India goes to the polls next month. In your dual identity as a political observer and perspicacious writer with a 25-year grass roots experience of Indian democracy, what is your take on election 2019?
I was arguing for much of 2018 that the electoral setbacks suffered by the BJP in bye-polls and state elections, and the rise of regional anti-Modi alliances, had lowered chances of Modi being re-elected to 50-50. It stirred controversy then, though later it became conventional wisdom. But now a patriotic surge in the wake of border conflict with Pakistan has shifted the momentum back in his favour. As always, when it comes to calling Indian elections that classic Hollywood line of William Goldman is still very relevant: “Nobody knows anything!” Still, I am looking forward to going on my 28th election trip during end of April/early May to increase the probability of knowing what’s going to happen by being on the ground. The distillation of such experiences from my previous election trips captured in my latest work, “Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey Through India,” is what makes it so exciting. We never quite know which way the wind will blow in an Indian election until at least we have this on the road feel.
Do you think 2019 elections will be a battle of ideologies or a fight between personalities? Your views?
What I have seen on recent trips to rural Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere is a reassertion of traditional Indian caste and alliance politics—the caste base of both the BJP and opposition parties solidifying around their votaries; BJP’s rivals firming up alliances to halt Modi, and the BJP responding shrewdly by stitching together its own counter-alliances. The dominant force is not so much personality or ideology as caste and alliance tactics.
How do you rate to performance of the Modi Government? Would you say it disappointed or has delivered on expectations?
He has defied expectations, certainly. He reneged on the promise of “maximum governance, minimum government,” reverting to type of the typical statist Indian politician, promising even more generous sops of government welfare. For those who hoped for free market economic reform and smaller government, this is indeed very much a disappointment.
Some say that Modi’s governance benefitted corporates like Ambani, Adani the most, with common people left in the lurch. Would you agree?
It ignores the fact that Modi criticised generous Congress welfare programs as an “insult” to poor Indians who want jobs, not handouts, but then raised spending on Congress schemes like the rural employments guarantees. Hard to dismiss these costly programs as “nothing.” So I would say as far as economic policies go, he has governed more like the previous Congress governments than fundamentally changing the Indian economic model.
There are some policy decisions by the Modi govt, which have become political issues also like demonetisation, GST etc. Are you critical about demonetisation?
I am. I think more than any other Modi move, it revealed that he was not a free marketeer - the Ronald Reagan of India, as many hoped. He is a traditional Indian statist, willing to use state power in a brute, heavy-handed manner.
Do you think demonetisation will be an issue in the election? In the recent assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and MP, people voted against the BJP. Political observers fingered resentment at demonetisation as the crucial factor. Would you agree?
Early on, many voters seemed willing to give demonetisation time to deliver the promised benefits to the poor. But when on our election travels to states such as MP and Rajasthan in late 2018, many voters vented that its deleterious impact on consumer spending was hurting their businesses. Two and a half years after it was implemented, lingering resentment could still undermine some support for the BJP. But I doubt if it will be a defining issue in this polls. My conversations with voters reveals that they are still voting largely along caste lines and viewing issues such as demonetisation that way with the upper castes speaking positively about demonetisation while the Muslim and Dalit voters are much more critical of the measure.
In 2014 Modi and BJP cleverly mixed development and Hindutva slogans. Do you think the same mix of agenda will be repeated in these elections too?
As I mention in my new book, Modi spoke more about development than Hindutva in the 2014 campaign. In this election, I don’t think he or the BJP are going to speak much about development as they realise that satisfying the Indian voter with incremental progress on development is a pretty hard task. They are instead going to focus more on their strident stance on terror vis-à-vis Pakistan and also mouth Hindutva more compared to 2014.
How about other Hindutva shibboleths like Ayodhya, cow vigilantism et al? Will these divisive issues become key election topics?
As I have said earlier, the BJP’s campaign this time will be more about nationalism and Hindutva compared to 2014 when Modi articulated development as the core issue. At that time, he was tapping into the widespread rage that the UPA-2 government had mismanaged the economy with growth slumping and inflation rising. That is obviously not an option this time, as they have been in power for five years, especially with the fact that unemployment is a huge issue.
Opposition alleges that an undeclared emergency is currently on. Freedom of speech is under threat. There is a feeling of insecurity among Dalits and minorities. Do you agree with all these assertions?
The word ‘emergency’ maybe too strong but the mood of fear is unusual, especially compared to the past governments, and it extends across communities and classes. I have talked in recently with members of the Delhi elite who were unwilling to speak openly on the phone, out of fear that someone might be listening on. This is a first, in my experience. Otherwise, it is fair to say that across governments, at the both the national and the state level, businessmen loathe to saying anything against those in power. That tells you how intrusive and powerful the state remains in this country. In a truly capitalist economy such as the United States, they don’t hesitate to choose sides on important issues, often wearing their party leanings on their corporate sleeves.
Diversity or plurality of the society is the charm of Indian democracy. Any threat to it may kill the spirit of nascent Indianness. Do you see a threat to our democracy?
