Ruchir Sharma, one of the world’s largest investors, is known for writing widely on global economics and politics. The Indian investor has authored the international bestseller, Breakout Nations wherein he shared his views on emerging markets and his travel through those countries, what he calls as an "economic travelogue of the world".
Sharma regularly contributes to number of publications including the
Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and Foreign Affairs.
He was among
Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2012 and Bloomberg Market’s 50 Most Influential thinkers in 2015.
In an interview with CNBC-TV18's Shereen Bhan, Sharma talks about his book
Democracy on the Road, the key takeaways from his 25 years of election trips in India and based on that, what the Lok Sabha elections and its outcome look like this year.
Here's the full transcript of his interview:
Q: 25 years of tracking elections in India, why?
A: I wrote my first book
Breakout Nations at the beginning of this decade, that was a economic travelogue of the world. This is more a political travelogue of India. Why I do this is because there is something so charming about coming back to India, about going into the countryside and sort of experiencing what exactly life is here like. This may have partly been because I spent all my summers growing up here in Bijnor. Q: So, the book starts and ends here?
A: Yes. I think that this is what we tend to forget, which is that at that age back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we did not have much of a choice. It is not as if our parents asked us that where do you want to go on vacation. It was always to our grandparents' place no matter where they were. So, they were here in a sort of backwater like Bijnor. We came here and spent a month here and there was absolutely nothing to do. The routine was so unstructured, the Ghanta Ghar at the centre here – the clocked never worked on that Ghanta Ghar, so there was no sense of time. Instead what you got was, someone said this that boredom tends to foster creativity. So, when you were bored out of your minds, what you did was to observe the social behaviour of different people and that sort of stuck in your head. That is what sort of made this such an additive process for me as to why even today I want to keep coming back to the Indian countryside and experience what is it like in terms of the thinking of the two thirds of Indians who live outside the urban areas.
Q: In the book you have given several anecdotes to capture the fact that you can actually get the story very wrong if you ignore what is happening in rural India, if you ignore the rural side of the campaign so to speak. Take me through the big misses perhaps that have happened over the last 25 years. Where did you get horribly wrong and why?
A: Of the 27 election trips that we have done, the entire group, a big tradition that we have maintained is to keep an honor roll at the end of each election, which basically means that we keep an account of all the predictions that we make at the end of each trip.
I can quite proudly say that apart from one instance in 2003, the group has got it broadly correct, at least our direction correct.
Now let us focus on 2003. We were in Rajasthan, this was November of 2003 and Ashok Gehlot then was standing for re-election and what happened there was that we went out there, we spent a few days travelling in Rajasthan, driving all the way from Delhi to Kota and then all the way back. Most of us came back thinking that Ashok Gehlot is going to win that election and that was partly conditioned by two things, one, by the fact that he had just been feted in Delhi and other places. He was voted as the best chief minister of the country and secondly we spent most of our times in the urban areas in traveling that trip. I think it was our 5th election trip since this tradition started.
What we really missed out which we learnt later on was that in the countryside there was a lot of angst against the Gehlot government partly because the state had suffered two of its worst droughts in history and this is a very dry state anyway. So, after that trip I learnt the lesson that no matter how bad the hotels, you have to go out in the countryside and spend time staying at places which may not be exactly the kind of place that you may like.
Q: If you have lived in such hotels, how then did the Limousine Liberals moniker get attached with the group?
A: Nothing is worse than that, and I think it is because someone said it in half jest when writing a column and it sort of took on.
Q: Someone? Who? Shekhar Gupta?
A: Exactly. It sort of took on some momentum after that. So basically what happened was, when I first started these trips, I used to hire these six door Volvo’s so that we could all sit together because in the 1990s India did not have any SUVs. So we would hire these stretched door Volvo’s where we could all sit together to get the conversation going. There is something very addictive about these conversations and that was the only car available.
However, after about five or six trips, those cars would break down so badly repeatedly in the Indian countryside that we ditched those and we started using the Innovas. We would stay in all these hotels, but you know how it is, the name sounds very cool so it is stuck.
The other half of the name had to do with liberals and that too was because about 15 years ago when someone told you that you were a liberal, it was not a slur. Today it has become a very polarising label that someone says you are a liberal or a secular, that sort of is like almost said in a very derogatory way because that is how polarised it has become.
However, if you look at our group too, pick up a 20 of us, even there the political divisions have increased over time. We have people in our group who are very much right of the center when it comes to the polity in India. However, on economics, I think most people in the group tend to be much more pro-market, free-market kind of people on the group. So these labels are very hard, but they stick.
