New York-based banker and author Ruchir Sharma has spent two decades criss-crossing India during elections. Just before 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he has written Democracy on the Road, a book that gives an interesting insight on electoral politics in India. Excerpts from an interview with Pawan Bali.
How is the present tension between India and Pakistan going to play out in the Lok Sabha elections?
I am still trying to grapple as to what the effect of this is going to be. Conventional wisdom suggests that whenever such tense situations arise, it helps the ruling party. But how this plays on the ground, we still have to wait and see.
Except when George Bush Senior was defeated by Bill Clinton in the 1992 US presidential elections?
A very interesting thing happened then. Bush Senior’s approval rating shot up to 90 per cent after he won the Iraq war, but elections took place 18 months after that. So there was a very long gap and the economy was not doing well at all in that period. But some people will argue that the reason why Bush Junior won the 2004 presidential election was because of the Iraq war, even if the Iraq war was divisive at some level, but it may have helped as well. Yes, there are instances when things have played out the other way. For example, in 2004 again, when there were these bombings in Spain just a few days before elections — the Madrid bombings — and you ended up having a big turnaround, then what happened? The government ended up losing the elections. This is also something we need to keep in mind — that there are times when it ends up going the other way also. Mostly it tends to help the dispensation. But as I said, we need to go to the hinterlands and find out what is going to happen.
You have written that factors like caste, religion and others play a crucial part in elections. But can the sense of nationalism overcome these?
In India, nationalism has its limits. In India, sub-national identities are very strong. Many people here like to think of themselves first as a Marathi, Bengali, a Bihari or a Tamilian. So I feel nationalism as a project has its limitations, that’s why Narendra Modi in 2014, at the peak of his wave, ended up winning only 31 per cent of the national votes.
In India, elections are more like the elections of the European Union, that is, of many states rather than one big country. But what we are also talking about in India is that small vote share wins can make a big difference. So can heated escalation between India and Pakistan help the BJP get an extra 3-4 percentage points? It’s possible. This is where the complexity of Indian elections lies. It’s too early for us to make a definitive judgment (on the impact of Indo-Pak tensions on elections). Once the dates of the elections are announced and the process begins, the narrative can again begin to shift.
The BJP is strong on social media and marketing and they can build a narrative?
In 2014, there was only one boxer in the ring, and that was the BJP. This was true on every front, including the social media. Even today, the BJP’s social media presence is very powerful. If you end up writing anything which is perceived to be against the BJP, the trolls get most active. However, the Opposition has also changed their game. They have also learnt to play the social media game... Yes, the BJP is still very much a power on social media, but the gap has begun to close a lot.
During your travels you had meetings with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. How do you assess the two personalities?
They are very different from each other. As far as Mr Modi is concerned — I have met him a couple of times — he comes across as someone who is very serious, a stern figure. Someone with whom you can’t cross the line — he is very clear on what you can speak to him about and what you can’t. As far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned, it has been much more of an evolution.
When I first met him in 2007, the thing which struck me was that he was like an enthused grad from college, very keen to tell us about the various theories he has learnt. In a two-hour meeting, he spoke to us for one hour and 59 minutes, hardly took any questions... He is trying to project himself differently now, as a leader who wants to take people along, be more inclusive. Now if you meet him, he tries to smile a lot, and tries to make it much more casual.
Do you think the key to 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be who forms a better coalition?
Absolutely. I have always said that coalition politics is here to stay, it is the result of India’s diversity, its heterogeneity.
You have said that coalition governments are better than majority governments?
If you look at the history of India, you find that reforms that happened in India typically happened when the government had its back to the wall. One of the reasons why coalition governments end up being better is that the true story of India happens at the state level, in terms of how these states are growing. In coalition governments, more power is given to the states just because of the nature of the coalition governments. In India, more power is devolved to states, that is where you end up getting better results for the country. The real story of India is the fact that there are breakout states in India, and the story of some of the states that happen to be good lift the national average. But the idea of having a central figure who will be able to carry pathbreaking reform from the Centre, I think, is against the social fabric of India. India as a country just doesn’t function that way.
The GDP growth for the December quarter of 2018-19 came at 6.6 per cent — the lowest in five quarters. What is your outlook on India’s GDP growth?
The global economy is much weaker than it used to be. The reason why India had an extraordinary boom in the last decade was because we were amidst a massive global economic boom which raised our growth rate. This decade, the global economy is much weaker than we expected. So this is why it is difficult for even a country like India to grow rapidly. The global GDP is quite weak right now and that is bound to have a drag on India as well. The problem with us is that when our economy does very well, we all take credit for it — that it is all about India, without realising that the global boom may be pushing our economy up.
Do you see India achieving 8-9 per cent GDP growth anytime soon?
Very difficult because the global economy is so very weak. Unless India does some very pathbreaking reform, like China. I don’t see that happening either. It is said that in India everyone is an incremental reformer at best — no one does that kind of reform. In India what you will get is breakout states, some states will grow very rapidly. Like Bihar, which is the most transformed state.