Not a serious one. Just look at what has happened over the past year, as the astonishing variety of Indian opposition parties has started to come together in alliances to stop Modi, state by state. No other big democracy has this kind of strength in diversity, in which voter loyalty to subnational leaders can block the rise of a dominant national strongman. Even if the BJP wins, its majority and mandate are likely to be limited by the number of alliances that have cropped up at the state level. The heterogeneity of India is such that it is very hard for Modi or anyone to undermine these regional loyalties or the system that allows them to gain real power in the Lok Sabha.
There is a feeling among some sections of the society that our constitutional institutions are facing pressure from the ruling dispensation. Please comment on this.
I don’t have any insight into this apart from what has been reported in the media. My hope is that the voter will cut through these arguments and vote free of any fear. That will reveal the strength of the Indian ballot system.
What is your assessment about the impact of Pulwama attack in the election campaign? Do you think it’s a turning point in the current political discourse?
Indian democracy is unique in many ways but not in this one: voters do rally around the incumbent leader in times of crisis or perceived crisis. Again though, elections are decided by a multitude of factors—from caste and community to development. So to say one factor like Pulwama could be “the turning point” would be overstating the case; but it might marginally help Modi and the BJP.
Crisis in the agrarian sector is acute. Farmers are agitating in many parts of the country. Will the farmer vote go against Modi?
Indian voters have been voting for decades against incumbents, who have been losing two out of three state and national elections since the 1970s, and one of the big reasons for this is simmering frustration with the pace of economic development and social progress. This process manifests in various ways—anger among farmers is one of the latest, and yes it will hurt the incumbent party.
Some say this election will be a litmus test for the regional parties. Regional leaders like Mamta, Mayawati will play key roles. What is your view?
As I have written in my new book, the emergence of regional leaders is the most important trend in India politics over the past three decades with their vote shares consistently rising over time. So it will be interesting to see if their vote share rises further in this election, particularly with the BJP campaigning on a more nationalist platform. UP will be a key battleground state as always; as the fight is directly between the BJP and two very powerful regional satraps. Regardless of what happens in this election though, in the long term I still think that the vote share of the regional parties is set to increase further unless the national parties accommodate regional aspirations in a more inclusive way. This is because most Indians think of themselves as Malayalis, Tamilians, Bengalis and Gujaratis first and as Indians second.
Do you think the alliance between BSP and SP will be crucial for opposition unity? Will this impact the election scenario in any way?
Undoubtedly. Otherwise, the BJP would have completely swept UP again like it did in both the 2014 national and 2017 state elections. Such an alliance also provides a strong demonstration effect in other states of India as it shows that to stop the BJP even two bitter rivals can and need to come together.
If we compare the political situations in 2014 and 2019, there is a drastic change in the scenario. The Opposition is trying to unite in their battle against the BJP. What are your comments?
Modi and the BJP won most of the Lok Sabha seats with only 31 per cent of the popular vote, because the opposition were divided. This time, against united opposition, Modi and the BJP could yet again win 31 percent of the vote and still lose a chunk of its seats. The alliance math is that simple and important.
How do you view the performance of Rahul Gandhi as the president of Congress? Will he be able to measure up to Modi?
Over the course of my travels I have seen Rahul change, from a young man who came across as aloof and arrogant into a more effective campaigner, working to connect with audiences by incorporating popular culture and filmi dialogues in his speeches rather than century old tales of the Gandhi family and their greatness. We first met him on the campaign trail in April 2007 during the UP election and came away quite underwhelmed. I recount that encounter at length in my book and our subsequent encounters as well. It is only during the 2013 Rajasthan state elections that we begin to see him getting more comfortable on the campaign trail. I think his performance over the past couple of years reflects this transformation, but overall, he still has a long way to go before he can match Modi’s oratorical or organisational skills.
Will the entry of Priyanka have any impact in the forthcoming elections?
Over the course of my travels I have witnessed the cult of Priyanka, with many Congress party loyalists seeing her as the second coming of Indira, a powerful and compelling natural who could reverse the party’s decline. However, the days when any one leader could come and instantly change the narrative of a campaign based on just flair are long gone in India. So I think for the 2019 election at least it is too late for Priyanka to make much of a difference. She will have to spend much more time on the ground building a base before she can make a real impact.
Between corruption and communalism, which do you view as more dangerous?
Corruption is a cancer that undermines public trust in every emerging economy, with serious but generally not fatal consequences. Communalism, however is more dangerous as it can rend the social fabric of a state and given India’s diversity it’s important that the traditional sense of communal harmony is not ruptured. Hopefully, we should not be constrained to make a trade-off between the two.
You have travelled widely both in India and across the globe. How is our election process different from other countries?
The prolonged, multi-round, multi-week schedules, provides time to protect each voting place but also greatly raises the likelihood of mid-election surprises. The carnival atmosphere, the great sense of pride and ownership Indian citizens feel in their power to vote, is in abundant contrast to polls vowed as a tedious duty in many developed democracies. The amazing intimacy of the campaigns; for all the pomp, and the fawning Indians lavish on political leaders, their campaigns often have warm family feel that you don’t even glimpse elsewhere — hangers on, relatives, children swarming around the big supremo in their bedrooms. This mood is magically enchanting, and continues to be one of the big reasons I have been drawn to the campaign trail for more than a quarter of a century. Indian democracy is lovable in ways outsiders would find very hard to relate to.