Five Pendulums of The 2019 Election Are Swinging Back & Forth — And With Them, Modi’s Fate
On the political and the economic front, there are some interesting and downright bizarre movements.
A breathless election season goes into its final lap this week. And now, uncertainty in the outcome is the only bet anyone is taking on. In December 2018, there were quite a few who were ready to write Narendra Modi’s epitaph, and then Balakot happened. For a few days, the tide turned, and we saw a similar number forecasting a second term for Modi. Over the last week or so, all bets are off again as the voters take over the final lap. It’s a tough prediction to make now, but what is fascinating is how the pendulum has been swinging resulting in some interesting and some downright bizarre seesaw movements.
Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao has gone soft on Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. He has given enough indications that he will not support Modi. YS Jaganmohan Reddy is his significant ally, who suddenly declared that he had forgiven the Congress party. These were the two leaders who are set to do well and were seen as potential NDA partners.
A week before they go for polls, they have clarified a highly debated possibility. Among leaders today, KCR has the sharpest political instinct. If he has indicated his preference, we have a battle. All eyes will be looking for Ramvilas Paswan now — will he abandoned Hindutva and go back to his oft-repeated secular roots? And will he do so before on or after May 23rd?
Let me go back to the economy now. In re-election, it’s not über-nationalism that will drive voters. It will be the economy. And on this issue, yet another seesaw swinging wildly is the good old Sensex. The year 2018 was the worst year for the index since 2011, with nine months of the year showing negative returns. The stock market became the worst performer in Asia after having been the best for some time. The volatility that we saw last year was unprecedented. Oil prices went up, US and China glared at each other, and there was a general tightening of monetary policy globally. As if these external factors were not enough, we had a huge Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFC) crisis in India, strange, long-term capital gains tax on equity, falling GDP and the ever-present uncertainty over monsoons.
On August 24, 2018, the Sensex was at 39,000. On October 29, 2018, it was trading at 33,500 – a fall of more than 5,300 points in two months. The equity players were devastated. Today, amidst tremendous uncertainty, the capital market is caught in two minds – should it continue to support Modi, or give up on him?
The pendulum swung again a week ago, the stock market index staged some recovery and is within striking distance of 39,000. It is still well below the 40,000 figure projected by some and significantly lower than the 45,000 forecast by others. This is the first paradox I underline.
The second paradox is concerning the Dollar. Modi supporters like Ravi Shankar, Chetan Bhagat and Baba Ramdev had promised the voter in 2014 that the new PM will dramatically increase the value of the rupee. However, the exchange rate only worsened. We had the dollar at slightly over Rs 63 in 2014. It went up to touch Rs 75 to a Dollar last year and has since then come down ever so slightly to settle at around Rs 69. Inexplicably, no one seems to have anything to say about the Rupee value, which is a function of weak demand for the Indian currency and falling exports.
The third paradox is again purely political. The Modi supporter of today is someone who grew also respecting the Hindutva icons of yesteryears, notably Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. While Vajpayee is no more, Advani is still very much around – and his younger colleagues’ mistreatment has hurt him. Who is Advani for the new right winger? A senior politician who is saying the right things? A veteran who calls a spade a spade, thinks Modi is a dictator and a lousy leader and says we have an emergency-like situation that poses a severe threat to our democracy? Or is Advani a hate-spewing, polarising, rabble-rouser who changed secular India forever and gave rise to the Modis and the Yogis who have no patience with dissent or opposition?
The fourth paradox is on the campaign itself. On the one hand, we have billion dollar budgets being spent on rallies and social media campaigns. On the other hand, no one is showing up to hear the rabble-rousers. Amit Shah ditched his followers this week in Telangana. Rajnath Singh spoke to empty chairs, and Modi himself couldn’t muster a sizable crowd in Bengal. If this is the path-breaking election that will decide whether we will ever have another election, the apathy and the boredom are surprising.
The last seesaw we see is the situation of the PM and his campaign itself. On the one hand, he has claimed an unprecedented growth agenda for the country. On the other, he now speaks of anything but the development agenda. He harps so much on Pakistan but says it is a trivial country bound to fail. He keeps warning us about Pakistan and is threatening our neighbour with retaliation. However, he is entirely silent on China, a bigger and far more dreadful neighbour whose determined opposition to India on multilateral forums has now become embarrassing and regular.
So will this election be about Balakot and Pulwama, or cash transfers to farmers and basic income to the poor? Will people vote for Namo or against Amit Shah and Yogi? Do the voters care if Nirav Modi doesn’t return, nor does Vijay Mallya? Is a Congress manifesto worth reading and would the voter also want to see the BIPs manifesto? What is obvious is that 2019 is indeed not looking anything like 2014. All discussion on governance, corruption, growth and development have been replaced with muscular discourses against minorities and neighbours. This is a most intriguing paradox and will unravel on May 23, to signal the shape we will give to the idea of India.