What matters in this election! Is it jobs, GDP or caste or Hinduism?

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Published: April 15, 2019 4:47:51 AM

Jobs and low inflation didn’t help Vajpayee, caste didn’t save VP Singh/Mulayam/Mayawati/Lalu; evidence on GDP mixed.

Many say it is the economy that matters, and this is why Modi will lose. (Representational Image)

Given how carefully politicians look at the caste of voters, and how often this has worked, from VP Singh onwards, it would appear caste is a major determinant of poll victories. Indeed, that is why the SP and the BSP tied up in Uttar Pradesh (UP); that is also why prime minister Modi came up with the idea of breaking up the OBC quota into various sub-categories since it is the more prosperous OBCs who corner most quota benefits. It is also why Modi pushed a 10% quota for low-income upper castes. But, if it were really so simple, starting from VP Singh, caste-warriors like Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati would still be in power.

If it was Hindutva, Atal Bihari Vajpayee would never have lost; and even if there are many who felt he wasn’t Hindu enough, that can’t be said about Modi; and yet, many predict Modi won’t come back to power. If the SP-BSP combine stops Modi’s victory, does that mean Mandal beats Kamandal, or quite the opposite of what was said when LK Advani’s rath yatra resurrected the BJP; of course, the SP-BSP tie-up is not just Mandal, it is Mandal-plus.

Many say it is the economy that matters, and this is why Modi will lose. Though the revised series suggest GDP grew the fastest in Modi’s five years, reputed economists will tell you the data isn’t kosher; certainly, high-frequency data like automobile sales or corporate revenues don’t quite jell with the macro data. While the government is criticised for its GDP back-series data, though, the methodology to re-base GDP was finalised by the UPA.

If the Modi government is believed to have a problem due to GDP growth, this gets worse when it comes to jobs. The leaked NSS report that talks of a huge jump in unemployment in the Modi years, as this column has argued before (bit.ly/2X6yin3), has most likely got it wrong—and Surjit Bhalla had an even sharper critique last week—but it does look unlikely that job-creation was as robust as the BJP is making it out to be; indeed, if it were, why would consumption growth be slowing as it is?

Bhalla’s latest book, Citizen Raj, on India’s electoral history since Independence, examines many of these issues. In the current context, its highlight – assuming Bhalla is right—will be the predictions for the number of seats Modi will win (that’s embargoed for now), but the book is more than just psephology which really makes an appearance only towards the end. There is a lot in the book that you can disagree with—it is difficult to buy the argument, for instance, that it is only the old elite that doesn’t like Modi, what Modi derisively calls Lutyens Delhi; it is equally difficult to be as supportive of demonetisation as Bhalla is.

But once you get past this, there are several interesting parts to the book; this column deals with some that are relevant in the context of the elections. Caste, as Bhalla points out, can’t be as enduring as it is made out to be if the leading caste-warriors had to suffer humiliating defeats at various points in their career.

The graphic, drawn from Bhalla’s book, highlights some of the more interesting contradictions in predictions based on economic indicators. Growth, it turns out, doesn’t always guarantee success, it is inflation-control sometimes, it is jobs sometimes, indeed it may be national security (Balakot?) at others. In the first 15-20 years after independence, Bhalla points out, the Congress kept coming back to power even though GDP grew in the 3-4% range—on a per capita basis, it was even lower—or the so-called Hindu rate of growth. So, growth didn’t matter at this point, political freedom and nation-building were the main issues.

Though Indira Gandhi’s first defeat is seen as due to the Emergency, an interesting facet is that GDP per capita grew by just 0.5% per year during her tenure while CPI inflation hovered at just below 7%. So, she may have lost even without the emergency, and despite the Bangladesh halo.

But if GDP alone mattered, neither Rajiv Gandhi nor Vajpayee nor Manmohan Singh in his second stint should have lost since they delivered reasonably good growth. And yet, when Manmohan Singh delivered even higher GDP numbers in his first stint, he got re-elected. So, GDP matters sometimes, but not all the time.

Maybe, as any politician will tell you, what matters more is inflation. It then seems reasonable to argue that what did Narasimha Rao in was the high inflation of 9.6%. Indeed, Manmohan Singh’s second stint also had high inflation of 9.7%; but did this do him in, or was it the corruption scandals? By this logic, Modi’s re-election should be a shoo-in since inflation has been under control and there have been no major allegations of corruption; despite the strenuous efforts to show Rafale is Modi’s Bofors multiplied several times over, the charges don’t seem to be sticking, at least so far.

Is it the lack of jobs that will be Modi’s undoing? As Bhalla shows, a lot more jobs were created during the Vajpayee regime than during Manmohan Singh’s first stint; yet, Vajpayee lost and Manmohan Singh’s government got re-elected. And while the second Manmohan government lost the elections, it created more jobs than the first one.

Maybe it is poor agricultural growth that will make Modi lose? Certainly agriculture has fared badly under him, partly due to poor monsoons and partly to do with bad policy. But, Shivraj Singh Chouhan lost in Madhya Pradesh despite good farm growth in the state.

In other words, and thank God for it, there is no fixed formula for victory and no one really knows what clicks for voters, though at different times, different models are used to predict the future based on the fact that they correctly explained what happened in the past; it’s a bit like astrologers who are mostly right about what happened in your life, but less so about the future! So, place your bets till May 23, but knowing full well that it’s just a shot in the dark.

(sunil.jain@expressindia.com; @thesuniljain)

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