Guesswork and the elections

This is one of those strange elections, lacking a theme and unfolding with a sense of drift. It is different from 2004 on the sensory side. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Atal Bihari Vajpayee joined battle 15 years ago with great confidence in message and victory. When the numbers came in many in the media and middle class were taken aback by the BJP’s defeat despite, or perhaps because of, ‘India Shining’. That particular message and campaign seemed so inspirational and winning that it seemed a done deal.

 

In 2019, this is not so. Others have observed the negative thrust of the ruling party’s campaign. We can quibble about this but it is indisputable that it lacks the flavour of 2014. So what exactly is missing for most people? It offers no magic solutions this time.

 

The promises are subdued, the slogans more banal — ‘Phir ek baar Modi Sarkar’ can be read as a plea, or an anodyne statement. You could even read it with a question mark at the end instead of the missing exclamation point.

 

It is not inspirational, doesn’t give hope and it makes no promise of improvement. Importantly, it does not refer to performance. The most charitable thing one can say is that it rhymes in a kindergarten way.

 

You could perhaps see it as an expression of confidence: That the slogan tells the voter that the era 2014-2019 is what you wanted, and so get ready for five more years of it.

 

But none of the other stuff validates this: The prime minister says he is still the challenger, meaning he is still not the system, which he’s convinced remains hostile to him. But the system is what the citizen engages with and is interested in. The more I think of it the more the slogan appears to me to be a sign that the BJP has concluded that the voter would be put off if told that under Narendra Modi, India was shining.

 

This brings me to the opposition, which is arguably running a more positive campaign than the government. The primary weapon Rahul Gandhi is taking to war is the targeted basic income scheme called NYAY. It is Rs 6,000 a month which is substantial enough to make many vote for it. What might stop them? Questions of credibility. Not the credibility of the idea and its deliverability but the question first about whether Mr Gandhi can win enough seats nationally to be in the position to implement the scheme. This will be his biggest issue and I wonder if he has thought about how to deal with it.

 

Illustration: Binay Sinha

The cost of the programme is apparently around Rs 3.2 trillion which is thought to be so big as to be unsustainable. I have a solution for this — take Rs 2 trillion out of the defence and paramilitary budget. All told, this now comes to Rs 4 trillion annually and has reached this appalling figure without debate on why it is required to be so large.

 

I’d like to see those who deal in nationalism explain why this money should be given to European manufacturers of 20th century baubles like fighter jets and submarines instead of to India’s poorest. I never hear this argued in the media and I wonder if there are others who feel this way, and in fact more of them than those willing to sacrifice this nation for its Army.

 

All this time, I had assumed that Mr Modi would return to power easily, but I am no longer finding much support for this position. In a small WhatsApp group of friends, we were wagering where we thought the BJP would end up, given that it won 282 seats in 2014. I put my money on 220. This was not based on information or wisdom. I was just going by what the news channel, whose panel I am on, has reported by way of its opinion poll. However, that poll was taken a month ago and we know that cliché about the difference a week makes in politics.

 

It may interest readers to know that my figure was the highest and the others lowballed the BJP down to 145. I was taken aback by this pessimism in our saviour, but they were convinced that Uttar Pradesh was unfolding as a rout.

 

I have since reconsidered my position and will not be surprised if the Lok Sabha is either hung in favour of this side or that. I may not even be surprised if there’s a sweep this way. Though I’d be pretty shocked if it went the other way. This tosh is hardly the sort of thing you’d want from a professional analyst but I must be honest with the reader: I’ve no idea what will happen.

 

Even the opinion polls are hedging where things are going. You may have noticed that many of the polls are showing results clubbed. Instead of individual states they’re giving regions, like East zone, comprising Bihar, Bengal and Orissa and further aggregating the data by assigning seats to just three formations, ‘National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’, ‘United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’ and ‘Others’, which could ultimately mean anything.

 

It reminds me of an opinion poll done some years ago by psephologist turned politician, GVL Narasimha Rao. As counting began, it turned out that Mr Rao had called, if my memory serves me, the results in every single state wrong. His winners lost and his losers won.

 

When asked by the panellist (Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar) to explain how he could go wrong on this scale, Rao said “But at least I got the national totals right.” Alas, guesswork is not psephology and something like that is happening in these polls, too, because nobody is quite sure any longer.

 

Earlier in the week, I asked an acquaintance in government what they thought the ruling party would win and the answer surprised me. “150” they replied, adding by way of justification, “Silent wave.”

 

It would be remarkable if the Gujarati Renaissance ended so quickly and in such ignominy. But who can say that based on merits it is not deserved? On the other hand, if the BJP wins, at least my wager is secure.