Q: The sugarcane farmers protesting outside the district magistrate (DMs) office, being water cannoned, is what makes India so ungovernable. The fact that the system is broken at so many levels and hence the anti-high, anti-incumbency that you keep talking about?
A: Yes, that is one of the big themes of the book in fact. This term anti-incumbency, as we have discussed before, is very peculiar to India. I think it is much more than that in terms of what is happening in this election. That is just one of the many factors.
However, what we saw in the district magistrate’s office here in Bijnor captures so many things about this place, about what high people’s expectations are. Even when the government wants to deliver, how difficult it is for the actual people on the ground to get what they want. So that is what they were arguing about, that the dues have not been paid for a long period of time. For me it is the entire drama that we saw which is why I love coming back to India and doing these election trip.
Q: I want to talk about the rural story that you said and the reason why you got directionally the Rajasthan 2003 vote wrong because you did not understand the kind of pain that the rural parts of Rajasthan was seeing. Let us look at what happened then with India shining and let us look at what is happening currently as well because a lot of the conversation, a lot of the discourse right now is about the farm protest. We just saw what happened outside the DMs office as well. How important is this going to be in this election?
A: I really feel that the defining feature of this election is going to be alliances which is that if you look at the 2014 election, what happened then was as we well know that the BJP got 31 percent of the vote share, but the number of seats it got was 9 times more, like over 280. That ratio was un-parallel in Indian political history that you never had an instance where a party with 31 percent of the vote share managed to get more than half the seats in the Lok Sabha. That happened because the opposition was very badly divided in the key battleground states.
I think that in this election what is going to really matter is that. I do not think the BJP's vote share as such is going to go down too much, maybe the BJP's vote share will go down a bit in the Hindi heartland area, it may make up a bit in the eastern parts of the country and other parts maybe, or it may go down even a bit, but I think that the big thing in this election is going to be about the alliances which are being formed in key battleground states from Uttar Pradesh right up to Maharashtra. I think that that is what is really going to define this election more than I would say like this entire debate.
In Delhi we love having this debates about how is Modi doing and how is the Budget and how much of anger there is against the government and things, all those I think are factors but the real big factor is going to be how many alliances are stitched because that is the short history of Indian democracy that whenever alliances are stitched against a very powerful leader at the center, from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi to Vajpayee, typically the alliances tend to prevail. However, if the alliances do not come together, then Modi has a pretty good chance of coming back. I think it is as simple as that.
Q: Speaking of alliances and for the very first time here in UP which as the cliché – the road to Delhi is via UP – Samajwadi party and the BSP are getting together and Mayawati’s political 'karmabhoomi' is Bijnor in a sense as well, how significant is that going to be and the fact that the Congress is outside of that, do you think that is actually going to work to the advantage of this alliance?
A: As far as the state is concerned just a plain math suggests that the alliance is going to be very strong. In fact when I came to write the closing chapter of my book on Bijnor late last year, I went back and told our travel companions that I don’t think there is any point going to UP this time. At that point of time it wasn’t clear if the alliance would come through or not but the basic analysis was that if the alliance comes through then the state basically goes towards the alliance, if the alliance doesn’t come through it goes to the BJP. So, as far as UP is concerned and all the opinion polls, it is hard to trust them at this stage but for whatever it is worth seem to confirm that. I don’t think in this election UP is going to be that important a state because I think the vote bases are very entrenched and the mind has been made up. So, at this state the alliance has a clear advantage.
...Maharashtra the alliance is going to matter more. So, my dream election trip for the 28th election trip for what is being built as arguably the biggest election in history, should be that we should travel coast to coast, which is to start from Mumbai and go to Vishakhapatnam because I think that belt from Maharashtra, Northern Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh could be very critical.
Of course as far as Indian elections are concerned, the great thing about Indian elections and about India in general which is one of the big themes in my book, that this is more a continent than a country, so it is case of many India's' and it is very difficult to sort of pinpoint on one or two states where you really want to go. However if you have to really sort of zone into as to where to go, that is where I would ideally like to go.
Q: Since you talked about the many India's', two questions – one, how do you reconcile these many India's' with the BJP and Prime Minister Modi’s idea of a new India which is what they are pitching to voters and secondly how important are the local issues in a national election? When you talk about assembly elections, the argument was that it doesn’t matter that they have lost the three Hindi heartland states in December because this was about local issues, a national election is very different – 2019 will look very different. In a general election how crucial are local issues versus national issues?
