No proof required: The measure of Modi

The intelligent Indian voter has responded to Modi’s charms. If he had not been the BJP’s PM candidate, the instability feared by all would have become a nightmarish reality.

As you read this, the results of Election 2014 would have begun to appear on your TV screen. Several, indeed all, the exit polls have forecast a majority for the NDA. That is my forecast as well — 264 seats for the BJP alone and 307 seats for the NDA (see table). If the results are right (last caveat in this article — assume they are right to follow the argument), there will be intense discussion and speculation about what the results mean — for example, what was the effect of Narendra Modi on the BJP’s fortunes, whether there was a Modi wave, etc.

But the reality will remain that the NDA majority will mean a radical occurrence in 25 years of coalition India, 1989-2014. The highest seats obtained by any party in the last 25 years was 244 by the Congress, under Narasimha Rao in 1991. The median estimate of eight exit polls is 281 seats for the NDA, well in excess of the 2009 UPA coalition and of a magnitude that will likely transform Indian politics.

In retrospect, the Congress did understand and appreciate the importance of Modi. It knew, as far back as 2007 when it began targeting him with its maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) epithet.

This has continued and intensified over the years, and may have witnessed its explosive culmination in the just concluded national election. The lowest ever tally for the age-old and old-old Congress party was 114 seats under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi in 1999; in 2014, the tally, continuing under her leadership, may even be half that number. What went so wrong for the Congress? Or, stated equivalently, what went so right for the BJP? The answer to both questions is the same: Modi.

But you would not obtain that conclusion, inference or interpretation if you have been following the intellectual debates on the predominantly left-of-centre and pro-Sonia Gandhi media. To date, the opinion commentary, in both print and TV, has outlined the following reasons for a Modi win, a win that will be the largest by any single party since the coalition era began when Rajiv Gandhi only obtained 197 seats in 1989.

The popular media and even more popular “intellectuals” have argued, with varying emphasis, that this is not a BJP win, let alone a Modi win, but rather a Congress loss. There is a lump in their throats the size of Godzilla that prevents them from uttering that Modi seized the imagination of the nation, and that the win was because of him and him alone.

Several reasons have been offered for the Congress’s loss. First, that the economy has performed badly in the last five years. Second, corruption scams have hurt the Congress and we know from Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP that corruption is the number one issue facing voters, as opposed to low growth, high inflation and lack of jobs.

But further down the logical ladder, the reasoning gets murkier (in my opinion) but nevertheless has occupied a lot of mindspace and discussion time. Third, that the BJP and Modi ran a presidential-style campaign. So? Fourth, that Modi manufactured support for the party by manipulating the media to show that there was a “wave”.

Fifth, that Modi’s campaign appealed to the base communal instincts of the Hindu majority and the communal Hindu responded with glee by pressing the lotus button. And most important of all, sixth, that Modi himself had precious little effect on the campaign and the (likely) electoral result.

When confronted with these views and explanations, I have offered the following simple counterfactual. Imagine that, instead of Modi, the BJP had fielded L.K. Advani or Sushma Swaraj as their PM candidate. How many seats would the BJP have got? Clearly more than the 116 they got last time, and more especially because of the slow economy, corruption scams, the disastrous role of the NAC, the confused and confusing division of power between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, etc. But how many more seats? Perhaps an additional 50, to bring them within distance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 182 maximum (in 1999).

My above argument is in the nature of a counterfactual — illustrative, but no smoking gun. Fortunately, the CSDS post-election poll brilliantly contained the following question: If Modi was not the BJP candidate, which party would you have voted for? Examination of this question can nail the argument about whether Modi had a large (or small) effect on the voting pattern.

An average of 26 per cent of the BJP voters said they would not have voted for the BJP sans Modi. In eight states, this percentage of voters was larger than 26 per cent, with a high of 57 per cent in Karnataka. How large is this magnitude?

Depends on the voting pattern in the state. Voting data for Maharashtra illustrates the importance of even seemingly small changes in vote share. Only 16 per cent of the 44 per cent Maharashtra NDA voters stated they would not have voted for the NDA without Modi. Sixteen of 44 per cent is a 7 percentage point swing — a vote share that would have gone to the Congress if Modi were not the candidate. Translating into seats, a change in just 16 per cent of Modi voters results in the BJP winning only 21 seats in Maharashtra compared to the 35 (with Modi) exit poll prediction.

The NDA is slated to receive about 40 per cent of the vote share in 2014; the same combination of parties received about 25 per cent of the vote in the 2009 election. If Modi were not the PM candidate, the NDA would get 10 percentage points less votes than 40, that is, 30 per cent. This vote decline of the NDA is allocated to different parties, depending on their vote share in the exit polls.

On an all India basis, the Modi effect is large, very large. Without him, the NDA exit poll seat prediction is 160 seats; with him, the prediction is 277 seats. Stated differently, out of the 137 NDA gain (140 to 277), the Anyone But Modi (ABM) BJP configuration contributes only one-seventh of the total, or just 20 seats.

Another dimension of the Modi effect is to interpret the seat shares with an ABM leader of the BJP. The seat shares would likely have been as follows: UPA 239 seats, NDA 160 seats and others 144 seats. This is exactly the scenario most Indians were fearing — a hodge-podge instability, “with no direction home, like a rolling stone”.

Whether it’s a Modi wave or a Congress self-goal tsunami, you be the judge. The reality is that the Indian voter has shown herself, as nearly always, to be vigilant and concerned about India, and not her caste, religion or dynasty. As an alliance, the NDA with (my) projected 307 seats, will be about 50 seats higher than the UPA alliance of 2009, and about 10 seats more than that obtained by the BLD against the Congress in 1977. That is how big and transformational the Modi effect is.

The writer is chairman of Oxus
Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company.

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