Surjit S Bhalla. Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019. Westland Books. Hardcover edition, Price Rs 499. Pp 222.
If you are impatient to know who will win the 2019 general elections, you can skip 12 chapters and jump straight to page 211 of chapter 13 of Surjit Bhalla’s latest book, Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019, and find the answers. Without making a big suspense movie out of it, let us note that Bhalla gives the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a minimum of 253 seats (BJP, mind you, not National Democratic Alliance or NDA), and a likely 274 seats in the best case scenario. Slightly less than the 282 it won in 2014, but far ahead of the forecasts made by most pundits using the latest poll surveys before voting started on 11 April.
For BJP partisans, this may be great news, but Bhalla, who has batted for the Narendra Modi government and even served for a while as a part-time member of the Economic Advisory Council to the PM, has even better news on the next page. He says his forecasts were made pre-Pulwama, and if the subsequent Balakot airstrikes have moved the needle even somewhat towards the BJP, the party may well cross 300 seats. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP bandwagon is facing a mahagathbandhan roadblock erected by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), Bhalla predicts a massive 62 seats for the BJP – numbers even the BJP partisans are not talking about.
Clearly, Bhalla is not afraid to stick his neck out, even if there is some possibility of his balloon being punctured on 23 May 2019. It is the mark of an honest forecaster that he does not hedge his forecasts, even if the probability of being wrong can be reasonably high.
But while the headline election numbers are interesting, that is not really the central purpose of Bhalla’s book, which is less about election forecasting and more about India’s electoral history since Independence, and how fortunes have been impacted by the interplay of politics and economics.
In the first chapter, Bhalla explains what he believes this election is all about. If you were to listen to the mainstream media, most of anti-Narendra Modi, this is the most polarising election of them all. But Bhalla pooh-poohs this, pointing out that all elections polarise to some extent. And this one is about polarisation of a different kind: the old elite versus the new elite, or the rising middle class. It is about the bottom 70 per cent, who have, with a few exceptions like farmers, largely gained during the Modi tenure, versus the top 30 per cent, who have lost in relative terms. While the bottom 70 per cent have gained from the direction of Modi’s welfare schemes and financial inclusion policies, the top 30 per cent have lost out due to the emphasis on tax compliance. Thanks to both demonetisation and the goods and services tax, those who paid less tax under the old regime now are forced to fork out more – and the old rich elite was most impacted by this.
Chapter two goes back to answering two questions: why did India remain democratic, and whether reservations based only on caste are kosher? Bhalla believes that India has remained democratic for two reasons – its inheritance of British liberal institutions, and its essential plurality. The modern institutions were inherited from colonial rule, while the basic plural spirit was the result of India’s inherent pluralism. Though Bhalla does not explicitly say so, pluralism and diversity are inherent to the Hindu-Indic religious and civilisational ethos. On the issue of quotas, Bhalla believes that we made a cardinal error in not including economic criteria from the very beginning, and believes that caste-based quotas impacted Muslims the most, since they were left out of all forms of affirmative actions. He believes that the new 10 per cent quota for the economically-weaker sections, without any caste-linkages, will benefit Muslims and Christians the most.
In chapter 3, Bhalla discusses the importance of Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist predilections and how this impacted growth rates negatively, both during his own lifetime and that of his daughter Indira Gandhi. Bhalla makes no secret of his belief that Nehru was a socialist long before Independence, but is willing to give him credit for one simple achievement: India’s growth rate under Nehruvian socialism during 1950-70 (2.1 per cent) was significantly better than under the previous 60 years of British raj (0.1 per cent). But Nehruvian socialism certainly held India back from what it could have been.
