Column: Why the BJP loves AAP

Surjit S Bhalla Posted online: Tuesday, Dec 10, 2013 at 0000 hrs
For a long time, or at least since Ms Sonia Gandhi started on her experiments with populist socialism, many of us had suspected that the 2014 Lok Sabha election would herald a new and different world order. And the December 8 state poll results have transformed that forecast into a welcome and impending reality. A brand new 1-year-old baby called AAP (Aam Aadmi Party), too young to be called David, has felled an ageing and fading Congress in Delhi. And with a little help from their Prime Minister nominee, Mr Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has dispatched the same ageing, fading and toothless Congress into the record books in two additional states.

Unlike just a few days ago, the glitterati speculation is that all dreams (and nightmares) will become reality. That the 2014 election will be a two person Presidential contest between Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. That the Aam Aadmi Party will soon spread to the far corners of India and make the Indian spring happen. By obtaining 28 out of 70 seats in Delhi, and the BJP short of a majority by 4 seats in a 70-member parliament, the AAP is riding on hope for the future.

So are a lot of AAP supporters and the concerned middle class. But before we all get carried away, time to assess AAP as a mature adult rather than a new born baby, albeit a cute one. They have earned the respect and admiration of all. So time now to ask the basic question: if the AAP were an important player in governance, what else will they do besides supporting motherhood and being against corruption? Their views on economic policies provide a clue.

Economic policy according to AAP/Kejriwal should be as follows (obtained from interviews, manifestos, etc). “GDP growth should be directly related to the lives of the people, but such growth affects very few people … AAP opposes privatisation, wants government into oil extraction (and much else), recommends an increase in effective taxes on the middle class and supports increases in fuel and electricity subsidies. AAP would take measures to ensure basic facilities; e.g. electricity expense reduction of 50% and 700 litres of free water. Further, AAP believes in government provision of high quality education and health, regulation of fees of private schools, implementation of minimum wages etc.”

The AAP may signal the birth of honest politics (I believe it does) but it most likely signals the birth of Luddite and extremely dishonest economics. Until I read the AAP manifesto, I believed that it was a close race between Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Hugo Chavez of Venezuela for the title of Populist of the Century. In her spurt over the last five years, the close race is no more—Ms Gandhi is the champion. But I believe the title should go to Mr Kejriwal as revealed by his economic views as quoted above.

The other big story of Election 2013 is the absence or presence of a Modi wave. The Congress people say no, and they provide proof by pointing to the two states Delhi and Chhattisgarh—these states show virtually no vote gain for the BJP, indeed witnessed a marginal average 1 percentage point loss. The AAP supporters point to their giant killing activity in Delhi and make unveiled inferences about the lack of a third alternative (i.e. absence of AAP) in the two BJP victorious states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

It is fun to speculate on the counterfactual, but also difficult. The only recourse one has is to look at history and when history does not have an occurrence like AAP (it does not in India) then one is left with a “take it or leave it analysis”. So here goes. Voting data for all four states is strongly indicative of an anti-Congress (not anti-incumbent) wave. And data for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is indicative of the presence of a Modi wave. Note the following. First, even in Delhi where the AAP was the big alternative, the CNN-IBN-CSDS opinion poll results revealed that at least half of those people voting for the AAP in Delhi would vote for Modi in the Lok Sabha election. And the AAP’s own survey indicated that a third of the people would do so!

In a three-cornered contest, the Delhi poll resulted in the lowest-ever Congress seats—8 compared to 10 they obtained in the Emergency election of 1977. The two-cornered Rajasthan election results are even more shocking and out of the ballpark. The average number of seats that the Congress has obtained in 13 past Rajasthan elections was 92. But in the 2013 election, the BJP humbled the Congress to beat this record by a wide margin. The Congress obtained almost half of their lowest ever, and half the Emergency 1977 election—21 seats. (The lowest seats ever obtained by the BJP in Rajasthan was 32 in 1980.)

Did the people vote in such overwhelming numbers for the BJP in Rajasthan in 2013 because they did not have an AAP alternative? I doubt it. Proceeding to Madhya Pradesh where the BJP chief minister overcame a double anti-incumbency to record a third consecutive win of 165 seats, 22 more than in 2008. In the outlier Digvijay Singh lost election of 2003, the BJP obtained 173 seats to the Congress’s 38. That record may never be breached, but in his third term, Mr Chouhan has come close by “granting” the Congress only 58 seats.

Still no Modi wave? Then let us look at Chhattisgarh. In the 1977 Emergency election when Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh (data for Chhattisgarh prior to 2004 from the India Today-Oxus election dataset), the Congress obtained 36 seats; in 2013, despite a battle for a third term and the horrific elimination of Congress leaders by the Maoists in Bastar, the Congress obtained only 39 seats, only 1 more than in 2008. Still no Modi wave?

What implications for the 2014 election? Each party’s interests are different. The Congress has to attempt to become relevant; a course change is difficult, but not impossible. The AAP needs to mature into a responsible establishment outfit. And the BJP needs to pray that the AAP gets financing to make Election 2014 into a three cornered contest. It knows that only 6 out of every 100 BJP voters voted for the AAP, but 6 times as many (36 out of 100) Congress voters did so. The math of the first-past-the-post system is well known to the BJP. If the AAP is almost the new Congress, as seems likely, then the BJP can be realistically ambitious about winning 2014 by a near absolute majority.

Surjit S Bhalla is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company. He can be followed on Twitter, @surjitbhalla