Panel Abstract

The Evolution of Fear: A Trend Analysis of Elections and Public Opinion in a Maoist-affected Region in India

Although a long line of research has examined public opinion in the context of elections in normally functioning democracies, less is known about voter motivations in post-civil war elections, and even less is known about how these motivations change over time. This paper addresses both these questions using original survey data from the state of West Bengal in eastern India.

Between 2005 and 2011, the three southwestern districts of West Bengal, Purulia, Bankura, and Paschim Medinipur – collectively known as Junglemahal – experienced a protracted spell of Maoist insurgency. Although Maoist violence in the area dipped after 2011, sporadic ‘Maoist incidents’ continued till 2014. No acts of Maoist violence have been reported since 2014.

The rise and fall of the Maoist insurgency in West Bengal occurred as a historical political transition was ongoing in the background wherein the Left Front (LF), a coalition of left-of-center parties that had governed the state uninterrupted since 1975, was deposed from power in the 2011 State Assembly Election by the populist Trinamool Congress (TMC), led by Mamata Banerjee. One of the key reasons for the LF’s loss of legitimacy was its inability to control the Junglemahal insurgency. Upon assuming the office of Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee made peace in Junglemahal her top priority. While the resumption of public services, that had been in a state of dysfunction since the onset of the insurgency, was an important aspect of her ‘Junglemahal package’ for recovery, this was complemented with the iron fist in equal measure (Ray & Dutta, 2018). Several ex-Maoists were incorporated into the TMC’s rank-and-file and entrusted with ‘managing’ local stability. Another key decision was to keep counterinsurgency forces stationed in the area, going against what the party had stated in its pre-election manifesto. In other words, the TMC had a monopoly over the legal and extra-legal sources of coercion in the region. This political arrangement saw the party sweep the assembly constituencies in Junglemahal in the 2016 State Assembly Election, but the situation had changed drastically by the 2018 gram panchayat elections, when the party was widely criticized for intimidating voters (Das, 2018). This resulted in an important re-alignment in the electorate as a significant section of voters, who had previously voted for the TMC or the LF, shifted allegiance to the nationally dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to insure themselves against the TMC’s repressive tactics. The BJP managed to make serious inroads into the gram panchayats on the back of this support, a trend that has continued in the recent Parliamentary Election, with the party winning each of the parliamentary constituencies in the region.

The data utilized in this paper come from two surveys funded by a Ministry of Education, Singapore, Tier 1 grant. The first survey was conducted by the author in collaboration with members of the Indian Election Studies team prior to the 2016 State Assembly Election. The survey was administered to 1183 respondents in 38 villages across Junglemahal. The second survey was conducted independently by the author prior to the recent Parliamentary Election in the same villages that were covered in 2016, with a respondent pool of 1140 individuals. Combining the two surveys, the paper offers a novel trend analysis of political attitudes in a post-civil war context since the same questions were asked to two randomly sampled set of respondents from the same population at different points of time.

The key dependent variable of the study is the propensity to vote for the incumbent/main opposition party at the state level before each election. The main independent variable is a battery of items measuring perceptions of physical insecurity. These items capture various aspects of physical insecurity such as concern with caste violence, communal violence, Maoist violence etc.

The theoretical framework of the study is based on Pearlman’s (2016) seminal analysis of narratives of fear among Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey. In her analysis, Pearlman makes an important distinction between “silencing fear” and “surmounted fear.” Using Pearlman’s framework, I predict that, all else equal, the propensity to vote for the TMC in 2016 would be positively correlated with feelings of physical insecurity. Conversely, propensity to vote for the main opposition party, the LF, would be negatively correlated with higher assessments of physical insecurity. By contrast, the propensity to vote for the TMC in 2019 would be negatively correlated with feelings of physical insecurity. Conversely, propensity to vote for the main opposition party, the BJP, would be positively correlated with higher assessments of physical insecurity.

Preliminary regression analysis of the data confirms these predictions. Moving forward, I intend to explore additional empirical specifications, such as comparing responses from geographically contiguous villages, to further establish the robustness of these findings.