Jun 30, 2008

Wanna bet on elections?

Among their many hidden traits, Indians also love a good little flutter. The opportunity to bet against the odds is an ingrained personality characteristic, born possibly from the constant battle against natural elements, raiders and invaders, and probably rulers from far-away lands. As a long shot, it also probably explains the mystery behind the successful Indian entrepreneurial streak, which is nothing but a favourable genetic disposition towards risk-taking. Indians’ love for punting can be seen in the stock market (where volumes are mostly driven by speculators), the horse races (even though the sport is in a secular decline), the booming lottery business or even the illegal matka racket. Indians bet on virtually everything–on the exact date of the monsoons hitting Kolkata (paid informants track the progress of dark clouds as they thunder their way past the Kerala coastline), on cricket scores, on grain production and every other conceivable opportunity. Modern-day democratic practices–such as, elections–thus present compulsive gamblers with a splendid opportunity. Worldover, predicting and betting on election results is a national activity. Ditto for India. In USA, a pseudo-science has been built around picking unusual indicators to predict the outcome of an election. For instance, New York Times carried a story in 1992 how the price behaviour of certain stocks could probably be good indicators–Clinton Gas Systems of Ohio had shown remarkable growth in the market, compared to Bush Industries, a manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture. Then there’s the fabled Washington Redskins theory–the year this American football team wins its final home game before the elections, the incumbent wins. But, India is a step ahead–the country goes into full speculative mode to even predict the timing of elections. Most experts have drawn up their own list of indicators to get a rough idea of the timing. Here is this year’s tool-kit. * You know it’s election time when Congressmen start fighting each other, that too in public. The recent showdown in Mumbai, in the presence of party leader Sonia Gandhi, is a sign that elections could be round the corner. In best of times, most Congress leaders try to cut the grass from under their colleagues’ feet. This only gets vicious during election times. * You know it’s election time when restrictive economic measures are announced with great fanfare, but then are suddenly withdrawn without a murmur. For example, the government introduced an export duty on a certain commodity on the pretext of controlling inflation. It even gave elaborate explanations why the step was necessary. But, once global prices of that commodity started moving up, India quietly scrapped the export duty. Strangely, this was happening even as China was increasing its export duty on the same product. Not that the problem of inflation has gone away, or the demand for the product has withered away in the domestic market. * You can bet your bottom dollar that elections are nigh when civic organisations suddenly start public works that make no sense. In Mumbai recently, some random public works were undertaken on the Eastern Express highway, the road the links the city to central and eastern India. These road repair jobs were undertaken only in patches and were seemingly unnecessary because they involved laying an additional layer on top of the existing layer.
Come the rains, these became death traps for motorists–in the past one month, these spots were responsible for over 130 accidents. The police blamed the material used, the civic body blamed motorists for driving over 40-kmh on an eight-lane expressway. End result? New contractors have been hired to re-do the portions that were redone a few months ago. Sure feels like election time. * It feels like almost election season when after four years of craven capitulation to irrational demands from its allies, the ruling party suddenly re-discovers its sense of self-respect and starts forcing issues. The nuclear deal is a good example. After bending backwards to accommodate the Left parties’ opposition to deal, Congress suddenly seems in a big hurry to complete the deal. Even at the cost of forcing the Left to consider withdrawing support. It serves another purpose. It successfully takes away all attention from the real issue–inflation. All this looks like shadow boxing before the gloves really come off. * Elections are probably round the corner when the ruling party announces new alliances out of the blue, but looks shamefaced when the ally feigns ignorance. The Congress, attempting to call the Left bluff, leaked news to select media outlets that it had buried the hatchet with Mulayam Singh Yadav and his party, Samajwadi Party (with 39 seats in Parliament, compared to Left’s 62), was now ready to support Congress. However, SP leaders denied this. Meanwhile, sensing a Congress deal with her arch political rival Yadav, Congress ally Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (with 17 seats), withdrew support to the Congress. Yadav, however, has remained non-committal but has given enough hints that he may be willing to say yes. Hectic courtships and heart-breaks seem so redolent of pre-election manoeuvering

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