Democratic elections anywhere are complicated business. And they are even more complicated in India because of its sheer diversity. Every state – and within each state, every sub region – has its own particularities. There are a wide number of political forces. The caste structure is incredibly complex, and its intersection with political mobilisation takes many forms. And then issues of development and livelihoods play out in different ways in different settings. To distill all this into a coherent neat story and provide a sense – let alone a firm prediction – of how any election will play out is challenging. Indeed, as a top Congress leader, who has been involved with elections since the 1960s, once told this writer, “You can only understand an Indian election after the election is over.”
Ruchir Sharma, now a top New York-based leader in global finance, understood this early on. Even as global professionals sought to interpret and predict electoral battles by speaking to the regular intermediaries of knowledge in Delhi and Mumbai, Sharma figured there can be no substitute to hitting the road. And so back in 1998, he began covering elections with a small group of colleagues and friends from the media. This group has over the last two decades expanded considerably and now includes senior journalists, columnists and policy wonks. Sharma has covered 27 elections – spanning both Lok Sabha and multiple state polls – in this period. And the book is an outcome of this experience.
There are four ways to read this book.
The first is to treat this as a racy, historical account of how Indian polls have evolved since the late 90s. It gives you a glimpse into the big national polls – from the return of Vajpayee after the failure of the United Front years in 1998 to his second victory, this time for a full term, after Kargil in 1999; how the India Shining campaign faltered in 2004; the return of Manmohan Singh in 2009; and eventually the wave election which propelled Narendra Modi to power in 2014. But its more valuable contribution is in its coverage of the state polls, be it in Uttar Pradesh where incumbents kept getting thrown out of office and caste alliances kept changing to Bihar where Nitish Kumar brought in a different vocabulary of politics since 2005 or Rajasthan where anti incumbency almost seems like a strongly etched principle of polls. To those familiar with Indian politics, this will appear basic and perfunctory. But to those seeking a quick overview of the actors, forces, and issues which have driven politics over the last two decades, this is a useful snapshot.
A second way to read this book is to focus on the colour and anecdotes, but most significantly, the conversations with top political actors. The fact that Sharma and his cohort were exceptionally well connected and influential opened doors and provided access that most covering elections from the ground would not get. And this provided them insights.
Three conversations stood out. Sharma got a meeting with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi back in 2002 and made a strong pitch for radical market reforms (Manmohan Singh, who Sharma knows well, had told him that no reforms programme would move without the backing of the Gandhis). Both Sonia and Rahul were sceptical, were not sure about the impact of the reforms on the poor, and strongly defended the role of the government. Sharma and his group had two conversations with Narendra Modi. The first one was during the Gujarat elections of 2007, where NDTV’s Prannoy Roy in particular aggressively pushed Modi on the 2002 riots. Modi wanted to push the conversation to development, but Roy and others did not let go. The then Gujarat CM ended the conversation, refused to stay for dinner, and told Sharma, “What happened here isn’t good.” A few years later, in 2009, the group accosted him at a rally in Maharashtra where he was campaigning for the party. Modi relented to give time, but the first question to him was about Ishrat Jahan. Modi walked out, and refused to meet them after that. The PM’s suspicion of the English media in particular, and his disdain for ‘political pundits’ can perhaps be traced to such conversations. And the final set of conversations are particularly revealing of Rahul Gandhi’s evolution.
Even as Gandhi now emphasises, quite often, the virtues of listening, it is striking that when Sharma and his colleagues met him in 2007, during UP assembly elections, at a hotel in Moradabad, Gandhi spoke straight for one-hour 59 minutes over a two-hour dinner. They subsequently met him in 2012 in Gujarat, and 2013 in Rajasthan. By this time however, Sharma writes that they sensed a change; Gandhi was more willing to listen, asked questions, but was emphatic and flagged off the perils of one-man rule in the backdrop of Modi’s slow rise to power.
A third way to read this book is to focus on Sharma’s big conclusions, based on his ground experiences.
Based on what a Karnataka politician once told him, Sharma says that a candidate in an Indian election has to get over 35 marks in six tests simultaneously.
And these tests span the areas of community (caste and religion); family (either of being a dynast or paradoxically being single and selling that as a mark of commitment to public service and integrity); inflation; welfare and development (of which there is no one right formula; Sharma concludes that even palpable economic success may not bring electoral success); and finally, corruption and money.
And a final way to read this book is not to just treat it as one about Indian elections, but also as an anthropological text of how the Indian elite covers the elections. The desperate search for comfortable hotels even if it means travelling long distances in the midst of some extreme deprivation; the composition of the group itself, which appears to be dominated largely by upper castes even as it is attempting to understand subaltern politics; and the complete absence of coverage from the Northeast or Kashmir – all tell us something about the Indian elite and the limits of its intersection with mass political processes.
Sharma spent the summers of his childhood at his maternal grandfather’s house in west UP’s Bijnor district. This is where his interest in politics grew. It is also perhaps why Sharma’s understanding of the centrality of identity – particularly caste – is astute, a trait most of his contemporaries in the corporate would probably lack. Sharma returned to Bijnor to conclude his book, and insightfully traced the transformation – or lack of it – over the past three decades in the district.
Sharma’s ability to weave in the personal and political; grasp the big picture trends from the micro events and conversations; and immersion into Indian electoral battles makes this a valuable read.