Among the myriad byproducts of Indian elections, the most harmless and arguably useful ones are the books written on them. This season has seen a spate of books coming out on the world’s greatest exercise of democratic franchise and, among them, Surjit Bhalla’s Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019 (Westland Publications, Price: ₹499) charts out India’s electoral journey since the first General Elections based on universal franchise in 1952.
Crystal ball gazing
It was in the 1989 general elections that Bhalla, an economist by profession, made his debut as a poll forecaster. Even though most forecasters had predicted that the Congress would scrape through despite the Bofors corruption scandal, Bhalla stuck his neck out and correctly predicted a Congress rout. But the author admits he got his predictions wrong twice — in India in 1991, when he predicted a Congress defeat and in the US in 2016, where he predicted a Hilary Clinton victory.
Bhalla’s book touches upon a number of other topics as well; chief among them are economic policy, reforms, cow protection and secularism. Bhalla firmly belongs to the pro-reforms, free-market camp which terms anything that is even faintly associated with socialism toxic.
He makes a spirited defence of the Modi government’s record on not just the economic front but also in other areas, which is not surprising given that he served in the PM’s Economic Advisory Council for a little more than a year. But to be fair to him he is also critical of the government especially in its reluctance or inability in stopping lynchings that occurred across North India in the name of cow protection. In his defence of demonetisation he focusses solely on the improvement of tax compliance and ignores the massive disruption caused in the MSME and agriculture sectors.
He claims that the Modi government’s three important reform measures — demonetisation, GST and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code — are the most critical ones since 1991.
The UPA government’s record on reforms comes in for massive criticism. Bhalla gives a lot of credit to Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh for the 1991 reforms but feels Manmohan Singh as a PM frittered away the opportunity to deepen reforms.
He also claims that the Modi government’s social policies — Swachch Bharat, Beti Padhao-Beti Bachao , LPG scheme and Jan Dhan — were more transformational than the UPA’s rights-based social policies.
Bhalla is on strong ground while dissecting the politics surrounding the cow. He spares none — the framers of our famed Constitution, the Supreme Court, the RSS, the BJP and the Congress — for the ‘holy’ mess.
The Congress’ duplicity on the issue justly comes in for a lot of criticism.
But what about the 2019 elections? The ‘Modi vs Rest’ elections, Bhalla says, will be a repeat of 2014, with the BJP winning 274 seats and the Congress 57, a mere 13-seat improvement from 2014. He has a simple prescription for Congress to rejuvenate itself — jettison the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and adopt a pro-reforms stance.
Bhalla often takes a contrarian stance and it’s hard to agree with some of his views but that does not take away the fact that the book is a breezy read with a wealth of data. So will the voters prove him right or bowl a googly at him on May 23?