BJP’s cow protection pitch may have more takers among non-cattle owners
An overwhelming majority of Hindus have an emotional attachment to cows and consider them holy (which makes the consumption of beef a sacrilege).
Gau raksha or cow protection has an important place in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign rhetoric. While campaigning for the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate; accused those supporting the Congress party of promoting a “pink revolution” of cattle slaughter and meat exports.
An overwhelming majority of Hindus have an emotional attachment to cows and consider them holy (which makes the consumption of beef a sacrilege). But there are material issues, such as theft and smuggling of cattle, as well because there has traditionally been a direct correlation between an individual’s wealth and the number of cattle he or she owns. An HT analysis shows that the BJP’s attempts to leverage the issue of gau-raksha might be aimed at exploiting the emotional fault lines to a bigger degree rather than the material ones.
One, there does not seem to be a strong correlation between districts with high cattle population and the BJP’s vote share. Also, higher share of cattle owners come from rural areas, while the BJP is generally known to have an advantage in urban areas. Ninety-four percent of cattle-owning population lives in rural areas in India, according to the fourth round of the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS).
However, opinion polls do indicate that beef consumption is one of the rare issues where BJP supporters (irrespective of whether they own cattle or not) differ with those of other parties. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that most cattle owners were fairly accustomed to the pastoral economic cycle of selling non-productive cattle to slaughter houses.
The fourth round of the NFHS asked respondents if their household owns cows, bulls, or buffaloes. The survey was conducted among six lakh households in 2015-16 and provides district-level data on the ownership of these animals. HT has calculated the percentage of persons in a district and state who live in a household owning any of the three animals.
The median share of individuals in a state living in a cattle-owning household is 30.7%. Rajasthan (56.8%), Uttar Pradesh (52.4%), Madhya Pradesh (52.4%), and Gujarat (35.9%) are four big states whose share of such persons is higher than this median value and where the BJP contests without any major alliance.
If cow-protection unites Hindus irrespective of their other issues, one would expect the BJP’s vote share to be higher in districts of these states where cattle-owning population is larger than elsewhere. However, this does not seem to be the case.
For this analysis, district-level vote shares for the 2014 Lok Sabha election were calculated by aggregating the votes of all assembly constituencies in a district. Assembly constituency-level votes for the 2014 Lok Sabha election are available from the Election Commission of India (ECI).
This suggests that cattle owners do not have a higher likelihood of voting for the BJP. However, there is evidence to suggest that the gau raksha campaign might have a bigger resonance among non-cattle owners. For example, BJP supporters were significantly more averse to beef eating than others in a 2016 survey of Indians aged 15-34 year old Indians, conducted by Lokniti (see chart 2).
To be sure, multiple factors influence voting decision and therefore the relation between cattle owners and BJP’s voters might be weaker or stronger than what is shown in our analysis. However, the arguments made above also point towards the hazards of undermining the importance of emotional and non-material factors in political decisions.