Across the world, the pandemic has deepened partisan attitudes and made an already difficult governance crisis worse. In highly polarised societies, the problem has been so acute that it has been difficult to find consensus even on issues such as wearing a face mask. But how does the situation fare in India, a society which is considered traditionally to have far less rigid party identification than western democracies?
Data from the latest round of YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey suggests that at least among urban netizens, party identification might be informing views on the pandemic and its management quite strongly. 44% of the respondents said they identify with the BJP, 12% with the Congress. The online survey, which covered 10,285 respondents across 203 cities in the June-July period shows that people who identify with the BJP are nearly 10 percentage points more likely to blame people’s lax covid compliance for the second wave. Congress supporters are much more likely to fault the Modi government for the disaster.
The survey was conducted jointly by the Indian arm of the global market research firm YouGov, Mint, and the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Roughly half the respondents were millennials (25-40), the rest were pre-millennials (40+) or post-millennials (aged 18-24). Views on the government’s handling of the pandemic reflects partisan divide, with Congress supporters much more likely to rate the government’s performance as poor.
The partisan divide in views would have been easy to dismiss if this were a result of differing personal experiences. However, the data does not suggest any impact of personal experiences on respondents’ political judgements. Regardless of whether or not they saw people in their immediate vicinity face distress in getting medical oxygen or timely treatment, respondents’ assessment of the government remained unchanged. Even losing a family member to covid does not make one more critical of the government’s performance. We are unable to find any significant divergence in views using the metrics of age, class, and educational attainments. Only when the party affiliation filter is applied, do we find a stark divergence in such assessments.
Most political scientists view party identification in India as very fluid. This opinion gets a fillip with popular politicians changing parties quite often. However, the evidence from the survey suggests that party loyalties may matter more than anticipated earlier. At least among India’s urban middle class, political partisanship appears to be colouring views on governance significantly.
India’s digital natives have seen a substantial rise in media penetration over the years, and this is bound to influence political views, especially if one consumes news laced with partisan bias. Over the past few years, there has been growing concern over biased coverage of news, especially among influential TV channels, which are seen as being sympathetic to the ruling regime. This may perhaps explain why respondents with a higher media usage score tend to have much more favourable views of the government than those who consume less news. Media usage here refers to the combined consumption of all forms of media, including new media.
Even among Congress supporters, those with higher media usage tend to have a more favourable view of the government. While party affiliations may be the most important determinant of how people assess government performance, media consumption may also be playing an important role in shaping such assessments, the evidence suggests.
While the survey data points to significant fault lines in views around the pandemic, it also shows that the divide is not yet so deep as to affect compliance with covid norms. Unlike what we see in several polarized democracies, in India, a majority of respondents across the political divide were willing to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.
However, it is worth noting that BJP-leaning respondents are more likely to say that they will maintain such norms compared to the average. Also, as the first part of this series pointed out, attitudes towards vaccines do seem to be shaped by partisan affiliations.
Overall, the data suggests a nuanced picture of partisan divide among the urban middle class. While the levels of polarization are still lower than in several western democracies, a sharp divide on policy and political affairs appears to be emerging. Whether our political class smoothens this divide or sharpens its edges will ultimately determine the trajectory of Indian democracy.
Rahul Verma and Ankita Barthwal are researchers at CPR.
This is the concluding part of a four-part data journalism series on the covid experiences of India’s digital natives. The first part looked at the vaccination attitudes and experiences of different social groups, the second part examined the scale of the covid disaster, and the third part looked at how the second wave has impacted government approval. This YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey is the sixth of a series of bi-annual surveys aimed at examining the aspirations, anxieties, and attitudes of India’s digital natives.
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