Who Rallies Around the Flag? Nationalist Parties, National Security, and the 2019 Indian Election

The forthcoming article “Who Rallies Around the Flag? Nationalist Parties, National Security, and the 2019 Indian Election” by Jamie Hintson and Milan Vaishnav is summarized by the author(s) below. 

A well-developed literature suggests that national security crises often generate electoral rewards for incumbents. Across a range of democracies, voters often “rally around the flag” to support the ruling party in the face of an external threat. Right-wing nationalist governments appear especially well placed to exploit security crises, as they typically possess hawkish national security policy views. However, we know relatively little about who within the electorate rallies behind incumbents. One important potential source of variation is exposure to the crisis itself. This article asks whether rallying behavior is driven by those most exposed to a crisis or by those for whom the consequences of a crisis are more removed.

Existing scholarship could support either prediction. On the one hand, exposure to a crisis could amplify rallying behavior by diverting attention away from everyday governance concerns. On the other hand, exposed voters may be the most critical of the government and its crisis response. We argue that the latter might be especially true when social commemoration—rallies, funerals, or processions—highlights the severity of an attack. Increasing voters’ exposure to a crisis could dampen a rallying effect for several reasons. First, exposed voters may assign greater responsibility to the government for the attack (blame). Second, exposed voters may criticize the government for not sufficiently retaliating against the perpetrators of the attack (revenge). Third, exposed voters may punish the incumbent if they believe the ruling party is exploiting casualties for political gain (backlash).

To test our argument, we focus on a difficult case: a deadly terrorist attack on Indian soil that occurred just months before that country’s 2019 general election. At a macro-level, the attack transformed the political discourse and created a national-level rallying behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the right-wing, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

At a local level, however, tens of thousands of residents attended the funeral processions that returned each soldier’s remains to his home, paying their respects and expressing patriotic sentiments. We estimate the effects of exposure to these processions—measured by voters’ proximity to the soldier’s hometown—on support for the BJP, focusing on India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh.

We find that the BJP’s vote share decreases with proximity to the funeral processions in constituencies where the party is incumbent. Our effects cannot be explained by prior electoral behavior or spatial correlation alone, and they are too large to be driven by those with direct ties to the deceased. We find some qualitative support for all three of our proposed mechanisms, but the preponderance of available evidence points to anti-incumbent blame as the principal mechanism at play. Villages with weak pre-existing BJP support saw the largest procession effects, and exposed voters disproportionately supported the Indian National Congress, the only opposition party with national security credentials.

Our argument suggests that even nationalist governments face a real tradeoff in exploiting security crises for political gain. Opposition parties may be able to mitigate rallies around nationalist incumbents by emphasizing the human costs of an attack.

About the Author(s): Jamie Hintson is PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at Stanford University and Milan Vaishnav, Senior Fellow and Director, South Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Their research “Who Rallies Around the Flag? Nationalist Parties, National Security, and the 2019 Indian Election” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.