(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Opinion | General elections as an exercise in all-out psychological warfare

Our national polls are no longer a referendum on a political party’s past performance or the promise it holds for the future

Tomorrow is the culmination of what is possibly one of the largest persuasion exercises in the world. Often it is said that Indian elections are all about roti (food), kapda (clothing) and makaan (housing): What appeals most to the Indian voter is the message of development. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, too, tends to reinforce the importance of basic physiological needs. It is believed that elections are an occasion to do a rational analysis of the ruling party’s performance in bringing in more development to the country. But general election 2019 proved that playing around with voters’ deepest fears and implicit biases are more important than taking care of even their basic physiological needs—a new layer has been added to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Evolutionarily, fear of the outsider is inbuilt in everyone’s brain. Even a hint of a possible attack from an outsider consolidates the in-group. Any differences or difficulties that exist in the in-group are forgotten as soon as news of an external attack spreads within the group. Those from the in-group who are best equipped to take on the outside attack will automatically be anointed as its leaders. This evolutionary truth was clearly on display during this general election.

In India, more than 150,000 people are killed each year in traffic accidents. That’s about 400 fatalities every day. These deaths do not generate any strong emotions around the country. But when 30 of our brave paramilitary men were killed by a terrorist attack on a highway in Kashmir, there was an avalanche of emotions. The human brain perceives deaths that occur as a result of an attack by an outsider very differently from those that happen on account of actions taken by in-group players. Many might not be bothered when no action is taken to tackle problems caused by the in-group members themselves. But providing an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth response for an attack by an out-group is an evolutionarily desirable action tendency.

News of the Indian Air Force destroying the training school of a terrorist group in enemy territory created a significant impact on this general election. This act was in accordance with the evolutionary image of what a strong leader should be—one who takes on the enemy, in his den. For a vast majority of voters, rational calculations of how many terrorists were killed in the attack, the financial cost of such an attack, etc., did not matter. What mattered most was that the country did not take an attack from the out-group lying down.

For many voters, the Air Force’s act of destroying the training school of a terrorist group was far more impactful than news about a few thousand new schools being opened or hundreds of thousands of girl students not dropping out of school in one’s own country.

Caste and religion create wide chasms in Indian society and have a deep-rooted role in building one’s identity. Several pre-poll alliances and selection of candidates in most constituencies were strongly influenced by existing caste and religious equations. For example, in Kerala, the most literate state in the country, the main topic for discussion in this election was not the management of the floods that ravaged the state, but the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple, an issue with clear religious and caste connotations. In the rest of the country, too, all political parties tried to take advantage of the caste and religious identity of voters. It has been proven yet again this year that issues involving caste and religion generate strong emotions among voters, and can influence their voting behaviour much more than rational issues such as development and growth.

Corporate marketers tend to make a regular mistake. They assume that the common man understands the significance of decimal points and percentages. On the other hand, an Indian politician knows that the common man is numerically illiterate. So, smart politicians do not speak the language of 6.88% or 7% growth rate. They know that the common man who does not understand the significance of a dot or a comma between numbers might believe that 6.88 is the same as 6,88. If so, most common men might believe that 6.88% is bigger than 7%. So, political leaders, instead of speaking to voters in terms of percentages and decimal points, use the power of images to build a rapport with them.

One of the most powerful uses of images in electoral politics was during the US presidential elections. The image of Al Gore giving a lip-to-lip kiss to his wife at the end of his democratic convention speech and its impact on his election campaign has been well explained in the book, Persuasion In Society, by Herbert W. Simons. So far, the most common image used by Indian politicians has been their smiling photographs with folded hands. But in this general election, the images used were far more sophisticated than before. The unusual images of the Prime Minister in Kedarnath and Badrinath temples are no doubt the result of a clearly thought-out persuasion strategy.

This general election also saw how images have been used to discredit one’s opponents. Morphed images were used, mostly on social media, to send false messages about one’s opponents and effectively discredit them. Fake images do have the power to impact the perceptions of voters. Most political parties have used this dubious strategy during this election.

The general election of 2019 is an indication that elections are no longer a referendum on a political party’s past performance or future promise of the same. Elections have turned out to be full-fledged psychological warfare, with evolutionary fears and various implicit biases as its deadly weapons.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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