Book review: 2014, The Election That Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai

Books about political campaigns and elections roughly fall into two categories: journalistic and academic. The journalistic works are page-turners, breezily taking readers along on the journeys of rising and falling political heavyweights and the spin doctors who accompany them. While some of these works incorporate polling data to examine the electorates who choose the winners of these elections, their primary focus is the personalities of politics, clashes between those personalities, and the strategic decisions made by campaigns. Some examples of these works include Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, John Heileman’s and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, and their 2012 follow-up, Double Down.

The academic works, on the other hand, are less focused on the starring players and more interested in the factors weighing on the electorates who determine the winners. They are not as easy to read as the journalistic accounts — logistic regression output tables make for less invigorating reading than screaming matches between campaign insiders — but they are more valuable as resources for understanding what matters in elections and why the winner triumphs. Some of the best in this genre for American politics include Marty Cohen’s, David Karol’s, Hans Noel’s, and John Zaller’s The Party Decides, Robert Erikson’s and Christopher Wleizen’s The Timelines of Presidential Elections, and John Sides’ and Lynn Vavreck’s The Gamble. If you are looking for an enjoyable read that tells a compelling story about the major players of the 2012 US presidential election, pick up Double Down. But if you want to understand why so many Republican candidates out-polled Mitt Romney before he won the nomination, or why Romney ultimately lost to Obama, The Gamble is your best bet.

Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014, The Election That Changed India is a journalistic work of political campaign literature. The author is not shy about saying so in the introduction: “This book, I must warn you, isn’t written by a political scientist or a psephologist. I belong to the more humble tribe of news reporters–every time I look in the mirror, I see a sleeves-rolled-up reporter first, only then a preachy editor or jacket-and-tie anchor.” Presently a consulting editor at India Today Group, Sardesai rose through the ranks of Indian journalism, first at Times of India, then as an anchor and reporter at NDTV, then as Editor-in-Chief of CNN-IBN. His prominent station in Indian media provides the reader with firsthand access to the nation’s political heavyweights. Colorful anecdotes are used to shade in the principal characters on this gargantuan stage: Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Manmohan Singh from Indian National Congress; L.K. Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley, and Sushma Swaraj from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); regional political stalwarts Jayalaalitha, Mamata Banerjee, and Naveen Patnaik; caste-basted leaders like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Nitish Kumar; and outsider figures like Arvind Kejriwal and Sharad Pawar. At the very center of this drama, steadily climbing his way to the pinnacle of Indian politics is the ambitious and relentless PM-in-waiting, the BJP’s Narendra Modi.

The greatest strength of Sardesai’s work is his contextualization of the 2014 elections. As a distant observer of these elections, the wave that delivered a majority of Lok Sabha seats to the BJP — a first-ever for the party, and the last time a party won a majority of seats since 1984 — was something of a surprise to me. Sardesai’s rendering of the dysfunction within Congress that hampered the UPA-II government, and the different scandals that beleaguered the party from 2011 onwards, shows that mine was an uninformed view. Confusion in the ranks over Rahul Gandhi’s standing within the Congress, and Gandhi’s own hesitance to assume greater leadership within the party, undercut Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ability to govern effectively. In light of the corruption scandals and infighting that engulfed the government along with the civil agitations and painful inflation that placed it constantly on the defensive, the question was never whether the BJP would win the 2014 elections. It was always whether its win would be large enough to govern without relying on other major allies.

And was it ever. The “Mission 272+” strategy to win a majority of Lok Sabha seats may have seemed unrealistic when Modi was elevated to lead the party in 2013, but proved successful when the party ended up winning 282 of 543 seats and knocking Congress back to 44, a historic low. As a good journalistic work of campaign literature should, Sardesai details the many smart strategic decisions made by the BJP’s leadership while Congress’ flailed. Whatever one’s feelings about the BJP, it is hard not to admire the party’s effective use of technology, Modi’s popularity, and existing Hindu nationalist volunteer networks to storm the ballot boxes in April and May of 2014.

