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Data versus ‘Mahaul’, can Narendra Modi win the perception battle?

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Can ‘Vikas’ win elections? This debate has been a long standing one. Narendra Modi’s consecutive victories in Gujarat made people believe that it could be possible. However, Vajpayee’s loss in 2004 will always be remembered as a rude shock to those want to believe in the theory.

The recent loss in Phulpur and Gorakhpur also stands testimony to the fact that slogans of ‘Vikas’ alone cannot lead to a comfortable electoral victory in any given situation.

The recent speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – which included graphs, videos and powerpoint slides – resembled a status update in a corporate meeting. Yes, the presentation was impressive, it gave a detailed account of how the government is on the right track so far as ‘vikas’ is concerned.

Those who believe in development mantra could feel confident that with this performance, Modi will easily win 2019 elections. But that is not enough. One cannot take Rahul Gandhi’s tweet mocking Modi’s ‘fancy slides’ tweet lightly:

While Modi offers the fresh air of accountability and performance, his opponents who are hungry to wrest power from BJP are adept in tactics that have an edge over ‘accountability’. If you compare a graph which shows crores of loans that have been waived in India with an image of farmer with bleeding foot after a long march to Mumbai, you are more likely to be impacted by the latter. In fact, the long march itself was considered as a way to revive the communist party by some commentators.

The satisfaction of an electorate that gets benefits from doles rather than long term pro-people policies like Swacch Bharat is likely to be higher. It is also more palatable for an international audience, when secular politicians go around speaking about pluralism, diversity and harmony rather than a graph depicting number of toilets constructed in the last five years.

Three generations of Indians have lived with great amount joy about Nehru’s internationalism, secularism and tolerance in India even though we know that his policies left a large number of illiterate and impoverished people in India.

Graph depicting number of toilets constructed in past five years

The persisting difficulties of the agriculture sector in India are a well known fact. Though Modi may repeat his positive policy decisions like neem coated urea, village electrification, soil health card or PM Krishi Sinchayi Yojana, the rural hinterland will continue to demand more from the government. The fact that Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya have escaped without paying their loans prompts them to ask for loan waivers which further deteriorate the health of banks. The ‘mahaul‘ effect or ‘public mood’ needs more attention even though real achievements matter more in the long run.

On the anti-corruption front, Modi government may have renegotiated treaties of double taxation with countries and signed an information sharing agreement with Switzerland. It may have removed lakhs of shell companies from the official register and passed a bill on Benami property. But the mahaul effect generated when accused politicians in 2G or BSNL exchange case are acquitted cancel the positive impact of the government’s anti corruption record.

Another classic example of mahaul v/s data is Jan Dhan Yojana v/s demonetisation. It is hard to dispute the fact that 99% of the money returned to the system. The rich did not become poor because of this exercise as expected. There was a rise in number of tax payers, digital transactions increase and some had to lose a part of their money to middle men. The exercise adversely impacted some informal businesses. But the mahaul created was right. People are more likely to remember the demonetisation exercise rather than the 30 crore bank accounts that were opened under Jan dhan yojana. In reality, financial inclusion is more likely to change lives of poor but they may forget the fact before 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but they will remember demonetisation.

Similarly, people forget lakhs of people who could get their subsidy benefits  because of Aadhar cards. Some exclusions because of bureaucratic procedures get highlighted in media and generates anger against the scheme. The inclusion of more beneficiaries takes the backstage and the exclusions because of Aadhar get highlighted. The government will have to do more communicate better on this front. The PM is well aware of this mentality and hence, he has ensured that his schemes can contribute to the mahaul even while he dishes out graphs of progress.

Take a slide showing acceptance of India in MTCR, Wassennar agreement, Australia group on one side and the video showing impact of Ujjwala yojana on the other. Though this is the case of comparing apples with oranges, the impact on the audience will be larger in the latter case rather than the former.

Thus, Modi and BJP will have to balance statistics and mahaul in the coming days in order to ensure that the opposition doesn’t run away with the narrative. The mahaul is as important as the data.

Ironically, while the opposition parties mocks ‘jumla’ of Modi government, fact is that it’s the opposition that is tasting success based on jumlas that create mahaul, while BJP appears on backfoot despite having data and facts to flaunt.

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