Election time is an open season for all sorts of speculations. A lot of amateurish guesswork, affected by agendas and bolstered by biases gets passed off under the garb of psephological predictions. India is too diverse a country to be comprehended on the basis of small sample surveys. Indians are complicated beings who do not easily open up to strangers on matters of preferences. We are so fragmented into castes, subcastes, regions, religions, languages and classes that we don’t render ourselves predictable by any opinion model.
Not just opinion and exit polls, but even post-election analyses in India are quite simplistic and generally guided by ulterior motives. Even proper academics, let alone two-bit journalists, fall back upon their ideological moorings to explain significant historical events and phenomena. Using caste calculations is dubbed as social engineering, but talks about destroyed temples and terrorism are slammed as communal. What is unproductive populism (NREGP) is sold off as welfare, but what really matters and has delivered (like Clean India) is lampooned. Red, saffron, blue and green shades of opinion cloud such analyses.
General Elections are not about mere mathematics. Chemistry between electoral allies is more crucial than summation of numbers. That said, the choice of the electorate in national elections held so far has primarily been guided under the influence of fear, anger or sympathy. It is the discipline of psychology, rather than economics, chemistry, mathematics or sociology that can help us in decoding the national choices made so far.
National security is an overriding, and abiding concern. Fear of China, Pakistan and radical Islamic terrorism has real import. Law and order is a state subject, and issues like mob-lynching and rising intolerance have the potential to affect only some areas. Fear of an unstable, indecisive and appeasing Central government and fluid political situation are also key driving factors. Sympathy for dead leaders’ kins and party members have affected the final results of at least two national elections. Voters do empathise with the families of dead soldiers, as they did in 1999. Jawans dying in Kashmir give a jolt to the populi.
Compared to this, Hindutva has only paid partial dividends in 1989, 1991 and 2014, when Hindu Nationalist fervour was complimented by anti-corruption sentiments in 1989 and 2014, and overshadowed by sympathy in the second round of 1991 polls.
A Brief History of General Elections
The Vajpayee government lost in 2004 neither because of non-inclusive growth, nor Gujarat. India Shining as a slogan was catchy, but was disliked by the Lutyens Left (English media). BJP lost 2004 because it lost around a score of seats in UP, and goofed up with its alliances in TN, Andhra and Bihar. The jhola brigade found a convenient scapegoat in India Shining, and influenced Sonia Gandhi into forming a National Advisory Committee (NAC). Vajpayee’s economic reforms resulted in a strong GDP performance in the mid-2000s, and excess resources were channelled into NREGP and Loan waivers. A secure, satisfied and unsympathetic electorate kicked out the incumbents.
It is customary to use the phrase- It’s the economy, stupid! during every polls-related discussion. It entered political lexicon in 1992 during US Presidential elections when Bill Clinton used it with chilling effect. Since then it has been assumed that voters across the world remove or choose governments based on economic performances and promises. This might be true in the case of US and other developed countries, but South America, Africa and Asia do not strictly follow this pattern. In fact, Indians have rarely (if ever) voted on economic and developmental questions in the General Elections, although they do hold significant importance in state assembly polls.
Public fascination with corruption betrays the classical Indian mindset. We can accept poverty and backwardness as our lot, but not cheating. VP’s anti-corruption crusade, specifically directed against Bofors, uprooted Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, while Rao’s multiple bribery scams like St.Kitts, JMM, Harshad Mehta and Lakkhubhai Pathak cases resulted in Congress’ exit in 1996.
Press might credit the Modi Wave for the verdict of 2014, but it was the Anna movement which systematically delegitimised the UPA-II from the beginning of early 2011 itself. Hindu consolidation did play a major role after Modi was declared the PM candidate. Muzaffarnagar riots did swing it in favour of BJP in western UP.
The promise of Achche Din and 2 crore employments buttressed the final numbers, but no one in his right mind voted to receive Rs.15 lakh in their bank accounts. People were fed up of rampant crony capitalism, and headlines which revolved around 2G and Coal Allocation scams. But it was the public anger, nay disgust, which handed over a majority to the BJP.
