Making sense of India’s elections

Surjit Bhalla adds economics to political science to better understand people’s verdicts since independence

Karan Bhasin | May 20, 2019

#Citizen Raj   #Surjit Bhalla   #India   #Lok Sabha elections 2019   #elections  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

With highly appropriate lyrics at the start of every chapter, combined with deep insights from rigorous analysis of data – Citizen Raj is an absolute delight to read. 

In Citizen Raj, Surjit Bhalla, well known economist and commentator, looks at Indian elections from 1952 till 2019 and he does what he mentions to be his hobby which also happens to be his passion – an analysis of elections. In many ways it is an ambitious attempt at combining the disciplines of political science and economics with the intention of explaining electoral outcomes since India’s independence. It also happens to be the first such attempt which makes it important to critically evaluate its conclusions. 
The author uses the historical understanding behind electoral outcomes as he further forecasts the likely outcome of the 2019 elections. But Citizen Raj is beyond just a forecast for the current election as it challenges the conventional understanding behind India’s electoral politics. For starters, it has been believed by many that caste plays a major role in Indian elections. Bhalla, however, argues that if caste mattered then regional caste-based parties wouldn’t be thrown out of power. While one is likely to agree with the fact that the importance of caste has partially reduced for the voters, the fact remains that our political parties continue to be obsessed with it as an important determinant of electoral outcomes. Consequentially, when parties end up offering candidates based on caste, it would be difficult to validate the decline in its importance empirically. 
Another conclusion that perhaps is too unconventional is about the role that the RSS plays for the BJP and Sonia Gandhi plays for the Congress. There is a view that BJP doesn’t have a committed cadre and it draws upon the workers of RSS to volunteer for election campaign. Similarly, Sonia as a leader figure ensures that the Congress flock manages to stick together. Therefore, while the RSS and Sonia may not be able to ensure higher vote percentage for their parties, they both perform critical functions in their respective electoral campaign.
The analysis for the RSS’s impact on the BJP’s 2014 vote share is particularly interesting but the problem is that 2014 was in general a wave election, so it would be difficult to compare the probability of voting for NDA in RSS strongholds with other parts of the country. The wave in favour of Narendra Modi existed across the country, therefore even in areas where RSS has a weak presence the BJP may have gained significantly. What would, however, be interesting is to extend this analysis for 2009 and 2019 to see if we still find little evidence of RSS having a positive and significant impact on the NDA’s electoral fortune. If for 2009 and 2019 too we find little evidence of RSS helping the BJP in electoral terms, then this would in itself require us to reimagine the relationship between the two.
Another interesting conclusion is to do with the importance of political leadership in the minds of the voters, with the author concluding that virtually all elections in India have witnessed a presidential style of campaigning. Therefore, 2014 and now 2019 are not any different from the past campaigns. 
One may disagree with the book on issues such as the importance of caste, RSS and Sonia Gandhi in elections, but one would agree with large parts of it as it aims to combine multidisciplinary knowledge to explain India’s democratic experience. While we must acknowledge the efforts behind such an endeavour, we must also understand that it is the breadth of the diverse areas that makes it is comprehensive, and it has come at the expense of depth in certain areas. 
The author also explores the importance of Nehru in Indian politics and policy-making. In contemporary democracies, there’s virtually no political dynasty that wields such an extensive influence for a prolonged period as the Nehru-Gandhi has. This is important, as for a major part of the post-independence era, economic freedom remained a distant dream. Most commentators have argued that Nehru was not a “committed socialist” and the policy of planning came from his advisors. However, Citizen Raj reveals how Nehru was indeed ideologically committed to the cause of socialism. Therefore, the resultant low growth and the perilous policy of excessive state control during initial decades after independence must be attributed to his ideological leanings. 
It is no surprise that such policies were taken forward by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was a big believer in nationalisation and state distribution programmes. In fact, the commitment towards socialism continues in the family as Sonia Gandhi expanded the PDS (brought in by Indira) and enacted the Food Security Act. As is evident, such programmes have historically been crippled by corruption and they’ve had little impact on the poor of our country. Yet these bad policies continued due to ideology of the dynasts rather than empirics or logic. 
One is likely to be in major agreement with the book in its assertion that economic factors and changes in socio-economic composition of India are major explanatory variables behind the election results. In fact, it highlights how the expansion in India’s middle class led to the strong relationship between the economy and electoral outcomes and this trend though muted yet started from 2004 onwards. 
Consider this: the reforms of the Vajpayee era yielded results between 2004 and 2009 and consequentially, the middle class expanded over this period. Unfortunately, the author rightly points out that the Congress party has failed to realize this change in the society as it continues to believe that the 2004 results meant that India was poor, and they continue to believe that India remains poor. This is manifested in the election campaign of the Congress in 2019 and its manifesto while the BJP is appealing to the middle class primarily because its convinced that India’s demographic has changed significantly over the last decade. Citizen Raj argues, and rightly so that it is the middle class which is the new elite rather than the conventional elites and it gives a very interesting identifier for them based on two prominent economists – Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. 
Additionally, the author also makes it a point to reflect on issues that have gained prominence since 2014. It is therefore a fairly comprehensive and balanced account of what India’s current prime minister gets right and what he gets wrong on the economic and political fronts. The author is completely honest, objective and candid about the achievements and failures of the current government as he highlights how the bottom 70 percent of India has benefitted the most from the reforms over the last four years. In many ways this reflects how India has had an unprecedented scale of inclusive development over the last five years and that has been a major success of the Modi government. From construction of toilets to universal financial inclusion or improvement in access to modern cooking fuel, the government has outperformed any other government anywhere in the world on social indicators.
But Citizen Raj minces no words in its criticism of the current government as it explores in detail what the government got wrong and the author accepts that some of it happened while he was advising the government. He also highlights that his views of the government were always independent even while he was advising the government and that the government has been receptive to criticism. One such failure of the government was on the agricultural policy and the failure to reform the APMC Act. The decision to increase MSP (at 1.5 times the cost) too was not the best decision improve farm incomes. Thankfully, the government did finally move towards an income transfer programme under the PM Kisan Samman Yojana. 
Further, Citizen Raj throws light on the rise in the use of fake-news as an election strategy by the Congress for the purpose of its 2019 campaign. As a matter of fact, it takes this issue further as the author offers alternative arguments to the popular narratives in the media based on such fake news. On issues related to communal riots or domestic conflicts, the author uses two global datasets to categorically demonstrate how there has been no increase (actually there has been a decrease) in communal incidences or religious violence post 2014. Thus, the narrative that Modi is against the minorities is one that has been carefully constructed using fake news and faulty analysis. In fact, the 10 percent EWS reservation is by far the biggest reform brought in by the current regime that will significantly benefit the minorities who are devoid of any form of reservation. Affirmative action should ideally be linked to the economic status of the individual and for the first time the government recognised that poverty too devoids individuals of equal opportunity.
Bhalla predicts the 2019 election to be the beginning of the end of the Congress (or the dynasty) as it argues that Modi is likely to return to power with a wafer-thin majority. He happens to be one of the few, if not the only, psephologist who believes that BJP may just reach the halfway mark on its own. 
Bhasin is an economist with Gyan Foundation and routinely collaborates with Public Policy Research Centre, New Delhi.
(This article appears in the May 31, 2019 edition)



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