Ruchir Sharma, the Head of Emerging Markets and Chief GlobalStrategist for Morgan Stanley Investment Management, is right when he says onlythe foolhardy might wish to predict this election. So divided is the nationthat data and analyses, complex at the best of times, can be very misleading in2019. One may instead safely say that after six phases of polling and just onelast phase left, that the race is still on. That speaks a lot on how peopleanalyse issues and compare policies – high election spends, more social mediaand publicity do not always work the way they are intended to. Moreover, theview from the cities is very different and often less important than the viewfrom the heartland. The city elite tend to know, understand and evaluate mostlyfrom a limited and binary frame: an example of this is the argument heard sonauseatingly often that it has to be Narendra Modi this time because RahulGandhi is not ready. The rest are dismissed by many of the elite as a powerhungry, rag-tag group.
This does not help understand the dynamic at play in ascomplex a process as the Indian election. There are a host of considerationsthat rule, and not all of them are easily fathomed by city folk who tend toprefer the so-called national parties and pre-set alliances. Some of thesedynamics are now opening up the reading, tentative, early and not backed upwell, that the SP-BSP combine is emerging stronger than was earlier expected inUttar Pradesh. This in turn opens the possibility of a tilting of the balance infavour of an arrangement at the national level very different form the onewe've had for the last five years.
Take the rather less discussed case of cattle roaming thefields across the Hindi heartland. In the light of violence by gau rakshaks,the lynchings that followed and the collapse of the cattle trade that wentalong in a quiet and self-regulated fashion, farmers have let loose animals whoare past their prime and give a lesser yield or are not useful otherwise. Alarge 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 theprospect of crops being damaged. Roaming cattle have hurt people, destroyedcrops, eat garbage and will probably die a slow and painful death out of hungerand/or disease. The numbers are astonishing.
According to Dr. John Chelladurai of the Gandhi ResearchFoundation, out of the 190 million Indian cattle, annually about 50 millioncome 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-pressedfarmer who could use it to renew his stock of animals or invest in the farm. AsChelladurai has pointed out, the loss is staggering especially as most of theburden falls on the marginal farmer. Further, the cattle trade is linked to thedairy business and so the sudden stoppage of the market in cattle has immediateimplications on production of milk and milk prices. The impact has not beenwell studied, either on business or on elections. But voters are going to beangry, and how this moves is unknown.
The impact of agrarian distress and the slowdown in ruralmarkets is another issue that is less discussed. Rural growth has tended tooutpace urban demand growth. Sectors like FMCG are usually clued into ruralgrowth numbers. But demonetisation changed all that. Today, rural growth hasmoderated and no one has a clue to how it can be revived. The internet isavailable everywhere, ads are pouring in on 4G connections and the high impactmessage of the ruling party and its Prime Minister is streaming in all right onsmartphones but if the optimism expressed by these messages is mismatched withthe reality seen and felt by the rural voter, the outcome can be veryunexpected. This was seen in part in the 'India Shining' debacle that took innone less than Atal Bhari Vajpyee's government and the over enthusiasticcampaign run by the BP's then spin masters. So, it's entirely possible that theone who spends less draws more mileage. Marketing, of course works, but in theIndian psyche is also ingrained a certain sense of scepticism for all marketingmessages.
The impact of a pro-poor agenda like NYAY is another factornot studied enough, apart from the surface debates on affordability andsustainability of the scheme proposed by the Congress. But in the light of theplethora of claims made by the BJP, and the promise of this one proposed schemethat stands out amid the election clutter, NYAY carries the capacity to swingnot only votes but the entire direction of politics where pro poor schemes areback in focus and fashion. There is no question that the nation has failed itspoorest. The promise of a basic income to the bottom 20 per cent is anacceptance of this huge failure and a corrective that can set the tone for morebalanced and equitable growth. How do the poorest respond and whether themessage has travelled clearly to the intended beneficiaries amid the divisionsthat are in the face (religion, caste, the persona of Narendra Modi, RajivGandhi, Balakot, terrorism, corruption, dynastic rule, Nehru, Rajiiv, and thelist can go on) is another question.
As the long election draws to a close, the bitterness seemsnot to end. There is this time the tendency to score a late self-goal. TheCongress did it with Sam Pitroda pitching in quite unnecessarily on the Sikhriots and suddenly, Mani Shankar Aiyer has also emerged with his commentary,again quite unnecessarily. In the US, asit gets closer to D- day, the key candidates are usually told to get lessadventurous. The general rule is to read only from the teleprompter, to avoidimpromptu conversations, to mingle a little less with the crowd should someonespring a surprise question and to build on the work done rather than spark offany new controversy with the potential to derail the candidacy. This is a goodpractice because stress levels are usually high by then, the narrative is soldand settled in and no campaign wants a new thread that will take the mood in adifferent direction. Of course, it is another matter that the Prime Minister ofIndia only exposes himself even whenreading poetry from prepared sheets, giving dud interviews which reveal more ofhis 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 – nowmay be the time to tone down the rhetoric, let the last phase pass with nothingnew and imaginative added to the bitterness we have already seen and may thevoice of the people speak through the ballots. All other noise we have heardenough of!
(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR.Views are personal)
(Foundation of The Billion Press) (e-mail:email@example.com)