Can mental stress brought about by a disaster like the coronavirus pandemic affect political attitudes and choices? We examine if Indians held the Narendra Modi government responsible for lockdown-induced mental health challenges. Specifically, we explore the following hypothesis.
Individuals who experienced higher levels of mental stress related to the lockdown would be less likely to vote for the incumbent BJP if snap national elections were held after the lockdown was eased compared with individuals who experienced less or no mental stress.
We assess this hypothesis by exploiting a novel tracker dataset, generously shared with us by CVoter Foundation, which includes data from three waves of geographically representative surveys conducted in the first, second, and third week of June 2020, respectively, when the nationwide lockdown was gradually phased out. Each survey embedded a set of questions related to the potential mental health challenges posed by the crisis, with the content of the questions adjusted to reflect the evolution of these challenges. Wave 1 covered 1,403 respondents, Wave 2 1,477 respondents, and Wave 3 1,760 respondents.
India’s mental health crisis in the aftermath of strict lockdowns has received little attention. Our study draws attention to this aspect of India’s experience with Covid-19, focusing specifically on its political implications.
What the past studies have missed
Previous research with regard to mental health and political attitudes has highlighted the differential effect of mental health challenges on political participation, depending on age, measures of mental health, the level of government at which participation is evaluated, and the type of political participation involved.
It is of relevance to note that these studies have only focused on high income countries with stable and institutionalised welfare systems where voter apathy is a major issue. They did not consider the political implications of a crisis-induced change in mental health in developing democracies, such as India, where party choice, not voter turnout, is the more relevant variable. A key assumption that runs through the aforementioned studies is that mental health challenges are primarily experienced as private matters, to be resolved through private rather than public action. While this assumption may have some validity in “normal” times, we hold that when mental stress is felt widely and publicly, such as in the aftermath of mismanaged governmental responses to natural disasters, it may be perceived by voters as a “valence” issue.
The questions we posed
The main dependent variables of our study were constructed from two questions in the surveys, “Which political party did you vote for in the previous national/state elections?” and “Which political party will you vote for if national/state elections are held today?” To account for the possible effect of partisanship on assessments of the pandemic, we limit our analysis only to respondents who voted for the incumbent party in previous national/state elections. Since the BJP was the incumbent at the national level, this implies that for the national level analysis, we only focus on respondents who voted for the party in the 2019 national election.
To assess the mental health challenges that stemmed from the governmental response to the first Covid-19 outbreak, we turn to items in the surveys that specifically queried respondents about changes in their mental health since March 2020 when the national lockdown was imposed.
In wave 1, respondents were given a set of 10 issues and asked to report whether any of these had been a cause of mental stress in the previous three months. The issues included “contracting the virus myself/family members contracting the virus,” “finances/job security,” “uncertainty/fear of the unknown,” “feeling trapped/loss of freedom,” “stress of following guidelines/others not following guidelines,” “loneliness,” “uncertainty about school/college exams,” “family discord/domestic violence,” and “not getting general medical treatment.” A factor analysis of the responses revealed two latent factors — mental stress from fundamental uncertainty (job uncertainty, financial insecurity etc.) and mental stress from reduced mobility (loss of freedom; domestic discord etc.). Accordingly, we reduced the set of 10 issues to these two sources of mental stress.
In wave 2, respondents were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: “I don’t usually have problems with mental health/good at dealing with problems/have faith,” “Increased stress/uncertainty/sleep problems,” “No significant changes in my life/I can continue usual activities or work,” “Not able to do regular activities or socialise/I feel isolated,” “Worried about myself/family getting Covid,” and “I give time to my hobbies/Have started new hobbies/I take care of myself.” A factor analysis of the responses to the statements revealed little commonality between them. Accordingly, we treated the responses to each statement as independent explanatory variables.
Unlike wave 1 and wave 2, wave 3 queried respondents about coping strategies for mental stress. Specifically, respondents were given a set of eight strategies and asked to report how often they had used them to improve their mental health or the mental health of their families in the previous three months. The strategies were: “Talked about it among family,” “Talked to a friend/relative,” “Checked on internet,” “Listened to spiritual/motivational speakers/life coaches,” “Meditated,” “Tried to keep myself busy with hobbies,” “Sought professional medical help,” and “Tried home remedies.” A factor analysis of the responses yielded three latent factors — resolving mental stress through internal coping (talking to family, friends etc.), resolving mental stress through meditation, and resolving mental stress through external measures (seeking professional help, listening to motivational speakers etc.). Accordingly, we reduced the set of eight strategies to these three coping mechanisms.
To assess whether we are indeed picking up the effect of mental stress, we account for a range of other factors typically associated with party choice in the Indian context by incorporating individual level control variables measuring (i) demographic characteristics (gender, age, education, income, caste, religion etc.), (ii) perceptions of household economic conditions (change in living standards in the past one year), and (iii) assessment of leaders (dissatisfaction with Narendra Modi). We also account for pre-existing trends in mental health at the state level.
And what we found
There are three main findings that emerge from our analysis.
First, mental health matters to Indian voters. Take, for example, the state of Bihar in wave 1. Our analysis shows, that within the subset of Bihari voters who voted for the BJP in 2019, all else equal, a change in the level of mental stress due to reduced mobility from its minimum to its maximum value increases the predicted probability of switching to the opposition (if hypothetical national elections were held on the day of the survey) by roughly 0.04 – a sizeable magnitude.
Second, the effect of mental stress on party choice depends on the source of stress. Specifically, in wave 1, lockdown-induced mental stress from reduced mobility had a statistically significant effect, but not stress from fundamental uncertainty. In the same vein, in wave 2, only degree of confidence in handling mental health challenges and level of stress from sleep problems had statistically significant effects.
Finally, contrary to what we would expect from a long line of research on the moderating effects of federalism on accountability, we find evidence suggesting that respondents attributed blame to the Modi government when blame was due. Specifically, in wave 3, none of our mental health measures were correlated with party choice. This was consistent with the considerable devolution of power for pandemic management to state governments by the third week of June.
A widely held view about the 2020 US presidential election is that mismanagement of the pandemic cost Donald Trump his re-election. Our findings indicate that had snap elections been held in India in the first and second week of June 2020, Narendra Modi too would have faced similar electoral consequences due to the widespread mental stress caused by his government’s controversial total lockdown policy.
Subhasish Ray is Associate Professor and Associate Dean at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana; and an editor for the Journal of Genocide Research. He tweets @subhasish_ray75. Ankin Patil is a Masters Student in Economics at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy. K. Sree Vidya is a Masters Student in Economics at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)