Political commentators are surprised by the unwavering popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite the poor performance of the economy and the hateful narrative propagated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As the Modi government’s term comes to an end, there is mounting evidence that the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-II saw higher growth, even as it battled the global financial crisis. In the last five years, lack of jobs and the agrarian crisis have become more acute. By the standard narrative of “it’s the economy, stupid", anti-incumbency should have set in and the BJP should have been facing a big loss. Yet, most reports suggest that the BJP is the clear front-runner, and Modi seems to have lost none of his popularity.

Typically, experts have three explanations for this trend. First, Modi is a political unicorn who defies the standard link between economic and political performance. The second is the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. Despite his poor performance and voters’ dashed expectations, Modi is the only viable choice, as he is the least problematic among a long list of bad suitors. And third, that it was never about the economy. India was always more complex socially; and previously under-represented groups who care for little other than the dominance of the Hindu-upper-caste-male-order finally have their representation now. We have all heard variations of these three themes to explain Modi’s popularity.

But there is a fourth possible explanation. That Indian voters are truly disappointed and will not support Modi and the BJP in the election, but when asked, they lie about their true preferences. This idea of preference falsification was developed by economist Timur Kuran, who argues that because of group pressure, the preferences people express in public can often differ from those they hold privately.

Kuran used it to explain the perceived stability of the communist regimes that suddenly collapsed. Under communism, because of the brute force of the state and social surveillance, everyone had praise for the regime and its leaders despite mass discontent. Social pressure created a situation where individuals could not express their true preferences in public.

But as public opposition to communism started to rise, people’s public preferences changed quickly and came closer to their private preferences. In the 1990s, this caused the sudden fall of several seemingly strong and stable communist regimes.

Another example is the case of Harvey Weinstein, whose behaviour towards women in Hollywood was apparently no secret. Yet, for two decades, no one came forward—in fear of retribution, the loss of a job or reputation or both. All it took was for one or two women to speak up for others to gain the confidence to publicly reveal their private preferences.

In the Indian electoral context, the strong public support for Modi and praise for his nationalism, anti-corruption, Hindutva, treatment of minorities, etc., forms the dominant social narrative. Individuals have a private preference, either for or against Modi, on any of those issues. They have three choices: Option 1 is to publicly declare their private preference for Modi. Option 2—publicly declare their private preference against Modi. And Option 3 is to publicly mask their private preference against Modi by lying or staying silent and tacitly agreeing with the dominant narrative.

In India, society and social media are so strongly in favour of the government of the day that expressions of doubt or discontent risks abuse by trolls and calls to “go to Pakistan". In the run-up to polling, that trend has got stronger: “Those against Modi are against India" or “anti-Modi is anti-national". Depending on one’s gender, caste and religion, one may encounter physical violence for expressing disagreement.

In this climate—which is dominated by support for the prime minister and the BJP—those whose private preferences are aligned with the pro-Modi narrative face no costs and only benefit from publicly declaring their private preference. These individuals will choose Option 1, and, with this choice, strengthen the dominant narrative. But, since challenging the dominant narrative is costly, there is only a small group, usually comprising journalists, political commentators, activists, etc., whose reputations are linked to their opinions, who choose Option 2, and make their private preference against Modi public. For most others, there seems to be little benefit and significant costs in openly disagreeing with the dominant social narrative, even if their private preferences are not aligned with it. Dalits, minorities and women, who face different incentives, are especially likely to choose Option 3, and explicitly or tacitly agree with the dominant narrative even if their private beliefs are different.

The trouble is that Options 1 and 3 are indistinguishable. Thankfully, preference falsification doesn’t last too long in democratic settings because of the secret ballot. What is not captured by surveys, exit polls, and “mood" assessments of the election is revealed easily through the secret ballot.

It is wholly possible that Modi and the BJP are truly popular despite the poor economic performance. But it is also possible that economic outcomes matter, and there are large numbers publicly disguising their private preference against the government, because of the current political climate. If the latter is true, Modi and the BJP could be in for a rude shock on 23 May.

Shruthi Rajagopalan is assistant professor of economics, Purchase College, State University of New York.

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