A: It is very much going to be a more locally driven election than a national election is my feeling even though it is supposed to be a Lok Sabha election. This where again I feel the narrative in Delhi, Mumbai or even outside of India tends to be very misleading because there people want to see this as a presidential race, that is in terms of Modi versus the rest and here there are may be some elements of that but when you come down and talk to voters, even at the national level my feeling is that it is really going to be about state to state. Obviously Narendra Modi will be a very big factor but it will be about each state leader and each regional party.
This idea that the elections are very different – assembly and national – I do not see any empirical evidence for that. If you look at what happened in the previous state elections also, if a state or national election followed each other very closely, you did not get much of a difference as far as the outcomes were concerned. So, I do not think there is going to be much of a difference between the two voting patterns this time either.
Q: Let us talk about the issues that will dominate the narrative this time around and I want to focus a little bit on what the experience over the last 25 years has told you on the connection between development and how people vote because for instance in Bihar and you do believe that Bihar is one of the most transformed states in India, one would imagine that Nitish Kumar’s victory was on account of the development card or Prime Minister Modi’s victory in 2014 was because Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. How important is that and is this co-relation as deep as we think it is?
A: No. I think that the electoral history of India suggests the connection between economics and politics is very tenuous at best. So in fact this was very well articulated to me by a local politician who we met in Mangalore during our Karnataka election trip of May of last year. What this politician — UT Khader was his name — told us was quite insightful. He said that an Indian election is about a contest of 6 metrics. It is like you are taking 6 exams and you have to pass each exam with a minimum score of at least 35 percent.
Q: What 6 exams do you have to pass?
A: He did not spell that out, but if I were to cull the list after having traveled, clearly caste and religion is the starting point. Unless you get that right, it is very difficult to win an election. Then things like family connections matter, welfarism matters, how much money you spent does tend to matter even though I think it is a bit exaggerated - how much money drives politics, then issues like corruption matters and then possibly you have development. So you have six factors.
Q: So caste is right on top?
A: Yes, I think caste is right on top.
Q: And development is at the bottom?
A: No, not necessarily, but it is at best one of these six factors. So if you believe that you just get development right and you can win an election in India, that is just not wrong. There is one statistic which illustrates that and we have spoken about this in the past, there have been 27 instances since 1980 when a state has grown at a rate of more than 8 percent during a full term of a chief minister and of these 27 instances, about half the times the chief minister has lost the election and that for me is such a telling statistic that you can grow at 8 percent or more and yet not come back to power.
In most countries 8 percent type economic growth would be considered an economic miracle which would sweep the incumbent back to power. In the US, this pocket book theory of elections is very popular ... how your pocket book is doing on metrics like prices, unemployment determine electoral outcome. It is a very good statistical fit for that. We just do not have that in this country.
So I believe that if you end up getting a very strong growth rate, that is just one of the factors. Even Bihar, it is a very interesting case that you mentioned. As I write in the book, we have done five election trips to Bihar between 2005 and 2015, both state and national. No state has been transformed as much; its per capita income has nearly quadrupled in that period which is absolutely amazing and you can feel the change out there, and yet had Nitish Kumar not got the alliances correct, he would have still lost.
So in 2014 because he fought separately, independently from both the BJP and Lalu’s party, he lost because his vote share there just cannot seem to break above 20 percent because he comes from a caste where his vote share is only 4 percent and he has been able to build a caste coalition of 20 percent. However, even with that he cannot win an election on his own.
Q: Despite the fact that he has been able to deliver these economic transformations that you talk of?
A: Exactly. So I think that is the history of India which is that development is just one of the many factors which matters and you have to look at a whole host of factors and that is probably the mistake that the Vajpayee government made in 2004 which is well documented now.
Q: Since we are talking about development and the narrative at this point in time against the Mahagathbandhan is that you want a 'majboot Sarkar' and coalitions don’t deliver on growth, coalitions don’t deliver on performance, coalitions are bad for development but history doesn’t bear that out? Do you think something has changed now?
