Global investment banker Ruchir Sharma’s book “Democracy on the Road" offers an a look at Indian democracy drawn from his travels across states along with a group of journalists. According to Sharma, delivering on development alone is not enough to win elections in India, where caste and community loyalties are strong. Despite India going all out to vote for a strong leader in 2014, Sharma says the Indian voter identifies more with the underdog. Edited excerpts from an interview.
How do you look at the 2019 elections? ‘Prime minister Narendra Modi versus the rest’ is how you seem to have put it in the book -- so a presidential style contest?
I think it is much less presidential than we would like to believe. I think that there is a tendency in the national and the international media because of the people -- the Delhi-Mumbai crowd -- wanting to see this as a presidential election. And often the question you ask is “who will be prime minister if the other side comes to power?" When you travel to the interiors, you find that people don’t think that way. When it comes to voting, the concerns are very much local, the concerns are very much to do with regional parties, local candidates. So it’s much less presidential than we want to think it is because Modi is such a larger than life figure. This election is so much about coalition politics, it’s going to be so much about alliances.
There are so many efforts on to stitch alliances. There is the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samajwadi Party (SP-BSP) alliance in Uttar Pradesh, separate efforts on for a national alliance. Isnt this too confusing for a voter who could see the Bharatiya Janata Party as a viable, stable option?
I don’t think a national alliance is going to cut it with voters. It has to be state by state. It is confusing when people think in terms of who will be the next prime minister – according to me that is the urban, cosmopolitan crowd who think that way. I don’t think that is how people on the ground think. Going back to 2004, the gap in the popularity between former PM Vajpayee and then Congress president Sonia Gandhi, was much larger than what we have today between Modi and Rahul Gandhi -- even though the Congress today is a far more diminished force today than in 2004. Unless there is a wave – as in 1984 and there was a north India wave in 2014. I don’t think it’s about one individual. That is the way I end my book that this is no country for strong men. Basically that it is very difficult for one person to dominate a country as heterogenous and as diverse as India. So 2004 is very interesting to me that despite the large gap(between Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi), people still voted because the alliances that the Congress managed to stitch together were better.
You say India is no country for strong men. But in 2014, it seems that is just what the people voted for – a strong leader who would deliver against the backdrop of then PM Manmohan Singh seen as ineffectual.
What I mean to say is that there will be phases where that narrative will take hold. Indira Gandhi in 1970s, for example. My point is that that trend is not sustainable. Somewhere, deep down in this country, the voter roots for the underdog. So you can end up getting these phases but at the national level, it is very difficult though at the state level it is a bit different. Nationally, given the heterogeneity and the differences of states, it’s difficult to be an overpowering strongman figure because the roots are so regional in this country.
One of the points that you make in the book is the importance of rural India. This year’s interim budget presented on 1 February, an income support scheme for farmers has been announced. There are some tax breaks announced for the middle classes too. So it has something to please every section as it were. How will these influence the 2019 polls?
My experience from all my travels is that one: in this country, we have lost count of the number of schemes that we have announced. We dont know how many Centrally Sponsored Schemes we have in this country. At last count, it was around 1,000. I am sceptical of these announcements and I am even more sceptical of the idea that these announcements will work just before election time. What I have seen is that just ahead of election time, voters are much more cynical about any announcements that come. The government has to do what it has to do – to try everything to win. There was a period between 2004- 2010 the trend of anti-incumbency subsided and the reason why it did in such a dramatic way in that period was because you had this very unusual circumstance when you had generally booming economic growth and you were able to get a massive revenue windfall which the states were also able to spend a lot in terms of giveaways etc Plus inflation was very low in that entire period. So that combination in general was conducive for incumbents to win. It was an unusual period with many fortuitous things happening together. I am not so sure that that will happen again. Again in 2009, a lot of it was getting the alliances correct.
In the book you say that despite delivering on development, incumbent chief ministers have gone on to lose elections. PM Modi’s main election planks were in 2014 were jobs and development. How big a factor is anti-incumbency in the 2019 elections?
