Lok Sabha 2024: How important are emotions to electoral politics?

In India’s general elections, scheduled for April-May 2024, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to repeat, if not outdo, its 2019 performance.

In those elections, the party and its allies garnered 45% of the vote share and won over 300 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. Few observers had anticipated this scale of victory, subsequently attributed to factors ranging from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s persona, the BJP’s superior party organisation and higher levels of financial endowments and its skillful blending of Hindutva, nationalism and social welfare.

In the 2024 elections, the BJP is aiming to cross the 400-seat mark, building on the fervour created by the January inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

As the elections approach, we can expect analysts to mull over the same questions: why do people vote the way they do? What motivates voters, in India and elsewhere, to vote overwhelmingly for some parties and ignore others? Are voters rational entities or emotional beings?

While we have a growing understanding, as well as scholarship on the role of emotions in the context of protest politics, social movements, and riots, we have been left with the erroneous assumption that emotions are unimportant to electoral politics.

Scholarly efforts at understanding Indian voters have often focused on gauging their response to issues – the economy, unemployment, welfare – or examining their identity politics through the lenses of caste, class, and religion.

The prestigious Lokniti National Election Studies, for example, comprehensively documents voters’ knowledge, awareness and perceptions of political developments in India that might impact their political behavior without sufficient attention to the feelings and passions engendered by electoral politics.

The neglect of emotions in electoral politics has led social scientists to ignore the importance of emotions in a key pillar of India’s democracy: elections. Meanwhile, the increasingly sophisticated analysis of elections could do more to integrate the study of emotion. Where does the studying of passions fit into the scholarship on routine electoral politics?



Narendra Modi in Telangana on March 17. Credit: Narendra Modi @narendramodi/X.

In Passionate Politics: Democracy, Development, and India’s 2019 General Elections, a recent book I edited, the authors and I highlight the emotions that underpinned the stupendous support Modi and his party enjoyed in that year’s elections, despite the obvious economic hardships people faced due to such disastrous economic policies as the demonetisation of high-currency notes less than three years prior.

Our focus on emotions in Passionate Politics does not deny voters their rationality. Emotions are not non-rational. By definition, they suppose events or situations that we appraise as harmful or beneficial.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that emotions support rationality and provide it with salience and goals. Furthermore, emotions are intrinsically social, embedded as they are in economic, cultural, and political processes.

Other scholars have begun to study emotions in South Asia and how they matter. Historian Margrit Pernau suggests that emotions matter at three different levels.

First, they impact the way humans experience the world around them. Second, they shape the process through which individuals (and social groups) endow their experiences with meaning and understand the world. Third, emotions provide the motivation to transform the interpretation of the world into acting in the world.

Such an understanding of emotions cautions against creating a dichotomy between emotional and rational analysis and between passion and reason. Indeed, just as the pursuit of rational interests is never emotionally neutral, passions often inhere their own rationalities.

In their insightful commentary on the politics of emotions in South Asia, anthropologists Amélie Blom and Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal distinguish between the representation of emotion, the ways in which it is experienced and its expression. Representation of emotions describes how people’s emotions are represented by others. The expression of emotions draws on verbal and non-verbal markers, including self-reporting of how respondents feel. The experience of emotions relates to the emotions people actually feel.

Scholars of India have turned their attention to the politics of emotions in the country, as historians and anthropologists offer us rich and granular perspectives. The landscape of Indian politics is dotted with moments when passions, feelings, and emotions were on full display.

Attention to passions has tended to focus on cataclysmic events such as India’s Partition and communal violence that has blemished India’s record as a democracy, mass movements such as the cow protection campaigns, agitations against the implementation of affirmative action, and collective protests against such atrocities on women, children, and members of oppressed social groups.

Indeed, much of this fascinating work focuses on social movements, community-formation, and collective action-including protests, riots and displays of outrage, hurt, and militancy. We have some excellent studies of emotions in the context of pride, humiliation, and nationalism.

Still, not enough has been done on the direct question of emotions in electoral politics, including how they apply to routine democratic practice. In its heyday as India’s dominant party, the Congress may well have benefitted from such passionate politics. In the first ever general elections after becoming a republic, held in 1951-’52, the Congress under first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru won 45% of the vote and 364 of 489 parliamentary seats.

In the second general election, the Congress improved its vote share (47%) as well as seat share (371). In 1971, Indira Gandhi commanded 43% of the vote and 352 seats out of 543, successfully translating a smaller vote share than Modi’s into larger seat-shares than he did in 2019.

In all three cases, passions among voters translated into their thumping support for the Congress. Sadly, we know very little of the emotions underpinning voters as they handed the Congress such crushing majorities.

This book is aimed at a contribution to understand the ways in which passions infuse the routine aspects of politics as election. The passionate politics described in the book are distinct from passions that are produced during such spectacular episodes as protests, riots, and social movements.

Instead, the aim has been to explicitly analyse the passions on display during, prior to, and following the elections, as well as contextualise them in hopes of making sense of the 2019 General Elections.

This focus on a single empirical case furthers a theoretical contribution on the study of passions in politics – that emotion is entwined with reason, thereby contributing to render untenable the false dichotomy that is often drawn between the emotional and the rational.

Efforts to engage with emotions in politics, as in our volume, build on the pathways innovated by anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee in her fascinating ethnography of India’s 2009 General Elections. Her book focuses on “ordinary Indians’ experience of elections, and on what elections mean to them.”

The “expressive acts of voting” discussed in that work emerge from their feelings and emotions toward issues and politicians that journalists, academics, and activists might find far less interesting than Modi or Hindu nationalism.

In order to better understand the passionate politics that underpin electoral democracy in India, we need further conversations between political scientists, economists, sociologists, and anthropologists scrutinising this vital, understudied element of our democratic practice.

Indrajit Roy is a Professor of Global Development Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of York, and co-editor of Cambridge Companion to Indian Politics and Society (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, 2024).

He edited Passionate Politics: Democracy, Development and India’s 2019 General Elections (Manchester University Press, 2023), which drew on the “India Tomorrow” podcast he curated for The Conversation on the eve of the 2019 General Elections. His most recent book Audacious Hope: An Archive of How Democracy is Being Saved in India was launched last month at the Jaipur Literature Festival and is now available for order.



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