A: Coalition is just the history of this country. In fact if you look at many other countries with such diversity, even countries in Europe or countries like Canada, all these countries have learned to live with coalition governments. So, coalition governments is a product of the heterogeneity and the diversity of this country and that is just a reality which has come to be ever since India became a true multiparty democracy. So, I think that you cannot just wish away coalitions and hope for an alternative. I do not think that the diversity of this country truly allows that to happen. So, one is the reality. The second is that is that good or bad for the country even though it is a reality? There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that having a very strong stable government at the centre leads to higher economic growth rates. There is no empirical evidence to back that. There is other point that I will make here, which is that in India I believe that it is very hard to govern this country very strongly from the centre. This is a country where it is a very federal structure and the diversity is such that it is best governed by states and chief ministers at the state level having the power to do so. That is how India has transformed. The big economic success stories in India have really been at a state level, whether it was Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, when you had a dynamic state chief minister, you ended up getting a pretty good growth spurt and that is what I write in the book as well.
Q: As you look at where things stand today and over the last few trips that you have done which is the state that like Bihar has surprised you?
A: There are surprises in India on both fronts – good and bad. You mentioned about Bihar and clearly some of the states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, the so called bimaroo states that they were called once, I think we have seen a fair amount of transformation as far as these states are concerned but I have also seen regression and Tamil Nadu stands out for me as that. Tamil Nadu is a state that had done spectacularly well in the 80s and 90s. Even when we went to Tamil Nadu on on our first election trip in 2006, you could really see the transformation of that state or at least how better developed the state was – the quality of its roads, quality of housing, the basic infrastructure, how better it was. Then when we returned for the trip in 2016, it was a marked deterioration that we saw. Because of the problems of rampant alcoholism and other problems related to that, Tamil Nadu had sort of gone the other way, that is the sort of growth game in India, you get movement both ways. Bihar would be one of the better states in 1950s or 1960s on a relative basis and look what happened to Bihar after that and now Bihar has shown some signs of a comeback. So, that is the story of many India's' where you keep getting this switches which take place. Also when you travel this country, you begin to realise this whole story of many India's'. I have mentioned in the book that when we go to Tamil Nadu, we have to literally go with translators because most of the people in our group just cannot understand the language there and there if you speak to somebody in Hindi, it is basically like going to France in the countryside and speaking to somebody in English. It is not taken that well as far as Hindi is concerned, there is a lot of resentment against Hindi and that is the reason why the BJP has found it so difficult to make inroads into the South. When I tell my friends back in the US that we attended a rally of Modi in Karnataka, not too far from Bangalore in 2018, Modi back then came on stage and when he first started to speak he spoke a couple of lines in Kannada and the crowd really erupted, got very excited and then when he quickly switched to Hindi with a Kannada translator there was a complete drop off in the excitement levels of the crowd. So, therefore we returned from that trip sensing that for Modi to have the big impact in Karnataka would be very difficult compared to the impact that he had in the previous year in UP. I think that is just the reality of this country.
Q: Since you talked about the six parameters, the six exams that you need to clear to be able to make it in Indian elections and you said that getting the caste coalition or the caste arithmetic right was key and religion as well, how significant do you believe this Ram Temple and Ayodhya issue is going to be in 2019? You have now got the Supreme Court sort of setting up a constitution bench. When it will hear the matter and what comes of it we don’t know. The RSS saying you need to do it, move an ordinance, is this going to resonate as significantly as the BJP imagines?
A: I am sure lot of political journalists have very strong views on this and all I can say from my experience is that these hot button issues, when you try and bring them up too much before an election, they don't work that well. Because the voters tend to get more cynical and this is true not just of issues like the Ram Temple but even when you give out sops, freebies etc. The closer you do it like election time, the more the voters is cynical about it.
Q: So they might take the money, but not vote for you?
A: Exactly, I think that it is something which is very difficult to move the needle so close to an election. I am just not sure that at this stage of the game doing that much is going to move the needle on these sops. The first election that I remember, sort of feeling very passionately about growing up as a kid and coming back to Bijnor for that, was in 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi was sort of standing for re-election and just watching that from that vantage point. I was 15 years old and I had a deep interest in politics for some reason already back then at following election campaigns and I remember sort of him announcing a whole host of sops at that point in time, and at that age like many of us sort of more naïve and were very charmed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the international stage with his great sunglasses. And then you came here and saw in Bijnor, like you spoke to people here about the cynicism of all this.
It was the first time that two things struck me about that going back to 1989 what my caretaker, who sort of would take me out to the town school here in Bijnor to talk to people, told me. What I learned both from him and by talking to people that sops don’t work. But also that he told me something in 1989 when I asked him that why you aren’t voting for Rajiv Gandhi. He said that ---nobody really makes a difference and every five years now we want to give some other leader a chance and so therefore if Rajiv Gandhi has to go so be it. I think that is what it tells you that voters mind once it is made up it is very difficult to change it and, giving last minute sops at election time, I just don’t think moves the needle.
