This edition of Express Adda held in Delhi hosted global investor and author of Democracy on the Road, Ruchir Sharma. In a discussion moderated by The Indian Express Group’s Executive Director Anant Goenka and National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra, he spoke on national security as a poll issue, social media shaping politics and how it’s impossible to call this election.
On how democracy is thriving in India
The incumbent in India, the government in power, has incredible advantages at its disposal. Even in this election, by most estimates, the BJP is outspending the Congress party by five to 10 times. Most people have a perception that whichever government is in power typically tends to have a much stronger hold over the media. Despite these incredible advantages that any incumbent enjoys, most incumbents in India lose elections and for me that is such a powerful statement that no matter how much money you spend or what you do in terms of controlling the institution, at the end of the day if the voter wants the government to lose, the government loses. For me that is such a reaffirming statement about the fate of democracy in the country. This is the most powerful statement that the world’s largest democracy is thriving. The fact that this election is so unpredictable, a month into the elections, again tells us how robust the democratic process in this country is.
On whether this will be India’s first national security election
Yes, somewhere deep down there is this feeling of national security… I don’t think this country has been this polarised at a caste, religion, region and a leader level as it is now. When we tried to ask the voters who are you going to vote for, it is so simple that once you get their surnames, you know exactly who they are going to vote for. There is absolutely no debate on that. We would like to believe that in the cities we have moved to a post-caste world, instead when we were on this trip, my finding was that we were in a post-truth world. And what do I mean by this? You can literally form a list of A and a list of B. When you ask any upper caste voter, or a non-Dalit OBC, or a non-Jatav scheduled caste person, the answer is Modi. You ask a Muslim or a Yadav or a Jatav who he is going to vote for and the answer without a doubt is mahagathbandhan. It is as simple as that. Now if you come to the issues, if you ask the person what the issues are, the person voting for the BJP will point out to how good things have been for the last five years. They will tell you we have been given a toilet, electricity, better roads and national security. You go and ask the same question to a Jatav, a Muslim or a Yadav, and they will tell you exactly the opposite. So you don’t know what exactly the truth is because people are picking on facts that are convenient for them.
On whether the Opposition not having a face hurts them
I think yes, that is true in certain states. When you go to Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, people ask you, who is Rahul, who is Modi. There is almost a disdain for national leaders. I think in these elections, the south of India has been grossly ignored and underrated. We have a tendency of talking a lot about the Hindi heartland. So in the Hindi heartland, he (Modi) is undoubtedly the issue and in places like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, he has single-handedly been pulling the BJP up. The question to ask is, if Modi is not the leader of the BJP, is it quite possible that the BJP’s vote share would be down further?
On India abroad
This has been personally very disappointing for me and is a bit of a reality check. The interest in India today and in this Indian election is really low and this I know that directly… Again a lot of polarisation — people who like Modi will point you to that. People who don’t like Modi, will point you to the other stuff which he hasn’t done. So to talk about many Indias or many Indians anymore has become difficult.
On the rise of the BJP and decline of the Left in Bengal
I can’t remember any other instance where such a dramatic change has taken place, where one party which ruled the state for 30 years has virtually disintegrated, and the BJP’s vote share has surged. To me, it’s a big surprise because as you know mostly in India, it is the same merry-go-round — the same party comes to power and goes out of power, waits for their turn and comes back. For me, it was very stunning in terms of what was going on and it also tells you that it could be a model for the future that a party which was non-existent in a state goes from 10 per cent vote share in the 2016 elections to more than 30 per cent and a party that ruled a state for 30 years virtually disintegrates.
On travelling in rural India
Even now when I travel to Brazil and South Africa, I think twice before getting out of my hotel room. In most Indian small towns and cities, we go on these post dinner walks and it is fine apart from the occasional stray dog that comes after you. You basically feel safe as far as travelling in these places are concerned. But the hospitality (in India) is incredible and as I said it is basically like a code of love, where they want to feed you.
