Sunday, February 24, 2013

Effusive praise for Dhoni shows how fickle we are and why no one can predict 2014 elections….

Just a few months back, we were unforgiving towards Dhoni. Yesterday, as he scripted his first double century, we were effusive with praise calling him India’s best captain ever – again. This yoyo behavior – alternately seeking to punish and reward the same person, all in a matter of months – shows how fickle we Indians are. This fickle nature pervades every sphere of our life including politics, making it impossible to correctly predict outcomes of polls just a few months away. Forget 2014, we cannot even predict what will happen in the polls later this year….

Want more proof of our fickle nature? Observe how people’s opinion about Manmohan Singh has yoyoed in just a couple of years. He was the coolest dude till recently. When he pushed for the Indo-US nuclear deal, he became the darling of the middle classes. All criticism about him being a puppet vanished. Suddenly Singh became King. The praise was effusive. Singh was praised for his personal integrity, his modest lifestyle, his intelligence and the fact that even US President Obama took his counsel. Not surprisingly, they voted the him and his party back to power in 2009. Today, after a few not-so-proud incidents involving some members of his party, the same Singh is being ridiculed. The same puppet charge is back. And though no one doubts his personal integrity even today, they accuse him of having allowed others to “loot” the country. Earlier, when he spoke less, they branded him a silent intellectual. Today, they call it his poor skills of oratory.

Extreme viewpoints are part and parcel of this same fickle nature. We see everything in black and white. Either a leader is the best there is, or he is simply the worst. Today, many people are effusive in their praise of Narendra Modi. They see nothing wrong in him. They simply cannot conflate Modi’s charisma and his growth credentials with his murderous handling of the Godhra riots. They cannot appreciate that he claims far more credit for Gujarat’s progress than he deserves; that growth in Gujarat predates him. Likewise many people dismiss Rahul Gandhi as inexperienced, and one who hasn’t delivered in UP and Bihar. But they forget that leadership is not only about experience. Vajpayee scarcely had the kind of experience that counted (his stint as foreign minister during the Janata Party rule is best forgotten). Politics is about charisma and vision, both of which Vajpayee had in abundance. And he became a successful PM. Likewise, when Rahul Gandhi’s supporters look at him, they see him as a young, charismatic leader. Someone who will lead the country differently; in an inclusive way, making everyone (not just one community) feel at home. They see his campaigning in UP and Bihar (two most difficult states for Congress) as signs of his fearless nature. Modi didn’t even try to campaign in these states.

So we have extreme views and we are fickle. Combine the two and we have an explanation for many of our past election results. We voted Indira Gandhi out decisively in 1978 but we brought her back to power with a thumping majority in just 2 years. Her fortunes turned almost overnight. Ditto with Vajpyaee – who we gave the biggest personal approval ratings to – and then tossed him out of power.

Our extreme views and our fickle nature makes our politics colorful. We have seen the fickle nature at work right through the 90s and 2000s also. I once wrote how the India Today election forecasts – usually made a few months before elections – almost always got their predictions wrong. And it’s mostly because of what happens in the “last few months”. Here are examples of the last 3 general elections from my earlier post (August 26th, 2012: Last 3 poll forecasts all wrong…..India Today now forecasts an NDA win….):

The magazine did a poll in Dec 1998 and predicted that the BJP+ would get 135 seats while the Congress+ would get a huge 305. In fact, for the first time in a long while, Sonia pipped Vajpayee in the “Who will make the best PM” question by 31%:27%. Considering that the forecast was done just 9 months before the elections, one would have expected it to capture the mood fairly accurately. But aaah…..the painful truth is that the magazine got it all wrong. Why? I believe it was the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999 which swung the mood decisively towards the BJP.

Take the 2004 elections held in May. The magazine had a poll forecast in its April issue in which it predicted a huge BJP+ win with the alliance getting as many as 282 seats compared to the Congress+ alliance’s 165. In fact, Vajpayee was riding a high with a personal rating of 51% - his second highest after the 59% before the 1999 poll. This time around, there was no “Kargil” explanation possible. Within a month, the magazine had to eat crow when the UPA romped home with 218 seats (enough to make it the largest formation) with the NDA relegated to just 181.

Again in April 2009, the magazine’s forecast indicated that the UPA would be just marginally ahead of the NDA by 200 seats to 177. Again, the forecast was held immediately ahead of the elections. The Indo-US nuclear deal had been passed by Parliament in July 2008 and all the positive vibes it generated for the Congress and the UPA were factored in. And yet, the magazine’s forecast failed to capture the mood of the nation. The reality was there for everyone to see. The UPA got 262 seats, with the Congress itself performing at its best level in recent times. The NDA was down to 158….

So those of you who are already making predictions about 2014, beware. The Indian voter is unfathomably fickle. It doesn’t take too long for him to change sides. Whatever happens in the last few months is what matters. A flop actor becomes a big star overnight. A sackable captain becomes the toast of the country with one double century. And a corrupt non-performing leader suddenly becomes a “pragmatic” (a victim of political conspiracy!), dynamic one in no time. The battle for 2014 has not even begun!

The real truth is that unlike more stable, evolved societies, we are still fickle, shallow and immature. We are emotional. We change sides often, depending on how things change (see how many people change teams as the IPL progresses!). Dhoni shouldn’t read too much into the praise. Nor should Narendra Modi. This is India meri jaan – where things can change overnight!

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