Q: The fact that we have just had a budget and we have just had this farm package been announced by the government. Rs 6,000 is what the government has now promised to farmers. The first instalment should now go into the account by March is what we have given to understand. You think it will turn the needle at all? Will it quell some of these anger that we have seen across the agricultural community?
A: I don’t think so. I think it is too late. I don’t fault the government for doing what it is doing because it has got to try to sort of calm these nerves. But I don’t think it is going to move the needle. There is something which I have seen here like an anecdote I have in the book is that in 2018 when we went to Madhya Pradesh, we just happen to land up at a bank and at this bank we saw people complaining outside that how the cheques were just not clearing for many months. It was a state-owned bank and the cheques just weren’t clearing. We were speaking to farmers and they were telling us that when they go and try claim the minimum support price from the FCI, they were just not getting their minimum support price. This is where I feel that we just haven’t focused enough. We keep launching one scheme after another with no real accountability that how has the previous scheme done.
In fact someone in the government gave me this fascinating statistics to say that he launched an audit to see how many schemes does the central government actually have. In terms of the schemes they have or the schemes that they are assisting, that count believe it or not is still going on. I am told that more than a thousand schemes just at the central level that they have counted so you keep having this instances where scheme after scheme after scheme that you keeping announcing in the hope that something is going to work and you fell compel to do so. But in the end, the fact is that you end up disappointing many people by just launching one scheme after another because as the previous people think - what happened to the previous scheme that you announced and what is the benefit that I have got out of that.
The other lesson that we have learned from all our travels and this is something we again found in our previous trip was the fact that announcing a scheme for a particular segment is very dangerous. Because the moment you do that, you end up really sort of disturbing all the other constituents who feel 'what about us.' I think it was Kamal Nath or someone who told us in one of those trips back in Madhya Pradesh in 2018 that if you have to announce a scheme in India, do it for everybody.
Q: So which is why universal basic income don’t do a minimum income guarantee which is what the Congress is doing?
A: In terms of the fact is that now where they have the money for this is a different issue, but if you have to do it just do not discriminate no matter what that means. Because the moment you discriminate and leave some people out, you have instantly created a constituency that is going to be against you.
Q: Speaking of political leaders and you just brought up Kamal Nath, who got a new lease of life as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, but this issue of dynasty keeps coming back into the political discourse, naamdar versus Kaamdar that is the political narrative that is driving. When you travel through the country, does it matter or has the discourse changed the way that people look at dynast today? Do they actually see them as people with baggage, with legacy and as poor performers?
A: I think dynasty is such an integral part of the Indian DNA that it is going to have a negative part in politics. Like one of the facts that I quote in the book is that two-thirds of India’s top 100 companies are hereditary in nature. So, in some way that they are also dynasties. Same thing in the film industry.
Q: Or the legal profession?
A: I don’t know enough about that. So, I think dynasties are an integral part of Indian culture. To say dynasties are negative, I don’t think is the case. Now, what I do feel is sort of resonating a bit more with the public as we travel.
If you happen to be single, then I think that to play up the fact that you are single sort of helps, because then you are able to make the case that I have nobody. I am on my own and I think that is what Modi has tried to do. I remember seeing Mamata Banerjee’s campaign in 2016 in West Bengal. She was under a lot of fire for chit fund scam and other accusations. Her appeal to people was that listen, I am on my own here and here I am in my slippers and white saree, who am I going to steal money for. That was the theme, whether it was true or not, whether you believe it or not, resonated with the people.
This is the big cultural change I find in Indian politics. In the last 1980s, all the chief ministers in India and the prime minister obviously were married. They were all sort of family-oriented people. Now if you look at the last year, one-third of all chief ministers in India were basically single and I think this is the big change that has moved. It is true if we see Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi. They are trying to sell to the people that if you are single, you tend to be less prone to corruption and also the fact that you then tend to be much more committed. That is how they tend to sell it.
The other big rise is single women leaders and this trend was pioneered by Jayalalithaa and since then, country has seen Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and so on and so forth. Now, you can argue that Jayalalithaa faced a lot of allegations as far as corruption and other things were concerned. But set that aside, what that also tells you about how hard the sport of politics is in India. It is a 24/7 job and it is especially true for women leaders. It is almost impossible to have a personal life in that and in a way it is a man’s world for them also. Women leaders are trying to sort of break that ceiling out there and it is very difficult for them to do that.
