Most post-facto narratives for electoral victories are a case of retrofitting causes to outcomes flippantly. But they can prove tremendously expensive for the nation
December 21, 2023
“Now that it is evident that the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) promise was the reason for the Congress victory in Himachal Pradesh, will you be making a similar promise in all states?” asked a reporter to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a press conference on December 16, 2022, during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “There is no scientific evidence to show that OPS promise was the reason for our Himachal victory,” replied Gandhi.
Nearly a year later, one of the main poll planks for the Congress in the elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh was the promise of a return to OPS for government employees. Most state leaders truly believed that OPS would be a key vote catcher, just as it seemingly was in Himachal. But in Telangana, OPS was not a big election promise of the Congress. Interestingly, even in the Karnataka election that took place soon after the Himachal victory, the Congress did not promise a return to OPS.
It turned out that the Congress won in Karnataka and Telangana, where OPS was not a key poll promise and lost in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, where it was. Clearly, as Gandhi said, there was never any scientific evidence for the narrative that OPS was an important vote-getter. However, this column is not about OPS or an analysis of the recent elections. It is about the perils of flawed and dangerously misleading explanations of electoral outcomes in the quest for simplistic headlines that can lead to disastrous social and economic consequences for the nation.
Soon after the Himachal elections, I recall that the headquarters of the Congress party were abuzz with media reporters and leaders waxing eloquent about how OPS was the “man of the match”. When confronted with a demand for evidence, they countered with anecdotal ground reports. When asked how taxing 90 per cent of the population to pay excessive retirement benefits for the privileged 10 per cent that retire from government service can be good politics, the response was that the privileged minority influence the voting choices of the impacted majority. This led to a self-fulfilling prophecy where one section of political leaders across all parties truly believed that OPS was the electoral game changer, regardless of its inherent injustice and the tremendous fiscal harm.
In what economists call “natural experiments” — because the Congress lost in states where it played up OPS and won in states where it did not, and BJP won without the OPS promise — it can now be reasonably imputed that OPS is not the star vote attraction in elections. So, this fallacy has been busted fortuitously and saved the nation $120 billion (RBI study) to pay a small minority of retired government employees at the expense of a vast majority of India’s youth and poor, over the next two decades.
But misleading explanations for electoral outcomes without scientific evidence peddled to gullible political leaders is a clear and present danger for the country. Facetious it may be, but if the BJP truly believed the narrative, as was peddled then, that it won the 2016 Uttar Pradesh elections primarily because of demonetisation, there may have been continuous demonetisation every few months for some state election by whichever party is in power at the Centre.
The current trend of competitive welfare promises by all political parties during elections with scant regard to how it will be funded is an immensely dangerous path. Again, this stems from the perceived “labharthi” narrative that propagated that efficiently targeted and large welfare schemes are the ticket to electoral success. But this theory adequately fails to explain its corollary — if voters reward the Prime Minister for supposed welfare, why don’t they punish him for the tremendous harm during demonetisation or pandemic lockdown or lack of MGNREGA funds? Similarly, most surveys and field studies show that Ashok Gehlot was also wildly popular for his welfare schemes delivered efficiently to voters in Rajasthan but he still lost. Does that mean the “labharthi” theory holds only for Modi and not for any other political leader? Likewise, there is now a narrative that Madhya Pradesh’s Ladli Behna Yojana scheme is the reason for its victory, though data shows that there is no difference between the percentage of beneficiaries that voted for the BJP vis-à-vis non-beneficiaries.
Instead, this unsatisfactory “labharthi” electoral explanation has triggered a perverse race to fiscal suicide with all parties indulging in reckless electoral promises. If one mainstream party musters up the courage to explain to the poor woman being lured by an electoral gimmick of a cash promise that eventually it is she who is paying for it through higher prices (inflation) or higher interest rates (fiscal deficit) or fewer jobs for her children (crowding out investment), and also wins the election, then this race to the fiscal bottom through competitive electoral promises may break. Until then, false and misleading explanations for electoral outcomes will continue to propel fiscally rash promises by all parties and break the bank.
Explaining electoral outcomes in a complex democracy is akin to the ancient Indian parable of six blind men and an elephant. Everyone has their theory of what worked limited to what they see or experience, often very different from the whole truth. But unlike in the parable, there is an actual cost to the nation of false electoral narratives. The incessant quest for quick and simplistic analysis of electoral outcomes by media commentators bears a huge burden of false interpretations that can be deemed true by political practitioners. As the OPS example shows, most post-facto narratives for electoral victories are a case of retrofitting causes to outcomes flippantly. But they can prove tremendously expensive for the nation. Sometimes, no answer is better than a false answer.
The writer is chairman, All India Professionals’ Congress