Originally Published 2019-05-21 12:51:03 Published on May 21, 2019
The happy news must have reached — like Maneka (of Vishwamitra fame) — to interrupt a meditating Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Kedarnath cave.
NDA and the winner’s curse: Tough times ahead

The exit polls would have us believe that the National Democratic Alliance (BJP plus allies) will win 65 per cent of Lok Sabha seats. Could this be a repeat of 2004, when the NDA was supposed to sail home but the heaps of ladoos at the BJP office had to be transferred to the Congress headquarters, which had ordered none, not expecting the electoral largesse it got?

The estimates for the BJP range from 352 seats (IndiaTodayAxis) to the worst-case scenario of 242 seats (NewsXNeta). Exit polls are unreliable, principally because voters lie. It is best to work off the worst case of 242. This is just 13 per cent short of a majority. Conventional wisdom says that pollsters tend to be conservative to safeguard their credibility. A 10 per cent upside is not unexpected. This could bring the NDA to the verge of victory, but not quite.

Expending the NDA is unlikely to be a problem for the BJP. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSRCongress in Andhra Pradesh can make available a minimum pool of eight seats (Chanakya) and a maximum of 25 seats (TimesNowVMR, CVoter and IndiaTodayAxis), which would push the NDA across the 272 lakshman rekha of victory and well beyond, at the higher seat estimate of the YSRC. All this merely in exchange for promising development support for Andhra Pradesh — a promise they reneged from versus N. Chandrababu Naidu. The happy news must have reached — like Maneka (of Vishwamitra fame) — to interrupt a meditating Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Kedarnath cave. The locale fitted in perfectly with his brand image for the next five years — a resolute yogi (not the UP chief minister), distant from the din of battle in his castle-on-the-mountain, his deeds and goodwill sufficient to ripple out and generating an ocean of positive energy. A massive mandate for a second term sweeps away the trifling objections against the BJP regarding transgressions of the Model Code of Conduct, including on the last day of polling when pictures of PM Modi clad in a quixotic but colourful costume were splashed across the national media. A memorable one had him clad in a saffron robe at peace with himself — an elevated being beyond the mortal cares of this world. Compare this with the frenzied efforts of mere mortals like Digvijay Singh, the Congress’ senior leader in Madhya Pradesh, desperately overseeing poll arrangements in Bhopal or an agitated, battle-ready Mamata Banerjee in forever-scarred Kolkata. As for the Congress “children”, they sank without a trace. Their best estimate is a somewhat high 164 (NewXNeta) and worst estimate at 82 seats (News18IPSOS). At the lower end, the Congress pulls in less seats then all the “other” parties which get as many as 148 seats (ABPNielson) or as few as 97 (News24Chanakya). The Congress, by living in its past, has greatly helped the BJP to return to power by splitting the Opposition seats in our faulty “first-past-the-post system”. Hopefully, by 2024, they would have called it quits and we would have a BJP versus the Rest cliffhanger. The poll estimates, even assuming the worst case scenario for the BJP and its allies, reveal the power of smoke and mirrors, shock and awe and the appeal of a strong leader in the Indian electoral milieu. Everything is fair in love, war and elections. Everyone plays the same game. Going out of the window is the distilled conventional wisdom of the “The Verdict” — of Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwalla. The Assembly polls which the Congress won in 2018 — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (marginal) and a clean sweep in Chhattisgarh — have been poor predictors of seatshare in the Lok Sabha elections. Also debunked is the theory that low turnouts help the BJP while high turnouts help the Congress. The average voter turnout crossed the 2014 high of 66 per cent and yet the BJP is predicted to form the government. Similarly trashed is the theory that 2019 would be about landslide victories in individual states. The big states, comprising around 40 per cent of the total seats — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka — are bucking that assumption. Conversely, with 11 of the 27 bellweather seats listed in “The Verdict” slated to go to the BJP — West Delhi, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Chandigarh, Kurukshetra, Karnal, Bhiwani Mahendragarh, North West Delhi, Varanasi and Mandi (Himachal) — their role as good predictors seems validated. Could winning be a curse in 2019? The world is in a mess. Global growth is faltering. Trade disruptions continue. Bringing Iran to heel by cutting off its market for oil will raise prices and hurt the biggest oil importer — China. Japan and India are the collateral damage of this oil imperialism. India’s trade deficit, already above eight per cent of GDP, would rise further. The mess in the banking and non-banking financial sector will worsen. Muscular foreign policy will require doubling of defence outlays and higher spends on infrastructure for international prestige projects. Falling corporate profits and constrained supply of good jobs will keep tax revenues of the Union and state governments trapped at 17 to 18 per cent of GDP. Enlarging the fiscal deficit from the existing 3.5 to four per cent, back to the six per cent of GDP it was in 2009, will be the only option. Fiscal expansion and related higher inflation could deepen the downward spiral as debt spirals out of control. The Reserve Bank will be caught between lowering high interest rates to kickstarting faltering growth and investment and keeping the interest rate at positive levels to attract foreign funds to fill the hole in the trade account. This scenario is far from the happy days which greeted the Narendra Modi government in 2014. Growth was buoyant, trade was upward looking, oil prices were low and inflation falling on the back of a slide in oil and food prices.

The skill sets required in 2019 will be quite different — painstakingly fixing the plumbing; cutting out wasteful expenditure; choosing results oriented investment allocations and using charm rather than muscle to score a point overseas. Below the radar Vietnam and Bangladesh should be our role models, not Imperial China.

Penny pinching is not what the NDA is used to. Its previous stint in 2000-2004 and since 2014 have been periods of expansive public ambitions. Far better if the “Mahagathbandan” takes the lead this year. They will face similar obstacles. Once they fall apart, the NDA could step in and rescue the nation yet again, in 2024, or earlier.

So if the final tally of seats does not fit the predictions, the NDA should be relieved and transfer the ladoos yet again to the Congress headquarters to let them do the heavy lifting. Meanwhile it should take time out, navel-gaze and work on a sustainable plan to use India’s potential better, next time around.

This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age.
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Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia has core skills in institutional analysis, energy and economic regulation and public financial management backed by eight years of project management experience ...

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