So, I feel that this big trend in Indian politics culturally and I feel the rise of the single politicians in India is a bit of discordant with the rest of the country as you know the premium that this country pays on marriage is so huge.
Q: Since you talked about women leaders, I want to talk to you about the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi. Finally, she has decided to get into active politics in eastern Uttar Pradesh. What implications will this have for the Congress party at all? Is this going to make any meaningful difference? Is it too late?
A: I have seen Priyanka campaigns.
Q: You have been charmed by, the book very clearly suggests that you were quite charmed by.
A: Yes. As a campaigner we have been there many times in Amethi and Raebareli. She has an incredible connect with the people. In fact, most of us who travelled felt that she was the one compared to Rahul Gandhi, when we saw her on the campaign trail back 15 years ago. The problem in the selection is that the caste basis are already well entrenched. For Priyanka to come at the stage and make a big difference for this election in 2019 just seems like a very tall order.
Q: Could there be a twist, could there be a surprise?
A: I think if she really wants to make an impact, then she has to become the combined opposition candidate from a place like Varanasi. If she was to do that, I think she could make an impact and that would be sort of master stroke in terms of pinning down the biggest leader to their own constituency, even if she ends up losing that. I think that is the biggest impact she can have according to me. But make a big impact in eastern Uttar Pradesh at this stage, I don’t think it is possible given how entrenched the caste basis are.
However, as I said, she is a very charming campaigner. If she has to spread her energy out going to other states and campaigning, I think she could resonate a lot. Another fascinating insight that we picked up, when we were travelling and something I mentioned in the book is that how Indira Gandhi remains the most popular leader, most popular prime minister when people are asked to sort of vote for a prime minister. The fact that she reminds them of Indira Gandhi and all that sort of plays for advantage. So if she would have campaigned across the country, I think that could have some impact. But in eastern Uttar Pradesh per se, to move the caste base at this stage, is very difficult.
You said that when you saw Priyanka Gandhi 15 years ago you thought that she was it versus Rahul Gandhi. He has seen many highs and lows, he has been fetid and been put on covers and failed miserably and now he is sort of seeing a return after the electoral results in the three crucial Hindi Heartland states in December. What do you make of the kind of change that we have seen and what would that mean for the Congress Party in 2019?
A: I have to say most of us have been surprised because we met him multiple times, starting from the first time we met him was in a hotel in Moradabad back in 2007 when we came to cover the UP election. As I mentioned in the book that we had two-hour interaction with him.
In the two hours, he spoke for 1 hour 59 minutes. He seemed very confident about every theory in the world and immediately it struck us that this is not going to cut it that when you are not listening and speaking a lot. And that pattern continued in the subsequent meetings with him.
We saw some signs of change when we met him in Pushkar in 2013 when he was campaigning for the Rajasthan state polls. I mentioned that in the book about the transition that we have seen in him. Clearly, there has been a big transition as far as he is concerned and in this campaign in 2018 the resonance that he was getting from the crowd was so different compared to what we saw when we went out in 2007.
Q: Basically he had no impact in 2007?
A: In 2007 he had no impact, and then in 2009 when the Congress ended up doing well in UP, I think it created this delusion that it was on account of him and that is what he took it maybe to his head also because in 2010 when we met him in Bihar he came across as very aloof and almost arrogant. Not keen to even engage with us.
I think as far as he is concerned that he seems to have transformed a lot, but I don’t know about how much of this current revival that we are seeing - how much of this just as to do with the fact that some people begin to just tire of incumbent a bit and then they begin to see a lot of good things on the other side.
The thing that you talked about it in the book that you should not keep a roti on tawa for too long because it will burn.
A: That was a great quote by Ram Manohar Lohia which is that “
Sarkar tawa ke roti jaise hoti hai, usko palate rahiye nahi to jal ke rakh ho jayagi” that captured the fact that when a leader stays in power for too long they become more arrogant and so you need to keep switching governments. Politicians in India and people who get to power change their attitude. When you meet them at time of campaigning, it is such a different persona, they are very charming and the moment they become a minister or they get a big high positing there is an immediate switch in their behaviour.
All of a sudden they will stop taking their phone calls and so often we hear this complaint. When we go to some constituencies we hear that ever since they have got elected they never come back, so such a switch. Therefore, I think that somewhere deep down the voter also believes this that nobody really makes that much of a difference. I mean let us just keep changing them, otherwise they will become arrogant the longer they remain in power.
