Opposition feels it has lost its best chance of defeating Modi. BJP, on the other hand, is secretly happy that all ‘real’ issues can be forgotten.
The only problem with prediction is that it cannot cope with too much uncertainty. Models of prediction rely on the old patterns repeating themselves. As long as the future can behave like the past, except for random errors, one can forecast the future. When an event happens which is completely new or has occurred only rarely in the past, it is hard to gauge its effect on the future. Prediction to be accurate needs lots of stable patterns in the past to make it easy.
This is what has happened in India over the last fortnight. Election predictions were looking at past trends in terms of voting behaviour by caste, language, region, economic variables, etc. A sort of consensus had emerged that the BJP will be the largest single party. Beyond that, people were unwilling to commit. BJP was forecast to get anywhere between 150 to 210 seats with caveats as to whether it would form the government with its coalition partners. Congress was forecast to increase even more than double its current number of seats. Its Grand Alliance could just drag it above NDA if BJP score low.
Then the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre took place at Pulwama. India waited for a fortnight and retaliated. The match was over when Pakistan returned the Indian pilot. Each side thought it had won, which is the ideal outcome in any battle. This was an unanticipated event and of a very low frequency. It has upset all predictions.
The BJP is not openly jubilant electorally but thinks it has a cushion now and its single party majority is not out of the question as it looked like being after the multiple defeats in state elections last December. Congress is desperate to downplay Indian success and wants to make it an ‘Army good/Modi bad’ story out of it. Either way, the Opposition is getting desperate. It may lose its best chance of defeating Modi. BJP, on the other hand, is secretly happy that all ‘real’ issues can be forgotten. Victory has been guaranteed by the barrel of a gun or a missile shot from an aircraft.
In fact, no one knows. There is no certainty that the skirmish will necessarily help BJP. In the UK elections, there is the story that the Falklands War helped Thatcher win the 1983 elections despite the economy being in stagflation. Even there, the Conservatives were in the lead before the Argentinians began their attempt to take over the Falklands. People, even the unemployed, felt Thatcher deserved a longer period to change the failing economy.
Modi can also be favourably seen as someone halfway through transforming the Indian economy. He is hoping people will see how much he has done and yet how much remains to be done. His opponents want people to think that Modi overpromised and underdelivered. The balance is slightly in Modi’s favour in my view but, cautiously, I put the BJP seat count pre-Pulwama at no more than 230. Will the skirmish help Modi?
The main point of uncertainty is that the war may not be over yet. Though the skirmish belongs to a class of events of low frequency, no encounter has been this short. Both sides may be congratulating themselves too soon. The terrorist who is the third player in this game is unpredictable. He has not won nor does he ever stop. It very well could be (though I hope not ) that another major case of large casualties may hit India and, at that stage, the conflict may get prolonged. Then, the BJP will have to govern while fighting the election, if the conflict has not come to an end before the end of the election campaign.
At that stage, all bets are off about who will benefit or lose from the military campaign. The Election Commission is about to announce its timetable any day now. If a war breaks out after the timetable has been set, it would require a consensus on behalf of all political parties to postpone the election.
There is no precedent for it nor is it clear who has the last word on this tricky question. There are limits on what the incumbent government can or cannot do during an election. But a military battle has to be fought and only the government, still in office, can fight it.
But a vigorous contest with open debate is impossible under such circumstances. Even the aftermath of Balakot has been clouded by controversy, fake news and conjectures. The Indian political system could face its toughest test if an election had to be conducted under wartime circumstances. The only hope is that the unpredictable will not happen. Let us all whistle in the dark.
(The author is a prominent economist and labour peer)