Anti-incumbency is something peculiar to India. I made a comment last year which got me into a fair amount of trouble. I said that the probability of PM Modi winning the elections had dropped from 99% to 50%. At that point of time it was pretty heretical to say that. Today it’s pretty much conventional wisdom to say that right? This election is going to be a lot about state by state alliances. These factors are going to be headwinds for any government and Modi knows that. He probably knows that to fight this election on a development plank is going to be very difficult. In India, to satisfy people given their needs, given how broken the state is, fighting on a development platform is very, very difficult.
How do you view the evolution of Rahul Gandhi as a politician?
Our first meeting with him, we were underwhelmed. We were like “what is this?" And in 2010, in Bihar, he was four hours late for a rally and he didn’t really want to engage with us. I think that after the 2009 victory that the UPA had and how well they did in UP, when they got 22 seats, that went to his head. The humbling and education started by late 2013, when he could sense defeat, I feel. When we met him in late 2013 you could make out the mellowing and maturing of Rahul Gandhi. In 2007 and 2010, we were all underwhelmed by our meetings with him and that is how the national projection of his happened as someone who was a bit of a dilettante not somebody who was a serious politician.
So the description of political green horn is not apt for him today?
No –it’s a very different Rahul Gandhi that you get to see now. The campaigning style has changed. When we met him in 2012 in Gujarat and there he was talking about Motilal Nehru and (former South African president) Nelson Mandela in a backward district of Gujarat, we were raising our eye brows hearing that. Can you imagine these 30,000 people who had shown up as to what their impression was? Today, you won’t get that. Today it’s a much more of a direct attack, it’s much more current – that way the narrative has changed.
So you are saying there is an evolution in Rahul Gandhi but is that enough to challenge PM Modi?
The BJP is still the dominant party with some 30% of the vote nationally. So the Congress realises that it needs all the regional help it can get, wherever the regional parties are willing to oblige.
‘Development alone is not enough to win 2019 elections’
We have met Priyanka many times. She is super charming at a personal level, she is a great campaigner. But this a very different India, compared to even 20 years ago when the first time her entry into politics was considered. Congress people would say “If Priyanka comes we will get absolute majority." I don’t think anyone has that expectation today in terms of what can be done – the caste bases are so entrenched in UP. This (Priyanka’s entry) has to be for the long haul. The best hope she has is if she stands as the combined opposition candidate in Varanasi (against Modi) or something. But to build an organisation structure in eastern UP this late in the game I think it’s obvious to everyone that it’s very difficult to do. So it’s what she can do as a national campaigner, to try and rally the troops. That’s where she can make a difference—I think. But is she going to change the UP outcome – I dont think so.
So if not charm, if not development, what does it take to win elections in India?
There was this Karnataka politician we met last year UT Khader (from Congress) who told me that there were like six factors and you have to score a minimum passing marks in all the six categories – caste, family connections, welfare-ism, how much is corruption sticking against you, what is growth, inflation – all these factors matter. So it’s such a complex formula – how to win elections. In the US, it’s much more straightforward – the pocket book theory of winning elections – what is happening to wages, inflation – that kind of straight line analysis does not work in India.
You end your book with an interesting quote from Ram Manohar Lohia and a popular saying from UP.
What I find most fascinating is the role reversal today which is that the slogans that the Congress would use to discredit an opposition alliance (kahin ka eent, kahin ka roda, Bhanumati ne kumba joda – a big piece form here, a small piece from there, a tribe was cobbled together) thats the kind of slogan the Congress would use to say “Hey dont vote for a rag-tag opposition alliance." People forget how Rajiv Gandhi ran such a negative campaign in 1989 to discredit the opposition alliance. And the flip side is that the same slogan that Ram Manohar Lohia used to tell people not to vote for the Congress (sarkar tave ki roti jaise hoti hai, usko palat tey raho nahin toh jal ke raakh ho jayegi – the government is like a roti that needs to be flipped on the griddle or it will burn)– this is the slogan that I think the opposition will now feed out there. The slogan that he (Lohia) has gets at the arrogance that seeps into politicians when they stay in power for too long. So that’s why it resonated with me.