Q: I want to come to perhaps what is going to be the most controversial chapter in the book and you end with that No Country For Strong Men - the assumption maybe till a few months ago was that 2019 was a done deal and that Prime Minister Modi would return to power and I don’t know how it is going to turn up but there are more questions today in comparison to what we saw a few months ago. Why do you believe that - you talk to people and they say that somebody who is tough decision maker almost takes the command and control of a situation and so on and so forth why do you think that that is not likely to work?
A: They say that but I think deep down, as far as the Indians are concerned there is a tendency to root for the underdog that exists in most societies.
But the reason I say that is not against any particular person but the fact that I believe democracy in India is thriving and at a time when we talk about a democratic recession in the world as so many countries and places from Europe to even parts of Latin America are struggling. I think the fact that democracy is doing so well in India to me is the bullish message of the book.
Q: That is what makes you optimistic?
A: That is what makes me optimistic and why do I say that? I say that for a few reasons. The main reason I say that this is no country for strong men has to do with the fact that I think that democracy is thriving in this country and given that diversity of this nation, it is very difficult for one leader to dominate this country in a very big way.
Therefore, in India’s entire democratic history, no party at the centre has ever been able to get more than 50 percent of the vote share and that for me is a telling statistics and now it seems like almost 30-35 percent has become the ceiling for that. Whether it is the Congress in the past or the BJP, it is very hard to break that.
So what is that telling you is it is very hard for one leader to completely dominate this nation given the diversity of this country. Another bullish message of this book is that when there is so much angst in the world about how democracy is in retreat and terms like the democratic recession are used all over the pages of foreign policy magazines it is thriving in India and there is some good evidence to back that up.
We are going to have such a competitive election – which no one would have thought the likely outcome was the opposite - many people were in despair about 12-18 months ago, many liberals in particular thinking that this country is going towards strong men rule, all the comparisons with Putin, Modi etc were running thick but the fact that you are able to have such a competitive election today speaks volumes about how deeply rooted democracy is in this country.
The fact that the incumbent in this country so often ends up losing elections even though they enjoy incredible advantages such as money power. As you well know that in Indian elections, money plays a big role or supposed to play a big role, typically the incumbent ends up outspending the opponent by the ratio of 5:1 if not 10:1 and this government has done that.
The BJP in Madhya Pradesh and other states like Bihar in 2015, the spending advantage was incredible. But yet, the opposition was able to win. So the fact that despite all that money, despite they have such incredible sway over decision-making in terms of with corporates and also they have a fair amount of sway with the media, the incumbent still loses. The competitive election faced by this government now speaks volumes for how powerful democracy in this country is.
Q: Speaking of strong men and you write about your encounters with the prime minister Modi a few times that you have met him and they haven’t all ended well, they perhaps started well but didn’t end well, there has been no attempt to reach out to you to impose that?
A: I think that he - at some point in time for good or for bad - took the view that this group keeps raising the issue of Gujarat riots maybe a bit too much. So I think that is what led to this acrimonious parting.
Q: It was an acrimonious parting.
A: You can say that.
Q: He walked out.
A: After spending some time with us yes. But I think that is what ended up being as far as the issue is concerned but subsequently, we have met other BJP leaders including Amit Shah a couple of times.
However, the only thing which I will say to these leaders is that even if you take the example of Trump in America, I find it quite remarkable that Trump also tends to be very hostile towards the media. Just look at the way he has this absolutely bitter accounts with the media in public and in private whether it is the
New York Times or CNN, he likes engaging with them, he wants to still give interviews for them, he still wants to be liked by that crowd.
I just wish that, we would have a similar sort of atmosphere here where it is fine to have a public posturing also if you need to but at the end of it, you want to sit down and you want to have a conversation even if the person happens to be an opponent.
I believe that in the BJP too, there are basically two sides. There are many leaders in the BJP who are like that. Whether it has got to do with Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari or even Sushma Swaraj, these are all leaders who may not like your ideological views but at a personal level, they will be very happy to engage with you.
I think that is the way I would like politics in this country to return. Instead, we are in this very polarised environment where if you end up saying something which sounds as if you are taking sides, which may not be, it may just be an analysis, then you being seen as someone who is hostile to the other side. Therefore, my only plea to the current leadership would be that let us engage at a private level even if at a public level, it suits you to posture against the media.