On the average age of leaders going up globally
That is one of the mystifying things. Even in this election, if there was any advantage that Modi had versus Rahul, it is about experience, about who can handle the nation at a time which is more sensitive. So I think it has got to do with that sort of rising nationalism, which also has to do with the fact that you want someone who has been there for a while.
On how WhatsApp is changing politics and elections
The only thing I will say is that the battle is more matched now. In 2014, there was absolutely no point of comparison between the BJP’s social media campaign and the Opposition’s. The BJP still has a powerful social media campaign today but the Opposition has sort of caught on. Social media has also become more commoditised now compared to what was the case five years ago.
On corporates wanting strong, stable governments
I’d say that’s what their instinct is but there is no empirical evidence to back this up in terms of what happened. Politics is downstream of culture and when you have a very heterogeneous country, you’ll always have coalition governments. So I think the coalition government is a reflection of a society of heterogeneity. And that’s why, in fact, one of the pieces I have written is that India can never be a China. What they can do as top-down reform is something that India can never do because we are such a heterogeneous country that whenever we have tried heavy centralisation like Indira Gandhi, there has always been a backlash. So I think that whatever businesses may say, the reality of the country is that if we try to bring centralisation then it will tear the social fabric of this country.
On this election being a sum of different states
It is true that in some places the Modi effect is much more dominant than in other parts. In the Hindi heartland, his effect is much more dominant. You go outside to the south of India, it isn’t. But yes, I think in this election we are back to doing state by state numbers. In 2014, it was roughly more about the wave. But I don’t think that state by state was being done like the way it’s being done in this election.
On predicting Election 2019
This is the most competitive election I have seen. It is extremely uncertain and I would not hang my hat on an exact number. As I said, a difference of one per cent… one per cent to the left, one per cent to the right, and the entire outcome is different. And in UP, the biggest issue for me, the one thing we just can’t seem to fathom, is what effect Priyanka Gandhi is going to have. You get to hear people say that ‘inhone murda party ko zinda kar diya hai’, yet we did not see many people talk about the Congress. If the BJP does end up winning this election, then they can virtually send a thank you card to her. It’s because if the Congress has a meaningful vote share increase in UP, it’ll come from the mahagathbandhan vote bank. So it is such a difficult election to call.
On who can stand up to the Modi challenge
It is not one party. The Congress is not the party that it used to be. In states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, after having won an assembly election just a few months ago, based on past history, the Congress should in fact be winning a good chunk of the seats in these states. I don’t think that’s going to happen. That tells you how powerful the Modi effect is. In every state you go, there is a different match that the BJP is meeting. In Bengal, it’s such a hard-fought battle. One of the things that I point out in the book is that Indian leaders tend to be such poor orators in general. Modi has a big advantage there because he’s such a masterful orator. But the one person who’s able to match or almost do that is Mamata (Banerjee). The way her speeches are, they are able to electrify the crowd. So it’s state by state really in terms of which party, which leader, is giving him a fight.
On competitive populism
Look at this election too, wherein every state you go to, very few people actually talk about the development they’ve done. Instead they talk about the number of freebies they’ve given, the number of schemes that they have launched. And we know that the economy is not growing the way it was growing. For me this is also where some of our development priorities are warped. Coming back to the current election, in UP, the single biggest issue which we haven’t spoken about is that of stray cattle. There’s been so much discussion about the political fallout of the ban on cow slaughter; and not how it has completely disturbed the entire ecosystem of an economy. I mean it has had a massively negative effect on the ecosystem of the economy. Now, the government there is forced to spend more and more on building more cowsheds because that’s some way of protection. Should that be a development priority in this country? That we don’t have money to spend on infrastructure in terms of roads and bridges… that’s what China did at this stage of its development.
On whether casteism is a counter to communalism
I don’t have a value judgment on this. All I’m trying to say is that this is the reality of India. So if this is the reality of India, there’s no point in us fighting against it. It does seem that the more urban we become, the caste influences tend to fade. But I think that in this election, in UP, I think the caste factor is as big as I’ve ever seen it. And it’s a state which has always been very caste-based.