The rise in coronavirus cases across India has acquired centrestage in the ongoing West Bengal assembly election and could potentially shape its result. Our study of the assembly election gives insight into how the public opinion may react to this evolving national health emergency.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has been repeatedly attacking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders for spreading coronavirus in the state by ‘bringing in outsiders’. The issue gained traction after Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, who had visited Bengal on several occasions for campaigning, tested positive on 15 April. Addressing a rally on 16 April, Mamata Banerjee attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for bringing outside campaigners and spreading the virus. “The situation was alright for five-six months. Modiji could have saved all by giving vaccines. But he did not do that. Now they are bringing thousands of people in Bengal who are going back after spreading the virus,” she said. These attacks may have found resonance among the Bengali voters with the rising cases of coronavirus in the state and could potentially generate more anger towards the BJP.
Appealing to voters’ emotions is the most powerful campaign technique used by political parties and leaders. Among various emotions that campaigners seek to tap into, anger and enthusiasm are often the most powerful in context of the election. If we look at Mamata Banerjee’s campaign, which is spearheaded by poll strategist Prashant Kishor, the strategies of persuasion have revolved not only around highlighting the achievements of the Trinamool Congress government over the last decade but also attacking its main opponent, the BJP and PM Modi, as “gangs of outsiders.”
Comparing the campaigns
To better understand the campaigns of the two political adversaries, we conducted an analysis into the Facebook ads of the two parties as part of our DigiCampAsia project and found that recent ad spending patterns echo this strategy of focusing on Modi’s handling of Covid as well. Our analysis shows that since 17 March, the TMC released a series of ads attacking PM Modi for the mishandling of the Covid-19 situation, and the subsequent surge in cases, framing the pandemic as #ModiMadeDisaster.
Out of the total 31 ads issued between 17 to 26 March by the TMC, more than half of them focused on Covid mishandling by the Modi government — a clear effort to incite anger among the Bengali voters. During the same time, the BJP released 468 ads attacking the Mamata government on women’s safety, corruption, and appeasement politics, but remained silent on the Covid situation. Moreover, we found that while the official overall spending during the entire campaign of the BJP on Facebook ads was much lower than the TMC’s, the BJP spent significantly more (Rs 55,89,197) than its political opponent (Rs 40,64,987) since 17 April. This potentially reflects the dynamic nature of the BJP campaign, evolving to suit the need of the hour.
Turnout is key
All election campaigns operate largely with three main objectives – to inform, persuade and turn out voters. In a long and closely fought election campaign, like the one unfolding in West Bengal, the right message at the opportune moment can persuade the still undecided voter and turn the tide in favour of either party. And it does seem like the rising Covid cases and the TMC’s willingness to tap into this could swing the election in favour of Mamata Banerjee by turning voters away from the BJP.
While many TMC politicians blame the current surge of the pandemic on the BJP and its campaigning in West Bengal, it is not clear if public opinion on the ground and across the political spectrum shares the view. The last two phases of the election will likely prove to be decisive and voter turnout will be an important factor. The impact of Covid is already being felt with phase seven reporting the lowest participation of 76.24 per cent among all the phases of polling so far. The previous low was reported in phase four with 79.9 per cent turnout.
The perceived handling of pandemic
In an online survey of 974 individuals in West Bengal conducted by YouGov from 24 March to 27 March 2021, we measured evaluations of political leaders’ performance in managing the coronavirus pandemic. We asked respondents to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement that PM Modi and CM Mamata are “doing a good job with respect to the coronavirus pandemic.” Overall, most respondents agreed with the statement that both politicians were performing well: 56 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Modi was performing well while 53 per cent stated so for Mamata. This small difference isn’t statistically meaningful.
Next, we looked at how respondents’ party identification might have shaped these evaluations by comparing the evaluations of the self-declared BJP and TMC supporters. As expected, we found that the BJP supporters evaluated Narendra Modi’s performance higher than Mamata Banerjee’s while the converse was true for the TMC supporters. This shows that perceived handling of the pandemic was mostly partisan. Although we note that the difference between the BJP and the TMC supporters’ evaluation of Mamata Banerjee’s performance tended to be smaller than that of Modi’s.
At the time of data collection, while the Covid cases were increasing across the country, the surge had not been severe yet. It will be important to observe how the recent situation might reinforce or reduce these partisan evaluations. Given the current situation, and the widespread suffering of citizens being reported on social media, public opinion is possibly turning against the BJP. This could be happening despite the limited coverage on national news channels on television and the government’s attempt to block Twitter content that is critical of its management of the Covid situation.
Under such unprecedented circumstances, the short-term management of public perception vis-à-vis the second wave and harnessing it to his and his party’s benefit might be a big ask for Modi. This may ultimately benefit Mamata, allowing her to retain power in Bengal.