In its last full budget ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had sops for almost every interest group in the country. Only the middle class seemed to have been left out: rather than tax cuts or sops, it has had to contend with higher cesses. An analysis of class-wise voting trends suggests that Modi and his party can’t afford to take the support of the middle class for granted.
Data from past election studies conducted by the Lokniti research program at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that the middle and upper middle classes form the core support base of the party, especially in urban India.
The CSDS classification of middle class is based on a composite index that takes into account income levels, locality of residence, occupation, and ownership of household assets such as car/motorcycles/refrigerator, etc. In the last National Election Study (NES) conducted in 2014, 37% and 13% of urban respondents were categorized as middle class and upper middle class (or rich) respectively.
As the chart shows, while the BJP has usually performed better than the Congress among the urban middle and upper middle class, the level of support is far from stable. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, middle-class support for the BJP declined considerably, contributing to the party’s unexpected electoral defeat. In the 2009 elections, support for the BJP dipped further among the middle and upper middle classes, and the Congress managed to take a lead even among the upper middle class.
Extreme dissatisfaction with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government helped the BJP win back the support of the middle class in 2014. The personal appeal of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Narendra Modi, also helped. Twenty-eight per cent of BJP voters said they would have voted differently if Narendra Modi had not been the prime ministerial candidate in 2014. Among the middle class, this figure was higher still.
While the latest survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in January ahead of the budget did not find overt signs of discontentment among the middle and upper middle classes, the extent of support for the government seems to have declined compared to mid-2017.
To be sure, satisfaction with the overall performance of the Modi government was relatively higher among the upper middle class (61%) and the middle class (56%) compared to the average even in the latest survey.
However, these levels of support are much lower than in mid-2017, when roughly two-thirds of respondents from these two categories had expressed satisfaction with the performance of the government.
It is worth noting that while urban middle class voters continue to be more optimistic about their economic well-being compared to others, they share similar concerns as others about the government’s ability to maintain communal harmony.
This scepticism over the BJP’s social agenda could turn away a section of voters who accord primacy to social issues.
The BJP may be hoping that as in the recent Gujarat elections, anger on specific issues may not translate into a big anti-incumbency wave. But merely containing such anger may not be enough for the party in the Lok Sabha elections. Unless it is able to enthuse its core urban support base to come out in support of the party in large numbers on voting day, repeating the performance of 2014 will not be possible for the party.
Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, New Delhi, and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS.