A common account given by journalists and scholars who travelled far and wide in West Bengal during the elections was about corruption and cut money. So what happened then that the ruling party still comfortably won the election? Was corruption not an issue? Or is it the case that it was an issue but not on the scale at which was being reported, and that other more bread and butter issues mattered far more? The post-poll data indicate that the case is the latter.
When we asked voters in the survey what the single most important issue had been for them while voting, corruption figured way down in the list of issues at the seventh spot — only 2% of our 4,200+ respondents said it had been a consideration for them while deciding whom to vote for (Table 1). What mattered most instead to voters was the larger issue of development. One-third (33%) said development or the desire for more of it is what determined their vote.
Data further indicate that those who voted on the basis of development and related issues such as government performance, water and electricity, roads and welfare schemes voted overwhelmingly for the Trinamool Congress. The BJP secured most of the votes of those for whom unemployment, poriborton and corruption were issues. The problem for the BJP, however, was that there were not enough people basing their vote on these issues.
We must stress here that it is not that corruption was not a concern for voters. It was. It is just that it was not a major one. Most voters opened up about the issue only when we asked them specifically about it. For instance, on being asked about how corrupt the Trinamool government was in their opinion, one-fourth (23%) described it as being very corrupt, one-third (33%) as somewhat corrupt and another one-fourth (26%) as not at all corrupt with the rest being ambivalent (Table 2). Similarly, a little over half (51%) agreed with the statement that there was a lot of corruption in the Trinamool as a party.
But even with respect to these findings there are two caveats that need to be added — one that these figures were not unprecedented in any way and were in fact quite similar to the figures received on the same questions asked in the 2016 and 2011 surveys with respect to the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M). Secondly, even though many voters held the Trinamool to be corrupt, when we look at how they actually ended up voting, we find that their vote did not overwhelmingly fall in the lap of the BJP (Table 2). On the other hand many of those who viewed the Trinamool as being moderately corrupt or remained ambivalent on the questions, voted mostly for the Trinamool. It was therefore a matter of degrees and this is where journalistic ground reports seem to have got it wrong.
(The author is a Research Associate at Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi.)