Q: You have said that at the end of this book and all of your travels, you are optimistic about electoral democracy in this country and you believe that it is thriving as opposed to what we are seeing happen in the rest of the world but what about India in general and specifically about the Indian economy, how confident and optimistic do you feel about the Indian economy today?
A: I think that as far as India is concerned, my view has long been and this is right from the time I wrote my first book that we are never going to be able like China because we just don’t have the appetite for taking that kind of economic decisions and there is one way that we can look at it.
China never created a welfare state until it really created a very well developed infrastructure. So it invested record amounts in roads, bridges, ports. It was almost a form of ruthless capitalism that they followed.
In India, unfortunately, we are building a welfare state well before we have the means to do so. What that means is the fact that the money has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, that money will end up getting sucked out of the kind of expenditure, which leads to higher growth rates in the future. So that is just a reality of India.
As far as India is concerned, this entire dream of growing at 8-10 percent China type growth rates, I don’t think is going to be realised anytime soon. The good news is that the private sector is sufficiently open and liberalised enough to carry the country forward in terms of what it is doing. I feel that the institutional quality is still very much there where you will not see a complete breakdown in the situation like in this country in terms of law and order or to even do with runaway populism. I still feel the institutional quality is good enough to keep that in some check and balance over that.
Q: Let me end then by asking you – over the last 25 years, all your encounters with political leaders which are the ones that have been the most memorable, the ones that have surprised you?
A: A common feature in the book is the fact – when I was speaking to my American editors, what surprised them the most was the unusual intimacy that they got to see between the leaders and us or even the voters.
For example, in the book, I have four encounters where we have met with politicians in their bedrooms starting with Mayawati in 2002, Lalu Prasad Yadav in 2005, Ram Vilas Paswan in 2014 and in 2016 when we met Captain Vijayakanth on his bed and that was possibly one of the most entertaining encounters we have had with any politician where we were able to barge into his hotel room to have a conversation with him and there he is. We have a photograph of that trying to cover himself up in the sheets to apparently hide his modesty but also endearing to be able to meet us in that format.
So I think that that is what makes these trips so special about seeing that side of India like about seeing this intimacy and seeing the warm hospitality that people extend to you like anywhere you go, immediately the food is rolled out, so we have had some amazing food experiences on these trips. People in my group remember – the best samosas we ever had were at Lalu Prasad Yadav’s place, the best laddoos we ever had were at Mulayam Singh Yadav’s place.
So the best food that we have ever had was in Madurai in terms of the Chettinad cuisine, so it is that part and that is what I have tried to do in the book that how does India smell, how does India feel when you are travelling in these places and of course sometimes you have to make do with no meals also.
One rule I have on the trips is that we don’t have any lunch because of the fact that we want to cover as much ground as possible. At the moment, you have lunches, they end up becoming a 2-3 hour expeditions. So I would say a lot of great encounters with politicians. At the end of the day, I come back respecting politicians more after these trips even though we will have to sit back in our living rooms and hurl a lot of abuses at them, yes, I think there is a lot broken with the state, there is a lot which more that can be achieved but in individual level when you meet them, you come away feeling much more charmed by them than being appalled by them. So for me, that was the more positive messages of the book.
Q: Would you ever consider of getting into active politics yourself?
Q: Just an observer.
A: Exactly. This political system here is not very friendly to outsiders. So I think that for all the reasons we have discussed whether it has got to do with dynasties or just the fact that - also the other fact I feel is that just how big the constituency sizes are in this country that for a new person to paradrop in and to make an impact is so difficult because the size of constituencies.
So it is so difficult for you to paradrop into this system and to either win or even make an impact. So I think that I am best served by observing these great tales that we get to see of democracy in India and also the fact that this is my true love and why would I give up and do something else.
Q: The question that everyone is asking what in 2019?
A: Of course, everyone is going to ask that question. I think that every scenario is in play and that is very different from what the situation was a year ago. A year ago, it was considered that Modi was going to be re-elected. Today, I think every scenario is genuinely in play.
But just look at India’s history which is that it is so difficult to predict who will be the next Prime Minister because few could have predicted PV Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh, HD Deve Gowda. It is just very difficult to predict in terms of who will be the next Prime Minister because this is a true parliamentary democracy.
Q: Even though we want to look at it like a presidential election?
A: No but who is we, I am not sure.
A: Maybe in Delhi, Mumbai and some of the foreign investors like to think of this as the presidential kind of election, but if you come here and talk to people everyone is ooking at their local allegiances. So this presidential narrative is a very simplistic narrative at the centre.
Q: The popular narrative today?