Ruchir Sharma, who tours India before elections, speaks on why 2019 polls are the closest yet, at Firstpost Salon

Ruchir Sharma knows that while phrases like ‘global investor’ are likely to go over people's heads in a discussion, a story on how a village in Uttar Pradesh came to chant the phrase UP ki chaabi, Dimple bhaabi will have exactly the opposite effect. The first is what he does for a living, and the second is an example of the experiences he seeks out in India’s villages just before every election.

In a free-wheeling conversation with CNBCTV18's executive editor Latha Venkatesh, Sharma spoke on everything from planning his first ‘election trip’ to how he learnt what to ask a voter if you wanted to really know his mind, at the Firstpost Salon event in Mumbai on Friday.

Sharma works at the New York offices of Morgan Stanley but he is first and foremost a writer. Thanks to which, his latest book Democracy on the Road offers no sweeping generalisations on elections trends but only his own personal gleanings on how rural India (which as he reminds us forms two-thirds of the country) responds to polls.

To know this, Sharma has been following a very particular form of tradition. For the past 27 years, he has been travelling through rural India with a group of friends before the elections. “It started in February of 1998. My investing career had just taken off and I saw foreign investors everywhere were rooting for a Congress victory because they had assumed PV Narasimha Rao would liberalise India’s economy further. But the Congress did very poorly, surprising the world. I wanted to find out why and I knew that the only answer was to go deep into the hinterland. So I put together a group of five and we set out. The only cars available for hire were these Volvos one would hire for weddings. So we took that and set out,” he says, essaying what started the book.

The volvos looked like limousines, and so the group came to be called the “Limousine Liberals”. We set upon our journey focussing on one task: To understand how India votes and then forecast the election outcomes, says Sharma.

 Ruchir Sharma, who tours India before elections, speaks on why 2019 polls are the closest yet, at Firstpost Salon

Ruchir Sharma in conversation with Latha Venkatesh at Firstpost Salon. Firstpost/ Natasha Triverdi

“Is there a hierarchy of issues when it comes to voting?” asks Venkatesh.

Sharma is insistent that there is one over-arching reason why people vote: caste and community. “We live in urban bubbles where if you ask your neighbour which caste they belong to, it is offensive. But in villages it is a ready identifier people are willing to offer," he says.

To illustrate, Sharma speaks of Bijnor, a sort of hometown to which he returned for a month every year while growing up and where he goes before elections too. "Thirty years on, caste is still a dominant factor there. When I went there most recently, I spoke to the district magistrate and jail superintendent — all upper caste. They said that while the previous Akhilesh government had been in power, Brahmins were nowhere to be seen in government jobs, now that their own government is in power, they can hold these positions.”

He compares the strange politics of today with that of 2007 when Mayawati, whose first home constituency was Bijnor, was enjoying a wave of support from the upper castes because they had grown tired of the Yadavs’ domination. Recounting how Mayawati was the same leader whose politics was solely based on an anti-upper caste narrative, the dominant slogan in her early days being tilak, tarazu, aur talwar, inko maaro jute chaar, managed to rally Brahmins by her sideSharma marvels at the fact that how two antagonistic groups — the Brahmins and Dalits —came together to counter the dominance of Yadavs.

Speaking of his success rate in 'predicting' poll outcomes, Sharma says that while his group has been correct in foretelling which way the wind blew in a record 26 out of 27 elections, they don't have such a high success rate when it comes to predicting exact figures. A case in point was the 2014 elections. "We thought BJP would win 230 or 235 — back then, still a bold forecast. We would go to villages in Uttar Pradesh and men would tell us that they wanted Modi in power because he had done great things in Gujarat. 'How do you know, have you been to Gujarat?' I would ask, and they would say, 'No, but I have seen on WhatsApp'," Sharma recounts.

Sharma also noted broader trends. "I realised that when I would write to my foreign editors with the words 'anti-incumbency' in my essays, they would send it back, asking what it meant. It is an Indian coinage and there is no escaping it. Between 1952 and 1977 only 10 percent of the existing governments were voted out. Since then 66 percent of governments have been voted out," he says.

He adds that anti-incumbency in India has little reason other than emotion of voters. "There are no economic pointers. In 1980, there have been 27 instances of a state showing an economic growth rate of more than 8 percent in a chief minister’s term. Out of these instances of huge growth, a sitting chief minister has lost an election more than half of those times," he notes.

In his quest to decode the Indian voter, Sharma has lived in Jaipur palaces, in rooms above sweet shops ("where running water meant a man running up to you with a bucket of hot water"), seen unemployed young men play rummy for hours on charpoys, noticed anti-Hindi fights take off at Nandan Nilekani’s dining hall in Bengaluru, seen flights begin to operate between cities they could previously only travel to through dusty trains, and seen how his own caste and class prejudices have coloured gleanings from these journeys.

The men in Sharma's 1998 group grew to become prominent journalists and opinions writers — people with "entertaining careers," Sharma says. The group grew in number too and in the most recent trip Sharma undertook (“to Karnataka and then, Madhya Pradesh”), there were no fewer than 20 people — some so powerful they could swing trends of entire elections by themselves.

Over the years, they all agreed that the key to getting to know an election is to ask the right question of an electorate. "When you ask a voter in India who he or she is voting for, they smile, as if you have asked them a deep question on what their sexual leanings are. It makes them uncomfortable. It is important to calm them down. Forty-five percent of people will say they voted for BJP last time and will vote for BJP this time. Same with the 45 percent who say 'Congress’. But it is the 10 percent who don't know yet who are crucial," he says.

When the floor was opened to questions, the first was from lyricist and adman Prasoon Joshi. "What happens when you take the caste lens out? Do other deciding factors not appear then?" asks Joshi.

"It’s true I view things through a caste lens. You cannot escape caste. It effects even economics. You ask an upper caste businessman on the GST and he will tell you that it is needed for change, but a Dalit or Muslim man will say his whole business is finished. We try to overcompensate for our inherent biases in the group too," Sharma adds before tackling other questions posed on the role of the young, urban voters, lack of governance and on whether there was "too much democracy" in India.

He is not keen to call this election yet. "It is a close one. Reminds me of 2004. That year on the day of the results, all the top Indian channels had booked the top BJP leaders because they thought BJP would win. Manmohan Singh was sitting in a small office of BBC World. And look what happened," he laughs.

Updated Date: Feb 16, 2019 09:40:28 IST