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Friday, May 20, 2022

The infallible pontificators

As you read this,EVMs are being stacked up,returning officers are nervously double-checking numbers,and candidates are laughing nervously at jokes that are a little too loud,a little too stale.

Written by Mihir S. Sharma |
May 16, 2009 10:04:47 pm

As you read this,EVMs are being stacked up,returning officers are nervously double-checking numbers,and candidates are laughing nervously at jokes that are a little too loud,a little too stale. The Count is on. We don’t know how it will end.

What we do know is how it won’t. In so many other parts of the world,elections have a clear ending: the concession speech. The losing candidate will get up on stage before a crowd of his supporters,thank them,congratulate his opponent (shushing the crowd’s boos) and promise to be constructive in opposition. Can you remember that happening here?

It doesn’t. Because,first of all,everybody claims to have won. You’ve fewer seats? Never mind,stress your voteshare increase. Or point out how well you’ve survived anti-incumbency. And how your alliance partners have all done well. Anything — rather than unequivocally admit defeat. In India,politics means never having to say you’re beaten.

Of course,there are some excuses for politicians. They’re spokesmen,mainly,so they can’t speak frankly for fear their don’t-get-to-be-on-TV colleagues will come down on them like a tonne of bricks. And they have to pretend to have won,on the off-chance that this means the president will absent-mindedly dial their chap’s number rather than the other fellow’s. Hence the tortured logic,the fixed,determined smiles,while all the while they’re wishing,inside,no doubt,that they had stuck to being plutocratic Supreme Court lawyers/ “independent” journalists/ contractors with an interesting past.

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But the people who never,never,admit defeat are the rest of us. Pontificators. Politicians might lose — not winning your home constituency,for example,is a trifle hard to spin as a win,as some fairly major figures might find out through the day today — but pontificators never do. We are always right,sometimes retrospectively.

Elsewhere,people have to admit they got it wrong,that something can’t be explained by their preferred narrative. Half of America’s commentators have admitted they got Iraq wrong,if for the right reasons. (The other half say they got it right,but for the wrong reasons.) And the count is usually time for over-extended commentators to begin to reflect on how they might have made a mistake. But India’s an exception. We are divinely ordained as always right. (The pontiff is infallible. Pontificators are infallible too.)

Why is that? Because these elections are so much more complex and layered than processes elsewhere,that devotees of all-explaining theories will always find supportive evidence if they look hard enough. We’ve all seen people do that; psychologists call it “confirmation bias”,and worry that it causes “attitude polarisation” — when two people look at the same evidence,draw different conclusions based on their preconceived notions,and then declare the other person absurdly wrong and not worth speaking to. There’s a direct line between that and screechy TV discussions.

And so,in the interest of our collective sanity and eardrum-health,it’s probably necessary to provide everyone with several grains of salt with which to take what you are told is happening. Here,thus,is a necessarily incomplete set of Grand Narratives,and how their devotees will spin things regardless of outcome.

First,the politics-is-mud types. Visually identifiable; usually the most nattily dressed people around,unless an ex-bureaucrat has turned up. Their job is easy: if the turnout is low,it’s because politicians are crooks. If not,money and muscle power won the day. If independents (better understood as temporarily-unaffiliated politicians) win: look,people don’t like politicians. If they lose: politics is a dirty machine,good people like us can’t break in. A closely-related species sees throw-the-rascals-out anti-incumbency in every election; given that the constituency’s incumbent needn’t be from the party that’s in power in the state,which needn’t be in power at the Centre,everyone is usually throwing some rascal out.

Then,the it’s-all-a-neoliberal-conspiracy theorists. Much more difficult to identify visually. After all,it’s politics: there are confusingly many khadi kurtas. But anyone throwing hands in the air,bemoaning the “lack of alternatives”,or breaking into a discussion to tell us the central problem is that the real issues weren’t covered in the corporate media,might well be wearing an “SEZs are Capitalist Plots” T-shirt under the Fabindia. Again,their task is easy: if the “neoliberal” parties decline in any way,the country is tired of being a pawn of international capital; if they don’t,it is because the country is a pawn of international capital.

Then there’s the governance-groupies. They’d go well beyond saying that good people are rarely voted out. If the Nitishes of the world appear to be sweeping,you’re A-OK: stick to the script,praise reform,congratulate the stockmarkets for correctly predicting everything,wind up by producing a couple of appalling statistics and blaming Nehru for them. But,if someone who’s believed to have been good at the job seems to be losing it,say it’s because they didn’t do enough. If only he hadn’t squandered money on state schemes! If only she’d pushed harder for FDI! After all,this is a new,post-1991 world. The voter is unbound. You have to surpass their expectations. Clearly you didn’t. Listen to me more carefully next time: what your rural electorate wants is simple — a stable government that understands that tax havens are a necessity in a globalising world.

Then the Strong Leader people. The NDA has a fraction more than the UPA? It’s because Manmohan Singh mumbles inaudibly. The UPA holds on by a whisker?

Advani’s chance came too late. If they had projected Narendra Modi,it would have been different. Look at the response to his rallies! Never mind. Agli baari.

But why’d these first reactions matter at all? Consider: five years ago,people said the NDA had thrown it away because of “India Shining”. This assumed “India Shining” mattered: if they’d won,it would have been because India was Shining; if they lost,it was because India was Not. And that first reaction shaped the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA,and the Congress’s politics since. And so powerful is its hold that the possibility that 2004 was decided by upwardly mobile swing voters is forgotten.

So,as people discuss the minutiae of coalition-building — “wooing” (which comes after rather than before “feelers”,apparently) and suchlike — keep these grains of salt handy for when they tell you what went wrong,and what the mandate’s for. After all,The Voter doesn’t deliver a Mandate. She votes for a candidate. 543 of them win. For at least 543 different reasons. That’s the actual,grand narrative to focus on.

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