Drawing from his travels in the past 20 years, global investor and author Ruchir Sharma, in his new book, Democracy on The Road, forecasts the Lok Sabha election of 2019 to be an unpredictable, super-competitive one. Explaining how democracy is thriving in India while it wanes across the globe, as the country’s sheer complexity and diversity allow no preconceived notions, he tells Ivinder Gill about the key issues of this election, how social media is more of a negative influence than a positive one, and why despite a strong opposition, no regional leader has enough clout to make it to the Centre. Edited excerpts:
You give Modi a 50:50 chance of winning. With the recent show of unity by the opposition, plus your view that voters always rebel against dominating political bosses, would you like to revise this figure?
I said that in August last year. That time it appeared heretical, but now it’s conventional wisdom. I don’t want to make any statement now because every scenario is in play at the moment. The reason I said this in August was that I felt people were too complacent with what was going on even as there was a major shift that was happening. The idea was to shake people up. But now, there is no point in making statements like whether it is 50: 40 or something else because this is going to be a very competitive election. The lesson I have learnt travelling all these years is that you don’t go to any place with too much of a preconceived bias. And this election, we want to think, is all about Modi, but I think this election is very much about how each alliance is stitched up in every state.
Even at his peak, in 2014, Modi had 31% of the vote share and he converted this into the highest number of seats anyone had gotten. The ratio was 9:1 as far as seats were concerned. Never in India’s history had there been such a skew.
Agreed that given the sheer diversity of the country and its voters, any election can be unpredictable. But which issues do you think matter the most in 2019?
I think the alliances are the most key this election. As far as the voters are concerned, I think their minds have been made up along caste and community lines. This happens pretty early in an election, so when we ask questions from people, we don’t ask who will you vote for, but who did you vote for last time and who are you likely to vote for this time. For instance, in MP and Rajasthan, when we toured for the recent assembly elections, we were able to spot the election result there. We did not meet a single person who said last time they voted for the Congress and this time BJP. But we met some people who said last time it was BJP and this time Congress.
But alliances don’t really figure so majorly in voters’ minds; they are more focused on issues that concern them.
Yes. I don’t think voters are concerned who is becoming PM or who is aligning with whom. Issues that touch their lives are what matter to them. Unless there is a wave. Like there was a Rajiv Gandhi wave or a mini Modi wave, in north India at least. The gap between Vajpayee and Sonia on the question, ‘Who do you want as PM?’, was much larger in 2004 than it is between Rahul and Modi today. So that just tells you how deep the parliamentary system is in India.
So issues like development, poverty, jobs, health, and the like, remain static?
Yes, they remain static except when they change a bit. In 2014, inflation was a very big issue. This time, the issue is a little different; it is low inflation, causing farmer distress. This tells you about the difficulty of winning an election in India.
Who among the current regional leaders from the opposition do you feel could successfully bridge the gap from state to Centre for the top spot?
Nobody. It’s very difficult. That is one of the findings of the book that there are many Indias. It’s like a continent, like the EU, more than a country. What an amazing history that there is not a single regional leader who has been able to break the borders. Even Mayawati’s success beyond Uttar Pradesh is very incremental, restricted to pockets of Punjab, MP and Rajasthan. In the Nineties, there was a thought she might be able to break into Maharashtra because of the sizeable Dalit population there, but it didn’t happen. That, for me, is the telling story for India.
So will they toe the Congress line?
Not necessarily. Every scenario is in play this election. There might be a return of the Modi government, a BJP government led by someone else, Congress leading a government or a 1996-type scenario. That’s what makes this election so competitive and so interesting. Just a year ago, a lot of liberals were despondent that we are like Russia or Turkey, but here we are today, thinking about such a super-competitive election.
Do you think there is an anti-Modi wave?
No, I think that’s a very strong word. There are people who are disenchanted. By 2013, it was clear to us that 2014 will be an ABC election—‘Anybody But the Congress’. I don’t think that is the sentiment today. It’s quite likely the BJP’s vote share doesn’t change that much, but because the opposition comes together, the outcome is different. I think that could be feasible.
In light of the allegations of rigged elections, have you ever felt this could have happened when feedback from the ground level does not match election results?
No. A case in point is the 2017 UP election. When we went for the tour, an alliance had been announced between the Congress and Samajwadi Party. Most of us in the group thought that because of the alliance it could end up as a very close election. We went from Delhi to Lucknow and then from Lucknow to Varanasi. By the time we got to Gorakhpur, we knew this would be a BJP election because the opposition and Muslim vote was so badly divided. Later, we heard so much about EVM rigging and other such blah blah. But I have not witnessed anything of that kind on the ground.
How much of an influencer do you think social media has become for elections globally, and will it play a positive or negative role in India in 2019?
Obviously, it’s a big influence everywhere. Globally what has happened is very interesting. Leaders get unpopular more quickly because of social media and we have seen that trend. This is because it’s so easy to bring people down and bash people on social media. I can make one comment that is pro someone on social media and off they go. So bringing someone down has become very easy because of social media in general. It stokes more anti-incumbency. The Indian word has gone global partly because social media facilitates that.
The second point I would like to make is that the big difference today is that in 2014, there was only one boxer in the ring, as I mention in the book, and that was true of social media as well. Today, while the BJP might still have an edge, it’s much more evenly balanced. It’s become like a caste equation—it has become a necessary but not sufficient condition to win.
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Today, everyone has figured out how to play the game. For instance, I got to know that Rahul’s criticism of the budget had got more tweets than Modi’s reaction on the same subject. I don’t know if that is true or not, but the fact that such a thing is even being speculated about indicates how things have moved, and that is a staggering statistic.
So you are saying social media will have more of a negative impact than a positive one on candidates and parties?
That’s what I feel. The scope for social media to be negative is much more than the scope of it being positive in lifting people’s and party images.
Where is your entourage touring this election. You have already ruled out UP, done the math…
My dream trip is coast to coast, from Mumbai to Visakhapatnam. We will cover four important states doing that—Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh—which is where I think the real battle could lie for this election. UP and Bihar are the obvious places to go, but I have covered these extensively. I might succumb to the view that these are the heartland and we must go there, but it all depends on the election dates.
Do you think, democracy will triumph, as you say in the book, in this election too?
Yes, I think it is already triumphing. Till last year, we were thinking we are heading towards a single-party rule and BJP hegemony till at least 2024. The BJP can also overspend other parties by 5:1, if not 10:1, like in some states. But despite that if we have such a competitive election and an unpredictable result says a lot about how deeply rooted democratic impulses in this country are.