Even in 2009, it was the Nuclear deal which allowed Manmohan Singh to come across as statesmanly, and exposed Advani as a petty power-seeker (after Jinnah episode had already dented his image). Most pundits ascribe the robust economic growth between 2004-09 to the reforms effected during the Vajpayee regime. In fact, against conventional wisdom, despite the presence of reformers like Manmohan Singh, PC and Montek Ahluwalia, UPA ran a fairly welfarist and socialist government. They spent beyond their means on welfare schemes, and didn’t provide much impetus to power, infrastructure, agriculture or industry. Lack of reforms meant that slowdown crept in by the time UPA-II took office. IN 2009, Congress was voted back in not on the back of economic performance, but because there was no credible national alternative. A discredited Advani led an NDA –in-disarray, with BJD gone and no alliances in Andhra and TN.BJP itself was a divided house, confused about Kashmir, Nuclear deal and Pakistan. UPA virtually got a walkover, despite their poor response to 26/11.
1984 was a sympathy harvest for Rajeev Gandhi after Indira’s assassination. Rajeev’s death in the middle of 1991 elections halted the BJP march and propelled Congress to 232 seats. Hindutva took a back seat to sympathy.
India voted in favour of Vajpayee in 1998, and not against the economic policies of United Front government. No one quite recalls any economic promise made by the BJP then. It was a sympathy vote for the ‘wronged’ leader, the right man in the wrong party. It was the victory of the slogan ‘Abki baari Atal Behari’.
1999 polls were held after Kargil, and Vajpayee’s stature and national security considerations sealed the verdict. NDA has already conducted the Pokhran tests in 1998, and Kargil frenzy gave them further fillip.
In fact, TINA (there is no alternative) ruled the roost in first four GE 1952,1957,1962 and 1967. 1977 was a verdict against Emergency, and for the survival of democracy.In 1980, 1998 and 2009, the concern for stability also guided public choices.
This leaves only General Elections- 1971 which were perhaps fought and won on an economic slogan-Garibi Hatao. Bank Nationalisation in 1969 and abolition of privy purses in 1971 had given a major boost to Indira’s image, which she capitalised upon with her war cry against poverty.
The Scenario for 2019
Given this background, it seems unlikely that NYAY can be used to milk the same issue twice, almost half a century later. There is a broad multiparty consensus, as well as past failures, on how agriculture has to be dealt with.
Governments spend a lot of their political capital and credibility on matters of social justice and economics. Poverty, unemployment, industrial growth, agricultural slowdown, commodity prices, taxation, and infrastructure occupy a major chunk of daily headlines but have little decisive electoral value at the national level. This is perhaps because voters expect a broad consensus on economic policies.
It must be noted however that demonetisation should be considered as an anti-corruption measure, and not an economic initiative, and hence has the potential to assume electoral relevance in 2019. GST, on the other hand, is a result of broad bipartisan consensus, whose ill-effects have been ratified to an extent and does not have much electoral juice in it.
Social justice movements, gender issues (Triple talaq, Haji Ali and Sabarimala entry) and quest for caste or economic backwardness- based reservations might drive local politics, but do not much affect the national mandate either. Mandal failed VP Singh immediately after being implemented. The reason behind this is that every major political party has certain caste groups supporting them, and favour to one is balanced by anger of some rival caste or caste groups. The equations of caste run on a delicate sociological balance. Such issues end up remaining relevant to one region or a state and do not assume national proportions. Not enough to become a national wave at any rate.
The report card of this NDA government is patchy on economic front. Opposition has been raising questions on lack of employment opportunities, slowdown in growth, ill-effects of GST and demonetisation, but these do not have the potential to cause as much harm to the ruling dispensation as Rafale has. People understand that the promise of Rs 15 lakh was a jumla, but that Mallya-NiMo-Choksy managed to flee is a certified fact. The government, in turn, can point at the IBC, relentless hunt for the absconding trio, continued investigations against Robert Vadra and Karti Chidambaram and try to brave the election heat.
National security, along with anti-corruption drive, and Hindutva, shall be the triad on which the national mandate for 2019 shall be awarded. The PM has projected himself as a leader firmly entrenched in office, with his legacy being a work in continuity and progress. It would require nation-wide, seal-proof alliances and questioning NDA’s very commitment to national security, anti-corruption and Hindutva to dislodge them from power.
Abhinav Pancholi, IRS, Kolkata. The author is an avid sports lover with a passion for literature.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Pragativadi and Pragativadi.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.