Who Cares About Economic Ideology?

Context is important for psychology: an example in Indian politics.

Posted Sep 17, 2020

In 2014, India elected its first absolute majority government in 30 years; the majority leader Narendra Modi’s right-wing populist party was elected largely on the promise of economic development. Given his previous stint as the chief minister of Gujarat, a state in Western India, his campaign was fueled by the proposal that he could propel economic change at scale, especially attracting the economic right.

Since then, big, disruptive economic ideas for upsetting the status quo have been launched. For instance, a scheme was introduced to reduce corruption by demonetizing large value banknotes (Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000) overnight; the logistical nightmare that followed was unanticipated. Even so, the party won a landslide victory for its next election (2019), with a “historic mandate.”

With such figures, you would assume that a large number of Indians are economically right-leaning. However, this seems to not be the case. In a survey conducted to develop a political ideology scale within the Indian context, we found that Indians do not seem to be consistent regarding their economic ideologies. When participants were asked how they would identify themselves on economic issues, the responses were largely “center,” with 34.27% rating themselves as center-leaning. On the other hand, 41.69% rated themselves as left-leaning to various extents (Figure 1). Digging deeper, we found that when asked about various issues about the economy, such as whether there should be a luxury tax, the curve skewed slightly towards the right (Figure 2). However, essentially, the split between left- and right-leaning individuals was equal.

Monk Prayogshala
Figure 1: Self-Reported Economic Ideology
Source: Monk Prayogshala

Here is the more interesting part: Indian participants were not congruous in their economic ideology! That is, the statements assessing economic ideology were statistically inconsistent with each other. When we tested for similarities and differences in people’s responses to economic statements, we found that only 4 out of the 12 statements differentiated between left- and right-leaning individuals.

A basic theme emerged based on these four statements: the role of the state in accommodating the poor. Specifically, these were the dividing issues: 1) whether there should be high taxes for luxury goods, 2) whether the state should control prices of goods and services, 3) whether large industries should be under state control, and 4) whether the state should be responsible for reducing the wealth gap.

Turns out the only economic issue that divides Indians ideologically is how the state should take care of the poor. That is, left-leaning Indians believe that the state should tax the rich and control prices, whereas Indian conservatives do not believe this.

Other than the role of the state, certain economic issues are not ideologically divisive, implying that left- and right-leaning Indians are not divided on such issues. For example, 22.57% strongly disagree with the idea that taxation is theft, and only 3.11% strongly agree with it. Most were ambivalent about the Prime Minister’s big-ticket idea of whether the state should interfere with businesses: About a quarter of our participants said they were neutral about it.

Monk Prayogshala
Figure 2: Economic Ideology Scale. The dotted line represents the mean.
Source: Monk Prayogshala

Considering that the rich versus the poor and capital versus labor dichotomies are cornerstones of the intellectual conversations about economic ideology, so far these findings are compelling. This is because our results highlight how models and theory developed in the West do not strictly apply to India. However, this makes sense in light of the socio-political history of India. India was colonized by the British for over 200 years. Abject poverty ensued as a result of the consistent promotion of deindustrialization before independence. As a result of their economic policies, India was the poorest country in terms of per capita income at the beginning of the twentieth century.

After independence, however, the ideologically divisive issues related to how much power the state should have to transform both cultural norms and the economy. Because of widespread poverty, most agreed that the state should be responsible for economic growth and development, and for about 50 years, the major agent of industrialization (and therefore capital), was the state. Even today, most political parties across the ideological spectrum are pro-poor. This makes sense given that even now, over 35% of India’s rural population is below the poverty line, surviving on a monthly per capita expenditure of less than ₹972 ($12.77).

So, given the somewhat center-leaning economic stance of many Indians, why did so many vote for a right-wing political party? The answer might be three-fold. First, the winning party mobilized social groups across the upward and backward castes (i.e., a hereditary social structure), along with social and economic conservatives. Second, there is a strong, but often concealed, interdependence between class, occupation, and caste in India. That is, those belonging to the socially backward castes are often also occupationally immobile, and therefore, are economically oppressed. Third, Indians may not vote based on their ideological stance. A large majority of our participants also mentioned that they would choose not to vote for any party at all; of the remaining, many said they would vote for the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Thus, even if a large proportion votes for no party at all, the party with the second majority votes wins the election. We have previously argued that this might be because of political apathy, lack of awareness, or choice overload caused by a multiparty system. If this is the case, it is imperative for us to measure ideology differently than assuming it through partisanship, as has largely been the case so far. Just because one doesn’t align themselves with a political party does not mean one is not ideological. Issues such as these are usually unaccounted for in the field of political psychology, which has primarily been focusing on very few countries.

It has long been known that focusing only on the Western, industrialized countries is a poor scientific practice. This issue is even more pertinent in fields like political psychology, which purports to understand political attitudes and behaviors. No work in political psychology should be divorced from historical and political contexts. To have a more valid science, it is essential that political psychologists look outside their WEIRD (Western, Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) bubbles.

This post also appeared in Political Psychology. It was written by Arathy Puthillam, Sampada Karandikar, and Hansika Kapoor.