Class matters- more than what we care to notice or admit

One day I wish to write an article to persuade my Marxist friends to take class analysis seriously. This joke, that I often crack at the expense of my left and ex-left friends, points to something deeper. Political analysts in India have swung like a pendulum, from the days when under Marxist influence they detected class struggle in every cock flight to these days when they see nothing except caste. The joke also conceals guilt: people like me may have contributed to this degeneration by presenting data on caste and voting for the first time on television.

Karnataka election has reminded me of this old joke. It has also offered me an opportunity to present a glimpse of what I wanted to say in the article that I never wrote. Class matters. It matters more than what we care to notice or admit.

It began with my meeting with Eedina, a group of media activists who set out to create an alternative, peoples’ media in Kannada. They have carried out a very large pre-poll survey across Karnataka. Now I have done and seen far too many election surveys to get excited about one more survey. What interested me in this exercise by Eedina was its public character. Instead of hiring paid professionals of a polling agency (there are just too many of them, mostly sub-standard, these days), they engaged nearly 1000 citizen journalists that they have trained. These volunteers went to 204 out of 224 constituencies in the state and carried out face-to-face interviews (not the cheap telephonic interview that have become common these days) of 41,169 respondents. Their sampling was fairly rigorous (random selection of booths and random selection of respondents from the voters list of the sampled booth). The sample profile is a fair representation of the demographic profile of Karnataka. So the survey researcher in me had good reasons to take their findings seriously. [Disclosure: I gave some technical advise in the survey design and was given access to its data files.]

For the record, the Eedina survey predicts a Congress wave in Karnataka election. Unlike other surveys that show an edge for the Congress in a hung assembly, Eedina survey projects a comfortable majority of 132-140 seats for the Congress in the 224-member state assembly, its best tally in the last three decades. The ruling BJP is expected to shrink to just 57-65 seats and the ‘kingmaker’ hopeful JDS to just 19-25 seats. This projection is based on the survey estimate of a whopping 10 percentage points gap in vote share: 43% for Congress (up 5% from 2018), 33% for the BJP (down 3%) and 16% for the JDS (down 2%).

While I have no reason to disbelieve their election projection – its true to their data – that is not what interests me here. I was excited because this survey had asked questions about economic background of the respondents and thus allowed to understand the relationship between voting and class. Unfortunately, most pollsters (with the exception of CSDS-Lokniti team that continues to be the gold standard of political survey research) have stopped even recording the class background. Eedina survey enables us to ask the question: does economic class determine voting?

Poor and rich within every caste vote differently, as per the broader class voting lines. The political force that aligns with and activate the class division can rewrite the future of Indian politics.

The answer is a resounding yes. Just look at patterns of voting for some occupational categories (occupation of the main earner of the family of the respondent) showed a clear pattern. To get a fuller picture, I combined the information on occupation with family’s assets (4 wheeler, 2 wheeler, fridge/AC and smart phones) to create a full class profile from upper class to the very poor. When I cross-tabulated it with voting intention, the results were stunning. As you go down the class rung, every step leads to an increase in the vote for the Congress. BJP’s profile is obverse: the richer the voter, the higher the vote share for the BJP. The JDS has a similar but milder correlation.

Class (share in population) INC vote share (%) BJP vote share (%) JDS vote share (%)
Upper class (4%)  29  41  20
Middle class (10%)  37  38  18
Lower Middle (26%)  39  36  18
Poor class (37%)  46  32  15
Very poor (23%)  48  28  15

Source: Eedina pre-poll survey, Karnataka.

Note: Respondents’ class was determined by considering the occupation of the main earner of the family, their income bracket and some key assets.

So, if you put the Congress and the BJP vote share on a line graph [please make line graph with votes on Y axis and class categories on X axis, from very poor to upper], this would make for a textbook illustration of class based voting. The BJP enjoys a 12-point lead over the Congress among the upper class, which shrinks to 1 point among the middle class. The position flips as we go downwards: Congress has a 3-point lead among the lower middle class, which expands to 14 points among the poor and 20-point lead among the very poor. What tilts the balance decisively for the Congress is of course the relative size of these classes. The top three classes, where the BJP can trump or match the Congress account for 40 per cent population, while the bottom two categories where Congress has a massive lead add up to 60 per cent of the population.

What about caste? Yes, caste does matter a lot. Indeed caste is still the first context which shapes peoples’ voting pre-disposition. The BJP dominates the Congress among the upper castes (58% to 25%) and Lingayats (53% to 28%), while the JDS is still the preferred party among the Vokaliggas (38% compared to 31% for Congress and 24% for BJP). And the Congress dominates the lower two-thirds of the caste spectrum with over 50% vote share among the SC, ST and Kurubas and over 70% among Muslims.

Yet notice three things before you subscribe to the caste vote bank thesis. One, the caste consolidation for a political party is not as high as it is often believed. Two, caste alignment is an initial pre-disposition, that does not explain why voters change their mind from one election to the next. For instance, if the Congress vote share has gone up this time in every caste group, this cannot be explained by caste. Third, and more germane here, class operates within every caste. Poor and rich within every caste vote differently, as per the broader class voting lines.

Let me illustrate. While upper castes generally prefer BJP over the Congress, the lead changes dramatically across different classes of upper caste voters. The BJP has a 14-point lead (47% compared to 34% for Congress) among the very poor upper caste voters, the lead grows exponentially to touch 50 points (64% for BJP and 15% for Congress) among the upper class, upper caste voters. Similarly, Congress vote share of Lingayats goes up from 24 % among upper class to 32% among the very poor. The Congress lead over the BJP shrinks from 31 % points among the very poor SC to just 4% among the upper class SC voters. The BJP’s share of votes among the upper class Muslims is as high as 22%.

Karnataka assembly election is more about the rich-poor divide than anything else that you hear. While there is a lot of media noise about the last minute scrapping of Muslim quota and the sub-division of SC reservations or the Lingayat anger with the BJP, this may not be where the real action is. It may not surprise you then that the four “guarantees” that the Congress has offered to the voters (honorarium to women head, 200 units of free electricity, 10 kg free rice and unemployment allowance to educated youth) are all focused on the poor and the very poor.

I suspect Karnataka is not an exception in this respect. While politicians and political analysts all keep focused on the communal polarisation and the caste cleavages, a deeper class divide is silently reconfiguring the Indian electorate. The political force that aligns with and activate the class division can rewrite the future of Indian politics.

[Data analysis for this article was done by Himanshu Bhattacharya]