Everyone knows the 'hawa' has turned, but...

Kumar Ketkar uses political intuition to read between the lines of psephological predictions

A Congress party rally in Punjab (photo: Getty Images)
A Congress party rally in Punjab (photo: Getty Images)

Kumar Ketkar

Can you even imagine a humiliating setback for Modi–Shah’s BJP in this election? How could anyone, in the face of a propaganda blitzkrieg of such scale and range? Even their detractors and diehard sceptics struggle to envisage an outcome where they are out of power.

There are, however, enough indications that Modi’s carefully crafted image has developed cracks. The latest burst of interviews— including one in which he claims divine origin—is one such indication. But even if Modi and his minions manage to rig these elections and subvert the popular mandate, his messianic reputation will suffer.

M.G. Devasahayam, a former bureaucrat with three decades of experience in senior positions including in the Election Commission, does not see Modi’s BJP getting more than 170 seats. Having witnessed the recent shenanigans of the Election Commission of India (ECI), he has begun a movement to stop the ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ conduct of the ECI, often abetted, in his view, by the indifference (or complicity) of the judiciary.

Devasahayam has lodged cases against the ‘nefarious’ actions of the ECI and mobilised over a hundred former senior IAS officers to fight against the ‘fraud being [perpetrated] to topple democracy and marginalise the Constitution’.

He is convinced the national mood is anti-Modi—and that both the prime minister and his alter ego, home minister Amit Shah, know it. The most significant signals are coming from the BJP’s own ranks. Leaders say in hush-hush tones that the PM and the PMO have reduced them to errand boys.

Retired ministers confide that ministerial meetings are short: A4 sheets are handed out to be read in Parliament or to the media. There is neither appreciation for work done, nor any room to act independently, even in their respective constituencies. They are convinced the party will suffer in this election. Most opinion polls and exit polls do not reflect this sentiment, maybe because their samples are too small or because the surveys are dictated or doctored.

How, then, does one identify a declining trend? By unconventional means like conversations with common folk, through observations that do not take the shape of statistical data on Excel sheets, by using political instinct honed over years of watching elections.

Subaltern waves rarely manifest on the surface. The so-called Indira wave in 1971, the Janata–JP wave in 1977, the sympathy wave after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 were exceptions.


Let us also not forget that splurging crores on opinion polls does not lead to failsafe predictions. Even the so-called ‘correct predictions’ are largely accidental. What you glean from unhurried conversations with local journalists, ground-level activists, anganwadi workers, third- and fourth-grade government and semi-government employees, factory workers, the not-so-well-off peasantry, armed services personnel, the police beat constable and suchlike are far more revealing.

A sizeable number of junior and senior government employees are fed up. Their ‘inside stories’ rarely make it to print or television. The taxi drivers, autowalas and corner shop paanwalas most journalists project as the voice of the people are not the only ‘common people’.

Politically sensitive noses are able to pick up a ‘hawa’, straws in the wind that indicate which way it is blowing. There is no certified scientific method for this; it is what one gleans from incidental details.

From observing the crowds at election rallies, big and small; making mental notes of how they reached the venue—were they bussed in, did they come on their own; how they responded to the various speakers; how many left mid-way; what kind of discussions did they have after, as they walked home, caught local trains, jumped into metros, hotly arguing with each other—all this and more.

It is this intangible hawa that the Intelligence Bureau, the media and the political parties try to decipher.


How big a role does money play in swinging our elections? In a recent article in the Times of India, author and investment analyst Ruchir Sharma writes: ‘[…] candidates are spending $15 million (or Rs 125 crore) in each constituency, which implies a total spending of more than $1 billion (approx. Rs 8,300 crore) to win seats in the more prosperous southern states.’

I have seen families of five being handed Rs 25,000 in the last two days before voting. (Usually, 36 hours after the campaign is over.) I have seen envelopes with Rs 2,000 notes being distributed in slum areas, along with a sandwich. In middle-class housing societies, with 1- and 2-BHK tenants, candidates and political parties have been spending several lakhs with the consent of RWAs (resident welfare associations), painting buildings or providing cable TV connections.

The whole business of bribing voters, distributing money or favours is not even clandestine. It is talked about openly by loudmouth party karyakartas, volunteers and ‘grateful’ residents.


In elections before 1984–85, the karyakarta tended to be a party loyalist or a supporter of a particular candidate; they were neighbourhood social workers or ideology-driven individuals. Not only communists and socialists, but also the then Jana Sangh, Shiv Sena and RSS volunteers worked tirelessly in election campaigns.

Today, there are karyakarta teams available on hire—at a hefty price. There was a time when ‘allurements’ to party activists took the modest shape of a free lunch or dinner, a vehicle pickup and drop. In the 1967, 1971 and 1977 election campaigns, even these ‘facilities’ were missing.

I’ve seen dedicated communist, Congress and RSS volunteers spend their own money, take leave from their factories and offices and work for their chosen candidates. Can we imagine that kind of campaign today? I don’t want to paint an apocalyptic picture. There are still enough earnest volunteers and sincere voters and leaders. It is this kind, the ones who can’t be bought, that worry the BJP. And hence its reliance on money and muscle.

Aware that a victory in these elections is not theirs for the asking, BJP strategists have ensured the party has no dearth of resources to do whatever necessary to retain its hold on power.

While parties like the YSR Congress and Telugu Desam in Andhra, DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Trinamool Congress in Bengal and the BRS in Telangana have also learnt the rules of the game, the BJP has bested them all—not simply by growing its own coffers by all means possible (electoral bonds and more such) but also by doing its best to choke the Opposition.

Take for instance the freezing of the bank accounts of the Congress, its principal opposition party, on the eve of elections.


To return to the various poll predictions for a moment, anyone who still thinks that the BJP in on its way to win 370 seats on its own, taking the NDA ‘400 paar’, is either smoking potent weed or is in a position to rig these elections at scale.

The latter scenario is scary but improbable, and the key players in that denouement would be the Election Commission of India and their new masters. Among psephologists and political observers of note, Prashant Kishor has given the BJP more than 300 seats while Yogendra Yadav, last heard, said the party will end up with around 230 seats.

Psephology is tricky business. Prashant Kishor seems to know (wonder how?) that the people are disappointed with Modi but not angry. Is this election perhaps a referendum on Modi? Hold your horses till Judgement Day.

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