Then outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee greets his successor Manmohan Singh at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on May 22, 2004. (Photograph: Bloomberg News)

Folklore, Fallacies And Elections 2019


In the late 1980s, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was making its mark on the political map, Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed a meeting in Marathwada in Maharashtra. The response was overwhelming and Pramod Mahajan, who was accompanying Vajpayee said, “Atalji if the voting and counting were to be conducted now, we could count this seat in.” Vajpayee, a seasoned campaigner, gently told Mahajan “Pramod voting karwa lo, counting rahne do (get the voting done but leave counting for another day).” Recalling the incident a decade later, Mahajan revealed that when results were declared the BJP candidate had lost his deposit.

Frequently, in the heat and dust of elections, perception overwhelms actuality, folklore masquerades as plausible theory. And after the results, politicians investing in a mirage are confronted with reality. Two-thirds the way through the 2019 elections, the discourse is riveted by notions and theories, about why voters may prefer a party.

Folklore,  Fallacies And Elections 2019

The Sops Advantage

Popular belief has it that freebies and sops swing electoral verdicts. There are two kinds of freebies operating in the election theatre – pre-paid and post-paid, polling day down-payment which this season is believed to be around Rs 2,000 per vote in some states and then there is the long term promise of free power, cheaper food, no interest loans, and loan waivers.

As in economics, in electoral politics the efficacy of strategy rests on the principle of necessary and sufficient conditions – sops may be deemed necessary but are not sufficient. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, both BJP and Congress promised farm loan waivers, and the voters chose BJP. In Karnataka in 2018, Congress had implemented a loan waiver while BJP and JD(S) waved the waiver flag. Voters did not give any party a clear mandate.

Voters of Tamil Nadu, the incubating centre for sop-politics, have rejected incumbent parties in nearly every election.

Every Lok Sabha poll witnesses a sops race between parties – enabled by the belief that sops do deliver. Fact is, on the ground pre-poll and post-poll sops have limited utility. In 2004, the National Democratic Alliance extended abolishing of long term capital gains tax, merged 50 percent of dearness allowance for government employees, hiked duty-free import for travellers, ended capital gains on acquisition of farm land, made business process outsourcing by multinationals tax free, and yet found itself on the losing side.

It has been argued that the 2009 victory of Congress was propelled by Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and ergo sops deliver. This belief flails before counterfactuals.

The Congress’ 2009 victory was enabled by three musketeers – Raj Thackeray in Maharashtra, Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh and Vijaykanth in Tamil Nadu.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Praja Rajyam Party, and Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam polled 1,12,20,026 votes and dented the prospects of Shiv Sena-BJP, Telugu Desam Party, and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – and thus boosted the Congress tally.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the rest of the  council of union ministers, with President Pratibha Patil, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, on May 28, 2009. (Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg News)
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the rest of the council of union ministers, with President Pratibha Patil, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, on May 28, 2009. (Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg News)

The second counterfactual is that in 2013, Congress unveiled the largest welfare scheme – the National Food Security Act. Yet in 2014, the Congress got the worst drubbing in its history. Since 2014, the Modi government has unveiled several big tag welfare schemes – Jan Dhan Yojana, Suraksha Bima Yojana, health care via Ayushman Bharat, gas cylinders under Ujjwala, household electrification under Saubhagya. BJP governments in states implemented them aggressively and campaigned about the benefits. Yet BJP could not retain power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

Pakistan And Campaign Wars

The josh among people for the armed forces and the government in power is a given whenever the nation is faced with an external threat – whether it is a declared war by Pakistan or state sponsorship of terrorist acts in India. It is true, and it is a widely acknowledged proposition that people vote for continuity and stability.

What is equally evident is that the show of support during a war doesn’t necessarily translate into higher seats in the elections which follow.

In September 1965, India won a spectacular victory against Pakistan under the bold and courageous leadership of Lal Bahadur Shastri. The nation went to polls—assemblies and Lok Sabha—in February 1967 under Indira Gandhi warring with the Syndicate. The Congress slogan was One India One Team. The Congress vote share dipped from 44.7 percent to 40 percent, and its seat tally from 361 out of 488 in 1962 to 283 out of 516 in 1967. The Congress lost power in eight states triggering the fashionable comment that you could drive from Calcutta to Delhi without encountering a single Congress government.

In the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won 182 seats and the Vajpayee regime came to power supported by a coalition of a dozen parties. In May 1998, India entered the nuclear club testing two nuclear devices.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces India’s nuclear tests, on May 11, 1998. (Photograph: PTI)
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces India’s nuclear tests, on May 11, 1998. (Photograph: PTI)

In April 1999, the Vajpayee regime lost the no-confidence motion by one vote. In May 1999, Pakistan army regulars along with non-state actors mounted an attack on India, now known as the Kargil battle. The Pakistani forces were ejected out and India went to polls in September 1999. The 20-party coalition of NDA won – but BJP’s tally stayed at 182.

In the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, home to a large number of armed forces personnel, where the party had won 57 seats in 1998, BJP won just 29.

That the fallout of the imbroglio between Vajpayee and Kalyan Singh could impact the larger cause underlines the vulnerability of assumptions.

