It was 1992 and the United States was electing a president. The Republicans had ruled for a solid 12 years. The CIA veteran/vice-president–turned-President George Bush Sr had finally broken the back of arch-enemy USSR and won an international war against Madman Saddam.
The rival candidate was a newcomer from Arkansas and relatively little known. What could possibly go wrong? Bush’s failure to keep economic promises was one of the prominent reasons for his defeat and hence, the catchphrase! Of course, India is no US and the issues of the 2019 elections are varied and myriad in numbers and unpredictable in impact.
Yet, one cannot deny the fact that the economy might very well become the most crucial issue, this election. In fact, it must be remembered that Hindu sentiment was hardly ever used overtly in 2014 by Modiji’s election blitzkrieg and the thrust was on achhe din… improving economic scenario.
Five years hence, no credible economic expert would say that the promises of achhe din are anywhere near fulfilment. In fact, most of them have launched no-holds-barred attacks in attacking the government for its economic policy failures and the disaster it has created.
They are pointing to the data emerging from falling auto sales, (the not-so-hidden) rising unemployment rates to the 20-month low manufacturing numbers. The very fact, that the Modi government is refusing to conduct ‘results pe charcha’, by withholding crucial data, is in itself is an admission of unsatisfactory performance.
Even the most government-friendly experts are talking about future possibilities, while upholding Modi Initiatives, such as demonetisation and the GST. Does it affect the outcome of elections? Definitely so. The Modi government, in its last few months before election, went ahead with a full-length budget for the sixth time and declared a Rs 6,000-a-year cash transfer benefit for farmers.
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) council, in its last few meetings, increased exemption limits and reduced tax rates. The government came out with its ambitious ‘Ayushman Bharat’ scheme for health services. Even the Reserve Band of India, now under its ‘tamed’ governor, has reduced rates to ease credit worries.
Not to be outdone, the biggest electoral plank for the Congress is NYAY (Nyuntam Aay Yojana) – a scheme of direct cash transfer to 20 crores of below poverty line (BPL) population. Besides, there are other economic promises in the much-touted manifesto, such as no angel tax, the filling of 22 lakh government vacancies, bringing fuel under GST and so forth.
That the purses of voters are an election factor, no one is refuting. The question is, how far? Will voters refuse to look at caste and religion and consider farm prices? Will they remember the jobs data more than Pulwama? Would bank NPAs play more on their minds than the appeal of patriotism? In political war rooms across India, this is the question being pondered upon by strategists and leaders, alike.
However, does it mean that if the economy becomes the dominant factor, then Modiji will lose? (Which, incidentally, still doesn’t mean that Rahul Gandhi wins. A hung/third party government is more likely.) An affirmative would mean admitting that the Modi regime has failed on the economic front.
However, we must spare ourselves such judgment, which would be tantamount to taking sides, in the present environment. So let us just say this: Issues that a given party stresses and the other omits the most, appeals made by every leader through its online and electronic propaganda the most, will be the key.
It will be clearly visible and audible, without bias and opinion, to the consumer of this propaganda, who in turn, is a voter too. Does the Indian voter want to vote for roti, kapda aur makaan? Do they believe Modiji would give them, or has succeeded in partially giving him these? Or are they going to respond to emotional appeals? At this stage, it’s anybody’s guess.
(Ajit Joshi is a chartered accountant and political analyst)