Economic Policies vs. Identity Politics: The Rise of a Right-wing Nationalist Party in India
As in many other parts of the world, India has witnessed a surge in the popularity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right wing nationalist party. This paper examines the respective roles of economic policy and “identity politics” for the sharp rise in support for BJP in a region where it had a negligible vote share until 2014. Using household level panel data from 3500 rural households in West Bengal, we examine the effect of different welfare benefits delivered by state and national governments, on support for the regional incumbent (Trinamool Congress (TMC)) and the BJP after 2014. We find that receipt of these benefits was associated with increased support for the respective party controlling either level of government. However, changes in scale, effectiveness, composition or targeting of these benefits cannot account for the large observed increase in the relative popularity of the BJP. We also find no evidence of any association with post-2014 economic distress of the household, or political violence attributed to TMC party activists in the 2018 local government elections. On the other hand, religion, tribal and immigrant status of households are strong and robust predictors of changes in political support, irrespective of controls for welfare benefits and household incomes. Hence the results indicate that the BJP’s rise in West Bengal reflected the growing importance of identity politics per se, rather than economic policies.