“Obsession with numbers is natural, but pointless. Having travelled around the country this time, I can tell you that anyone who predicts a number with any certainty is a charlatan,” said Ruchir Sharma at the Express Adda Wednesday evening.
The author and global investor, fresh from his 28th election trip, was making the case for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections being the most unpredictable anyone’s ever seen in this country so far. “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,” he said.
Sharma was summing up his main argument of the evening: India’s democracy is robust and thriving precisely because it remains difficult to predict the results even in an election where the incumbent government is fighting from an extremely strong position.
He said that while it may seem like the government in power has incredible advantages at its disposal, including a hold over various state institutions, the outcome of the elections remains far from obvious. “By most estimates, the BJP is outspending the Congress by 5 to 10 times. Most people have this perception that the incumbent always comes back to power but most incumbents in India lose elections,” he said. “At the end of the day, if the voter wants the government to lose, then the government loses. This is such a reaffirming fact about the state of democracy in this country.”
For over two decades, Sharma has made a practice of travelling around India before any major assembly or general election and, based on his observations from his most recent trip, he said the country has never been as polarised as it is right now.
“I don’t think this country has been as polarised at a caste level, a religion level, a region level and a leader level as it is now,” he said. “By the end of the trip, there was one big frustration, when we tried to ask voters who they would vote for. It was so simple — once you got their surname, you knew exactly who they are going to vote for. There is absolutely no debate about that.”
According to Sharma, instead of being in the post-caste world that everyone had hoped for, we are now in a “post-truth world”, where everyone makes their own list of the facts as it suits them.
“In UP, when you ask an upper caste or non-Dalit OBC or non-Jatav Scheduled Caste person who they will vote for, the answer is (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi. If you ask a Yadav, a Muslim or a Jatav, without a shadow of a doubt, the answer is Mahagathbandhan.”
Sharma argued that even when it came to issues, voters were cherry-picking facts to suit their biases. “A person voting for BJP will tell you how good the last five years have been. They will say that we have been given toilets — they call them ‘izzat ghar’ — we have got electricity, better roads, national security. Ask the same question to a Yadav, Muslim or Jatav, and they will say the exact opposite. So what exactly is the truth? That’s what I find amazing, this election there are no issues, because issues have been decided by your caste,” he said.
Stating that no single factor can decidedly predict the outcome of these elections, Sharma used Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment as eastern UP’s Congress general secretary as a case in point.
“One thing we can’t fathom is what effect Priyanka Gandhi is having. People are saying, ‘Inhone murda party ko zinda kar diya (she has brought a dead party back to life)’ and yet we don’t see many people talking about the Congress. I think if BJP ends up winning, they can virtually send a Thank You card to her. Because if by chance the Congress has a meaningful vote share increase, it will come from the Mahagatbandhan’s vote bank. And if it doesn’t happen, and Mahagathbandhan has the edge, how do you predict that? How do you know? Her entry may have helped Congress at the margin, but it could end up swinging the election the BJP’s way. It’s such a hard election to call,” he said.
Sharma is the author of ‘Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles’ (2012) and ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations: Ten Rules of Change in the Post-Crisis World’ (2016). He writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs among other publications. He was one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2012 and Bloomberg Market’s 50 Most Influential Thinkers in 2015.
At the Express Adda, Sharma was in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director of The Express Group, and Vandita Mishra, Nation Opinion Editor of The Indian Express.
The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change. Past guests at the event include the Dalai Lama, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, filmmaker Karan Johar, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, writer Amitav Ghosh, and oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee.