Ruchir Sharma, the Head of Emerging Markets and Chief Global Strategist for Morgan Stanley Investment Management, is right when he says only the foolhardy might wish to predict this election. So divided is the nation that data and analyses, complex at the best of times, can be very misleading in 2019. One may instead safely say that after six phases of polling and just one last phase left, that the race is still on. That speaks a lot on how people analyse issues and compare policies – high election spends, more social media and publicity do not always work the way they are intended to. Moreover, the view from the cities is very different and often less important than the view from the heartland. The city elite tend to know, understand and evaluate mostly from a limited and binary frame: an example of this is the argument heard so nauseatingly often that it has to be Narendra Modi this time because Rahul Gandhi is not ready. The rest are dismissed by many of the elite as a power hungry, rag-tag group.
This does not help understand the dynamic at play in as complex a process as the Indian election. There are a host of considerations that rule, and not all of them are easily fathomed by city folk who tend to prefer the so-called national parties and pre-set alliances. Some of these dynamics are now opening up the reading, tentative, early and not backed up well, that the SP-BSP combine is emerging stronger than was earlier expected in Uttar Pradesh. This in turn opens the possibility of a tilting of the balance in favour of an arrangement at the national level very different form the one we’ve had for the last five years.
Take the rather less discussed case of cattle roaming the fields across the Hindi heartland. In the light of violence by gau rakshaks, the lynchings that followed and the collapse of the cattle trade that went along in a quiet and self-regulated fashion, farmers have let loose animals who are past their prime and give a lesser yield or are not useful otherwise. A large population of members of the bovine family now roams fields across India, a loss first for farmers who have let off their cattle, now exacerbated by the prospect of crops being damaged. Roaming cattle have hurt people, destroyed crops, eat garbage and will probably die a slow and painful death out of hunger and/or disease. The numbers are astonishing.
According to Dr. John Chelladurai of the Gandhi Research Foundation, out of the 190 million Indian cattle, annually about 50 million come to the commercial market every year as farmers replace them with younger, higher yielding animals. This trade is estimated to be of the order of Rs. 25,000 crores annually, all of it as cash in the hand of the hard-pressed farmer who could use it to renew his stock of animals or invest in the farm. As Chelladurai has pointed out, the loss is staggering especially as most of the burden falls on the marginal farmer. Further, the cattle trade is linked to the dairy business and so the sudden stoppage of the market in cattle has immediate implications on production of milk and milk prices. The impact has not been well studied, either on business or on elections. But voters are going to be angry, and how this moves is unknown.
The impact of agrarian distress and the slowdown in rural markets is another issue that is less discussed. Rural growth has tended to outpace urban demand growth. Sectors like FMCG are usually clued into rural growth numbers. But demonetisation changed all that. Today, rural growth has moderated and no one has a clue to how it can be revived. The internet is available everywhere, ads are pouring in on 4G connections and the high impact message of the ruling party and its Prime Minister is streaming in all right on smartphones but if the optimism expressed by these messages is mismatched with the reality seen and felt by the rural voter, the outcome can be very unexpected. This was seen in part in the ‘India Shining’ debacle that took in none less than Atal Bhari Vajpyee’s government and the over enthusiastic campaign run by the BP’s then spin masters. So, it’s entirely possible that the one who spends less draws more mileage. Marketing, of course works, but in the Indian psyche is also ingrained a certain sense of scepticism for all marketing messages.
The impact of a pro-poor agenda like NYAY is another factor not studied enough, apart from the surface debates on affordability and sustainability of the scheme proposed by the Congress. But in the light of the plethora of claims made by the BJP, and the promise of this one proposed scheme that stands out amid the election clutter, NYAY carries the capacity to swing not only votes but the entire direction of politics where pro poor schemes are back in focus and fashion. There is no question that the nation has failed its poorest. The promise of a basic income to the bottom 20 per cent is an acceptance of this huge failure and a corrective that can set the tone for more balanced and equitable growth. How do the poorest respond and whether the message has travelled clearly to the intended beneficiaries amid the divisions that are in the face (religion, caste, the persona of Narendra Modi, Rajiv Gandhi, Balakot, terrorism, corruption, dynastic rule, Nehru, Rajiiv, and the list can go on) is another question.
As the long election draws to a close, the bitterness seems not to end. There is this time the tendency to score a late self-goal. The Congress did it with Sam Pitroda pitching in quite unnecessarily on the Sikh riots and suddenly, Mani Shankar Aiyer has also emerged with his commentary, again quite unnecessarily. In the US, as it gets closer to D- day, the key candidates are usually told to get less adventurous. The general rule is to read only from the teleprompter, to avoid impromptu conversations, to mingle a little less with the crowd should someone spring a surprise question and to build on the work done rather than spark off any new controversy with the potential to derail the candidacy. This is a good practice because stress levels are usually high by then, the narrative is sold and settled in and no campaign wants a new thread that will take the mood in a different direction. Of course, it is another matter that the Prime Minister of India only exposes himself even when reading poetry from prepared sheets, giving dud interviews which reveal more of his inner State and thinking than ever before. There is no one to rein him in. But Pitroda has been rebuked and this should be a good lesson to others – now may be the time to tone down the rhetoric, let the last phase pass with nothing new and imaginative added to the bitterness we have already seen and may the voice of the people speak through the ballots. All other noise we have heard enough of!
(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)
(Foundation of The Billion Press) (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)