2014‘s other chief insight is into India’s nexus between media and politics. Media figures rely on politicians and their staffs to break stories and share insider information, while politicians rely on the media to disseminate their messages to the public. Sardesai’s own relationship with Modi is an excellent case study in this regard. While they appear to have had a courteous, even warm, relationship from 1990 to 2002, Sardesai’s coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots–which happened five months into Modi’s chief ministership of the state–put him on the outs with Modi and his team thereafter. He pulls no punches as he examines whether the Modi government was incompetent, complicit, or both in the face of the worst communal riots India had seen since the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Gujarat riots tainted Modi’s image in the eyes of many (he was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2005), and without the backing of the BJP’s senior leadership, he might have been just another dumped Gujarat chief minister. These riots proved a pivotal turning point in Modi’s own political development, as his feelings of alienation from the English-language media grew and he moved towards making economic development his signature issue.

Because Sardesai is not a political scientist or psephologist, it is refreshing that he incorporates data from the Electoral Commission of India returns and surveys conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies’ Lokniti unit into his work (full disclosure: I am presently working with CSDS’ Lokniti unit). The inclusion of tables in the appendices allows the reader to drill down into the data and understand which demographic factors swung the election in Modi’s favor. These data make clear that dissatisfaction with the UPA-II government and anger about inflation were crucial in setting the stage for a BJP win. Although the BJP underperformed among women, the party consolidated the Upper Caste and Other Backwards Class (OBC) vote, while also winning the Dalit vote that traditionally went to Congress. Congress won the exact same share of the Muslim vote that it won in 2009, but its losses among Hindu voters yielded a radically different result. The BJP victory was also built upon the votes of India’s youth. Its lead over Congress was greatest among voters between 18 and 22 years old (a nineteen point gap) and smallest among voters above 55 years old (an eight point gap). In a young country like India, winning the youth vote by such a margin provides a sturdy foundation for electoral success.

American readers may be struck by the many parallels between the 2008 US presidential election and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. One must be careful about drawing comparisons between Obama and Modi–if Obama were an Indian politician, he would not be in the BJP, and if Modi were an American politician, he would not be a Democrat–but the similarities are apparent enough. Both Obama and Modi benefited from unpopular incumbent parties that looked helpless in the face of economic challenge. Both used their oratorical skills to promise hope and change for their respective countries, and developed a frenzied following among their supporters. Both ran juggernaut campaign organizations that incorporated massive field operations and innovative uses of technology. Both have roots in political organizing: Obama worked three years as a community organizer in economically depressed African-American neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago during the 1980s, while Modi was a pracharak of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who organized demonstrations against Indira Gandhi’s suspension of democracy in the 1970s and helped organize the Ram rath yatra during the early 1990s. Perhaps these similarities can explain the personal chemistry on display when Modi visited the United States in September of last year and Obama visited India for Republic Day earlier this year.

There are a few quibbles that I must raise with this book. Sardesai assumes a basic-level knowledge of India’s major political parties and politicians, and so foreign readers may find his explanation of some political events to be a bit confusing. While most Hindi expressions are translated into English, not all are. There is no index at the end of the book for readers to thumb back and find mentions of events and people. Future editions should add such an index.

Nevertheless, Sardesai’s 2014 is an excellent introduction to the present state of Indian politics, a page-turner that combines engrossing portraits of India’s political elites with data to explore the macro-level trends that produced this historic election’s results. The epilogue’s parting thoughts resonate today. Even as the Aam Adami Party (AAP) bested the BJP in the Delhi elections at the beginning of this year, the BJP continued its string of state-level wins in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Jammu and Kashmir after the national elections last year. Amid the AAP’s disappointing showing in the 2014 national elections and the Gandhi family’s continued dominance within Congress, the BJP opponents’ best hopes will rest on uniting different parties into grand alliances to take on the saffron behemoth. The Bihar elections, in which former nemeses Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar are uniting their parties with Congress to form a “grand secular alliance” against the BJP, will test such a strategy in the next two months.

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