with many of its citizens "subjected" to compulsory drafts and forever living in a "siege" state and mentality. It is too easy to distinguish between the various political parties on the 2D-spectrum as left/right; but it is anybody's guess that these parties share a common vision on Israel's positions on the important issues of the day- status of Palestine, unresolved questions on Jerusalem, settlements, Lebanon, offensive defense, targetted assassinations of "threats", relations with the United States, other Arabic states etc. I for one, having followed years of the Palestininian issue, don't quite see a major difference between the Likud, the Labour and the newly formed Kadima (heck, Ariel "the monster" Sharon was the founder of the "centrist" Kadima). It is therefore folly to impress the findings from Israel onto empirical work yet to be done in India. While Dilip's understanding of the conclusions are indeed pertinent (i.e. voter behaviour or preference is tuned to pre-existing beliefs that take root in taking positions on terror) and deserve research, the problem is that the research question is placed from the reverse end of the causative mechanism.. i.e. the conclusion from Israel is placed at the hypothesis end and that in my opinion is bad research methodology. Also from simple empirical information, one can notice that while indeed the BJP has lost the elections in Rajasthan and Delhi, it is not the case that the Congress incumbents here & there have retained their seats even in terror affected Jaipur and close by- which puts paid to the theory that "apriori left-leaning constituencies” vote on the issue of terrorism with a perception from the “left”. The example of “Jamia Nagar” in Okhla constituency is the best one in my opinion to state VV’s research question. This was the constituency which was supposed to have been riled up by the encounter killings at Batla House and was supposed to punish the Congress for its perceived insensitive handling. It turned out that the Congress came out as a facile winner in contrast, retaining the seat easily. Without post poll survey work, one can therefore surmise that the majority of the voters have rejected the thesis that the Batla House incidents and aftermath were a deliberate means of targetting the Muslim community or that the “encounter”, as claimed by some of our liberal anti-establishmentarian fraternity were fake.

  • If our politician stops vote and appeasment policy, terrorism in India can be tamed withing one month or less. Its our crooked ploitician which bake their vote bread and does not take terrorism as serious subject.Mumbai is glaring example. Inspite of Mumbai burinign for two days, did our plitician come togeter and released joint statement against Terrorist?