Chapter four deals with another important question – the linkage between economic growth and electoral outcomes. Here, Bhalla is on uncertain territory, for the linkage throws up no definite pattern. In the first four elections, the economy did not matter, and the Congress party always won. It was in the fifth election that the economy moved centre-stage, with Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao slogan. But by 1977, it was back to non-economic issues like the Emergency. In 1980, again it was the collapse of the ragtag Janata Party that ensured the return of the Congress. In 1984, it was Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and in 1989 it was Bofors and corruption. In 1991, when the country was facing external bankruptcy, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi brought the Congress pretty close to a majority, but it was the beginning of a new coalition era which lasted until 2014. Narendra Modi changed all that, and a lot of this had to do with economic slowdown under UPA-II.
The next chapter is about reforms, and whether reformist zeal was responsible for the electoral losses of its protagonists. P V Narasimha Rao lost in 1996 after carrying out the most extensive economic reforms in Indian history; Atal Bihari Vajpayee led his party to defeat in 2004 after doing much to reform the economy, ensuring low inflation, and presiding over a relative jobs boom. UPA-I did no reforms, but won in 2009. Under Narendra Modi, we have probably seen the most extensive reforms since 1991, and hence the question hovers over us: will he face the same fate as Vajpayee and Rao? He provides the answers in chapters 11-13.
In between, Bhalla examines two myths – that Sonia Gandhi is an electoral plus for the Congress, and that the RSS is a force multiplier for the BJP. His answer is no to both questions, but it is tough to believe the latter, since at the very least, the RSS brings the power of cadre numbers to help the BJP. He is probably right on the Gandhi family’s contribution to the Congress’ electoral fortunes, beyond holding the party together, but we need more data to support the idea that the RSS does not bring any strength to the BJP.
Chapter seven is about opinion polls and why they often go wrong. Bhalla’s partial answer is that voters lie, not always, but often enough to flummox the pollsters. To figure out whether voters are telling the truth to pollsters, it is important to work out a lying index – which is one of Bhalla’s contributions to improving electoral predictions.
Chapter eight is the most interesting one as it deals with fake news and analysis. Contrary to what the title of the chapter may suggest, it is not about morphed pictures and tweets involving the amplification of patently false news. Bhalla’s fake news is about a more important kind of fakery – the insinuation by Modi’s opponents that everything about the data generated by the government (gross domestic product, jobs, investment, demonetisation) is false or doctored. He counters the assertion that demonetisation saw a loss of 1.5 million jobs in early 2017 with a simple fact: the jobs data for September-December 2016 cannot be compared with jobs data for January-April 2017, for they are not seasonally adjusted. He also questions the oft-repeated claim that India needs to create 12 million new jobs a year. He maintains that we do not need more than 4.5 million new jobs annually, since the relevant population range (ages 15-24) is growing at 15 million a year, of whom six million enrol for a college education, leaving nine million in the potential jobs market. But even at a high labour force participation rate of 50 per cent, which is higher than currently estimated levels, it gives us a jobs gap of only 4.5 million. Which is not an unachievable target. Bhalla’s data can be contested, but you cannot accuse him of fakery, for he believes in his numbers.
Chapter nine is Bhalla’s warning to Hindus on making the cow a big issue. He believes that Modi could have done more to stamp out cow-related vigilantism, but the problem is less about Modi or the BJP, and more about Hindu society. Chapter 10 deals with the battle of the elites – the old Lutyens one and the new middle classes that Modi represents – while chapter 11 documents Modi’s schemes for inclusive growth and economic reforms.
Chapters 12 and 13 give us Bhalla’s rationale of using results in past elections as the base for creating scenarios for the next one, based on margins of victory or losses and how much a 1 per cent increase in vote share yields in terms of seats. Bhalla’s conclusions are adverse for a Congress revival in 2019. His worst-case and best-case scenarios are 69-97 seats.
Maybe Rahul Gandhi has read Bhalla and that’s why he has sought a sure seat in Wayanad, far away from the dicier Amethi seat, and Priyanka Gandhi has played a muted role so far. It is a desperate attempt to prevent the Gandhi myth from being exploded forever.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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