Also read: Elections 2019: Balakot As ‘Kargil 2.0’ Re-Election Strategy? No, Modi Sir, No

GDP Growth And Reforms

Economic reforms do result in higher growth and higher GDP has the potential to lift more persons out of the trough of poverty. Ideally, performance on reforms and higher GDP growth must matter to sway public opinion and votes. Parties, though, are wary of claiming credit for GDP growth or reforms.

India grew at its fastest in 1988-89 at 10.16 percent under Rajiv Gandhi. The PV Narasimha Rao regime dismantled the licence raj and liberated India’s economy. Yet both regimes lost badly in 1989 and in 1996.

In fact, the Congress appointed a committee under AK Antony to examine if reforms were anti-poor.

Narasimha Rao with Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Shivraj Patil. (Photograph: PIB)
Narasimha Rao with Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Shivraj Patil. (Photograph: PIB)

India witnessed bold reforms under Atal Bihari Vajpayee – the fiscal deficit was trimmed, interest rates were lowered, and public sector units were privatised to raise resources for welfare. The measures resulted in India emerging in 2004 as a low-cost high-growth economy. This enthused the spin doctors of the BJP to coin the India Shining slogan. Notwithstanding the turnaround if the India story, the BJP lost the elections.

The India Shining slogan turned into a cautionary tale. In the first term of the United Progressive Alliance, GDP growth touched the 9 percent mark thrice – neither the Congress nor Manmohan Singh found that a reason to celebrate. The Modi government has claimed credit for the fastest-growing economy but the core messaging in the 2019 campaign is about dole and welfare, not GDP growth. The approach rests on the popular notion that good economics can be bad for politics.

Five decades after ‘Garibi Hatao’ the political class is yet chanting the same message – it simply has not been able to make reforms, the instrument to alleviate poverty, saleable.

Also read: Elections 2019: Five Takeaways As Modi-Rahul Square Off At ‘Interval’

More Roads, More Seats?

The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the rural roads programme is one of the most successful programmes of the Government of India, in meeting targets and with visible outcomes. Till date over 5.9 lakh kilometres of roads have been built, connecting crores in lakhs of habitations with educational institutions, health care, urban agglomerations, markets and livelihood opportunities. It was an idea born in a conversation between Vajpayee and Nitin Gadkari, after the 1999 results, when Vajpayee asked Gadkari, half in jest, if it was possible to build a flyover between India and Bharat. Gadkari and a committee designed the programme as a poverty reduction strategy funded by cess levied on fuel. The programme was launched in 2000 and 2.5 lakh kilometres of roads were sanctioned.

The Golden Quadrilateral, with highways connecting north and south and east and west of India, was designed during the Vajpayee regime.

It was Vajpayee who made Delhi Metro a reality. The BJP lost the 2004 polls – voters in six of the seven Delhi seats voted for Congress.
Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee flags off the first ever corridor of the Delhi Metro, on Dec. 24, 2002. (Photograph: PTI/DMRC)
Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee flags off the first ever corridor of the Delhi Metro, on Dec. 24, 2002. (Photograph: PTI/DMRC)

The Congress, between 2009 and 2014 spent more money on irrigation, sanitation, railways, ports, airports, roads, and bridges than it did in its first UPA term. That is, more money was spent, and more road kilometres were added between 2009 and 2014 than between 2004 and 2009.

The kilometres didn’t add any mileage and the UPA lost the polls in 2014.

More recently, the BJP lost the 2018 polls in Madhya Pradesh – despite the fact that MP was a top performer in implementing Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and the state added 70,000 kilometres of roads connecting rural habitats with marts. Road connectivity didn’t translate into vote connectivity for the BJP in the 2018 polls.

Caveats Of Context

Electoral outcomes depend on the alchemy of variables – ranging from demography to geography, education to economic attainment. A lot depends on the party machinery’s ability to harvest votes on the basis of sops and promises sown during the campaign. Above all, there is the unquantifiable role of the leader where voter expectations are paradoxical – the need for a democratic hearing as also the desire for decisive leadership.

Often political parties fall into the trap of post hoc fallacy, of this followed that and therefore that is caused by this – for instance, assuming sops equal victory. The idea of direct income support worked for Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana but the jury is yet out as the promise is vetted by voters. In 2018, despite a plethora of schemes, the BJP was voted out in three states – the party may explain it as triple incumbency but the contextual effect of rural distress is indisputable.

Agrarian distress along with allegations of corruption has consistently influenced verdicts. Notwithstanding the victory in the 1965 war, the Congress suffered loss of seats and power in states, catalysed by two successive years of negative agricultural growth (13.47 percent fall in 1965-66 and 2.29 percent decline in 1966-67).

The civil strife followed by Emergency and the defeat of Indira Gandhi stemmed, in part, from four years of negative agricultural growth between 1971 and 1977.

Big ticket corruption, similarly, has had a salutary effect on electoral verdicts. Allegations of corruption in defence deals led to the ouster of the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989 and the UPA went out in 2014 following multiple scams.

The efficacy of election rhetoric is subject to the code of ‘conditions apply’. Newton’s third law says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In India’s elections, every theory is neutralised by an equally forceful countervailing theory. Folklore can often be just a fallacy.

It is instructive also to bear in mind that operative factors and outcomes depend on an evolving context. On May 23, Judgment Day, the narrative of campaigners will be replaced by that of the winners...history is after all written by victors.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. He is a political-economy analyst and Visiting Fellow at IDFC Institute.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.