An editorial in the current issue of the Economist asks the question “is the Modi wave really a tsunami or less than a ripple?” Obviously, the first part of the question is what the BJP is asking and the second part is what the Congress party will like to see. We will know the answer on the16 th of this month. But already many other questions are being raised all around the world concerning the Indian election. Some are very revealing not only about the elections but also about what we are as a nation or as individual human beings. But before I get into these important issues, let me share with you some of the reflections on the current elections. These are based on what has happened in the various phases of the current election process.
The most interesting voting has happened in the South Mumbai constituency. This is acknowledged to be the most affluent electoral constituency in the country even though a large part of it covers areas like Bhendi Bazzar and Mazgaon – decidedly middle/ lower middle class and traditional areas occupied by minority groups. This is the area where live the richest Indians- Messers Tata, Ambani, Piramal, Parekh and Mahindra and many more . At least Mr.Ambani and Mr. Parekh are on record saying that they would vote for Milind Deora, the candidate of the Congress Party. Parekh wrote a piece in a national daily a few weeks ago explaining that it is in the interest of the nation that Mr. Modi becomes the next Prime Minister. The whole nation knows that Milind is the son of this august group’s personal friend, the ever-smiling Mr. Murli Deora. Moreover, how could they vote for a faceless Shivsena candidate in their prestigious constituency? The people in the Bhendi Bazzar and Mazgaon areas are not expected to vote for the BJP for historical reasons. In general, whatever myth the Modi machine is trying to create about the minorities being more safe in the Modi raj , no one is really buying it. Even the brilliant Mr. Akbar, the latest entrant in the BJP media front, has failed to sell the idea to the people at large. So the point is that even in the most advanced constituency, the voting by the electorate will be based on their personal choice and not after deep political thinking about how the Congress has ruined the nation. So how do we visualize that in the villages of India, people are matured enough to understand that Mr. Modi is a better candidate than Mr. Rahul Gandhi or that the BJP is a better party than the Congress when it comes to governance?
Seriously, Mr. Modi’s fate will be decided not by the likes of Mr. Ambani and Dipak Parekh but by the poor and may be illiterate villagers in Bihar and UP. And illiterate villagers are not necessarily foolish ones. They will vote for the candidate, who will deliver the goods that will make their life better. These goods are roads, electricity, accessible schools and hospitals –simple things that make life a little comfortable; things that are taken for granted in any other civilised country. Even though many young people in urban India will vote for Mr. Modi, there is surely no tsunami in his favour. Rural India will vote based on what the people perceive to be effective performances of their MPs – they could be BJP somewhere and Congress somewhere else. An MP, who has been or will be seen by the electorate to be up and running for their cause, will be returned to the house, wherever he is contesting from. And broadly, even in the urban areas, most of the voters will vote for a candidate and not the party. This is how our Constitution visualized the electoral process as we do not have a European system of voting for a party or the American system where one votes for one candidate – the President of the nation. Mr. Modi has adopted a Presidential style of campaigning and the media has approved of it. The Congress is all at sea in such a scenario as they are not used to such a style. One is therefore flooded with photos of Ms. Priyanka Vadera all over as she tries to rescue the Amethi seat for her brother but not the rest of India for the Congress party. That, after all is a better show than Mr. Rahul Gandhi campaigning in W. Bengal or Gujarat. That Mr. Gandhi’s campaign anywhere has been hardly visible is another matter.
As a by line, let me share a small titbit on the elections. A very articulate and erudite friend of mine argued with me to establish why we all must vote for Mr. Modi. Mr. Modi is a great administrator, will build efficient and big ports (Adani?) and will allow the bureaucrats, at least the known and “marked” efficient and honest ones, to initiate major policy initiatives. Incidentally, this friend is a leading member of the minority community and is involved in the shipping industry. His reasonings are fully justified. Another friend, equally articulate but distantly related to a very senior Congress politician, argued passionately why one cannot vote for Mr. Modi because the last word has not been heard on the Godhra issue. A third one, a very devout Hindu, who does all the rituals and some more, will not vote for Modi because the BJP’s and Modi’s religious views are very narrow and are not in keeping with the teachings of the Hindu scriptures. So you have as complex a situation as you can think of. Voters everywhere will vote for their own reasons and not based on what you and I think.
Now, about the questions that are bothering the international media. The Economist article is interesting because it says that our electoral costs (campaign costs of the political parties and candidates) are second only to the US. It is US $ 4.9 billion as against their $ 6 billion. But last heard, the US economy is 13 to 14 times bigger than ours. Our total expenditures may exceed 0.35% of our GDP. We have campaign finance laws that regulate corporate funding to political parties but it controls only 2.2% reported by the parties. In the US, the regulation of campaign finance is supposed to protect the citizens from the influence of the big donors to the political parties even as it keeps a close tab on who gives how much to whom. In India, The EC is concerned with eliminating “money power” and “muscle power” to prevent the rich candidates from having the better of their political rivals. The Commission sets limits for expenditure on the candidates and goes to ridiculous extent to find the guilty. Recently, they got hold of a candidate who was using two loud-speakers when he is allowed the use of one under the law. The limit of expenditure for each candidate is a small amount of Rs. 70 lakhs when everyone knows that the real expenditure goes beyond 50 to 100 times more that amount. The Observer Research Foundation had come out with a finding in 2012 which stated that both the BJP and Congress Parliamentarians accepted that they were spending not less than Rs. 20 crores in each constituency. What goes unnoticed in India is the use of gifts such as free liquor, “drugs”, foreign currency and even seeds and manures. In addition is the new menace of paid media. What also goes unnoticed is the huge political donations because parties are not required to account for any contribution worth less than Rs. 20 crores. In the Indian system if someone gives Rs. 1 lakh in five instalments of Rs. 20,000 each, the donation need not be accounted for. It is easy to understand that we do not regulate campaign finance at all; what the Indian EC does is the conduct of peaceful poll all around. One political party has been taking out two full front page advertisement in the largest selling national dailies on the day of the election in the big metros and that is all right under the law. Again, it is easy to understand why the west thinks our campaign finance regulations are a joke.
But the Economist makes one very interesting point. It says that the indignity of a democracy that is fuelled with free booze is surely a distraction; but whatever is used to sway sceptical voters, the votes are cast freely. The Indian voter is smart; he takes whatever the politicians give but believes in the sanctity of secret ballots. In other words, voters are voting for candidates who, they believe, will give them what they need from a responsive administration.
Can we still say there is a tsunami in favour of Mr. Modi?