This is a polarised election. No, this is a presidential election. Wrong, this is a caste election. In any case, it is manifestly different from the 2014 “wave” election in which Narendra Modi won 282 seats with just 31 per cent of the vote. So goes Conventional Wisdom-Delhi (hereafter CWD).
That Modi became prime minister with the lowest percentage of vote share any winning party in India has got in a general election is cited often. Extrapolating, scholars have derived the conclusion that Modi was a minority winner (only 31 per cent vote), that he did not win a popular mandate, that 2014 was a Black Swan (very unusual event) election and, therefore, unlikely to be repeated again. Hence, the expert view that since Black Swans do not come in pairs, 2019 would revert back to a “normal” election.
What would the results of such a normal election look like? Between 1996 and 2009, the number of seats held by the Congress wavered around 145, with a dip to 114 in 1999 and a bounce to 206 in 2009. Hence, the common refrain (or estimate) that the Congress is likely to obtain around 140-150 seats and thus be in a strong position to form the next government. Recall that in 2004, the Congress obtained 145 seats and ran the government for the next 10 years.
For those arguing that 2014 was Black Swan, and unusual, here are some sober (and sobering) statistics. Peruse through election history (short cut, read my book Citizen Raj!). Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi won six elections between them and garnered, on average, a vote share of around 42 per cent. In 2014, the BJP contested 426 seats and obtained 31 per cent of the vote. The NDA obtained 38.5 per cent of the vote and won 336 seats.
The centre of gravity of the big Nehru-Indira wins was around 350 seats and 42 per cent of the vote. The CSDS March opinion poll has the BJP increasing its vote share to 34 per cent and they are contesting about the same number of seats. With Nitish Kumar of Bihar replacing Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, the forecast vote share of the NDA might well reach the Nehru-Indira average of 1952-1971 (and 1980). No respectable scholar, or historian, called those elections as unrepresentative of a democracy. Then why so “serious” about the NDA in 2014, and possibly 2019?
I had the occasion to travel in West Bengal and UP between May 1 and May 7. (Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of the Limousine Liberals (LL) team which, around major election time, farms out to the countryside to find out how real India is voting. The LL group is diverse and what follows are my observations, and interpretations, about Election 2019.)
Polarisation: This is commonly understood as division between communities separated by caste (and religion). My travels suggested that while polarisation exists, it is more on the basis of whether you are pro-BJP or pro-Congress. In UP, the pro-Congress vote is not reflected in a vote for the Congress, but as a vote for the Mahagathbandhan. Indeed, possibly the most striking statistic from West Bengal and UP is there was nary a mention of the Congress. Whether the centre of gravity of the Indian polity, held by the Congress from Independence to 2014, has permanently shifted to the BJP we will only know on May 23. The conclusion is there is polarisation, but not in the Delhi sense.
Development not a concern in 2019: A certified CW-Delhi conclusion is that somewhat surprisingly, after 2014, 2019 is emphatically not about economic development. It is ostensibly about everything but. Regardless of the election result, this conclusion is certified wrong. Every journalist has her own style of soliciting a view from the potential voter. Mine is to never ask who the individual, or group of individuals, are going to vote for. I like to find out indirectly, that is, which way is the hawa, what are the issues, what is the thinking on the problems being faced, etc. I then enjoy engaging the voter in a discussion about the issues. If one believes that there is no truth, just opinions about an “expected truth”, then it is relatively less difficult to infer voting preferences of the potential voter.
In an UP village, one of my fellow travellers asked me to talk to a group of youngish men about the “no-jobs economy” they were facing. I readily jumped into the conversation and asked the group what had been happening to the economy overall. Is it true that it is difficult to find jobs? Yes, very difficult. This obviously happened because of Modi’s economic policies, right? A worsened economic environment, right? Yes, the emphatic reply to both questions. But comparing today with 2014, is the situation worse, or the same, in terms of job availability? Here, unlike his highly educated counterparts in urban India (the old elite!), the rural voter does not believe in arguments for the sake of argument. He admitted that the situation, in terms of jobs, was no worse than 2014, and may even be better.
The LL group arrives in large vans and enters villages, and constructs interviews by the roadside. I worry always, especially post 2014, as to how does the rural semi-urban voter see us. Do they see us as part of the old elite (associated with the Congress) or as the new upwardly mobile elite (associated with the BJP)? Do they tailor their responses according to what they think we want to hear? Many seasoned journalists have come to the conclusion that Election 2019 will unleash the punishment of the silent voter. Is the silent voter pro-BJP or pro-Congress? Again, another defining view which will become known on May 23.
What nearly everyone admitted is that their broadly defined income levels had gone up. Construction of roads and delivery of nearly 24/7 electricity. Add toilets and LPG cylinders and bank accounts, mostly benefitting women. The beginnings of national health insurance. Motorcycles (and scooters) have increased manifold. Some even have got houses — average welfare seems to have increased substantially in UP. The favourite explanation for the preponderance of motor-cycle usage given that there were (ostensibly) no jobs is dowry demands for motorcycles. Still, a sign of progress.
The fearful voter: Did not see any evidence of fear on the part of the voter. She might be lying, but she is not fearful in giving an opinion. At one roadside conversation, on the one side were OBCs emphasising support for Modi; on the other side of the highway, barely 20 yards away, was a group of Muslims complaining about the bias against Muslims, and why they would definitely vote against the BJP (but not for the Congress).
Farmer distress and cow politics: If there is one unanimous view emanating from UP travel, it is that farmer distress is real, and that cow politics has deepened the distress among all, farmers and non-farmers. I have yet to come across anyone defending this policy, whether a BJP supporter or not. (I did not meet a self-confessed RSS man, who might have a different view). Can anyone come up with a defence about this lose-lose policy? The poor Hindu farmer is hurt; Muslims have lost jobs, and in some instances, life; the rural economy is hurt. Yet, Hindu India continues to support this madness. Platitudes about gaushalas are heard. What does this imply for voting in UP? Modi does not get the blame, Yogi does.
Conclusion: The number one policy concern of the new government should be a completely revamped policy towards agriculture and animal husbandry.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 11, 2019 under the title ‘Another Black Swan?’ The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express and consultant, Network 18. Views are personal.