March 2024

Come what may

As general elections proceed in Pakistan and loom in India,  MJ Akbar muses over how the results might be best predicted

One should not confuse astrology with commentary, but what else is there to do when the drama has gone flat, the tension has gone dry from our constitutionally guaranteed political excitement, a General Election? Even social media, not necessarily constrained by facts or sense, is tepid. Wake up, everyone. This is February. The Republic has been feted on January 26, an interim Budget has been greeted by the requisite solemnity, Parliament has made its farewell speeches, the great sprint to power is about to start. We are on the brink of another General Election, but no one is on the edge of the seat.

Well: how interesting can a race with one runner be?

The I.N.D.I.A. bloc of opposition parties, touted excitedly by acolytes as the brainchild of Rahul Gandhi when it seemed a glow on the horizon, has been clouded by a rancorous confrontation between inflated Congress assumptions and the ground knowledge of its allies. Mamata Banerjee, a much-wooed heavy weight last year, now believes that Congress cannot win more than 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2024. With every putative yatra in a modern caravan Rahul Gandhi seems to bring down the Congress tally. After his south-north trip in 2023 Congress was wiped out in the Assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, and only scrambled into office in Telangana despite handsome early advantages. During the current discovery of India from east to west, Congress seems to be sliding down in the Lok Sabha polls.

An astrologer predicted that Kamal Nath would never become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh
An astrologer predicted that Kamal Nath would never become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

An astrologer, therefore, can be our only source of some excitement. Full disclosure: this astrologer is a friend from Bengal. I shall not name him since I do not have his permission to do so. He is more certain about the credibility of his art, or science, than I am, but of this I can vouch: many weeks before the 2023 Assembly elections, when every opinion poll was predicting a Congress sweep in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and a positive edge in Rajasthan, this friend calmly predicted that Kamal Nath would never become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. He had seen Kamal Nath’s charts.

I pointed towards opinion polls, which were saying the opposite. He shrugged, smiled, shrugged again. You don’t argue with the stars. Well then, Digvijaya Singh might get the job.

Repeat shrug-smile-shrug. Then came a more startling prediction.

How interesting can a race with one runner be?

Congress would be routed in Chhattisgarh. He reeled off a series of planetary positions beyond my comprehension, and consequent numbers. Game over, Congress.

Till about 11 in the morning on the day of the Assembly results, Madhya Pradesh had proved him right but Chhattisgarh was signalling a Congress triumph. Then the ruthless wheel of fortune went into reverse gear in Raipur.

So, what did he say in early January about the 2024 General Election?

Irony is always the first casualty in a tortured farce

The BJP would get between 335 and 337 seats in Lok Sabha; Congress around 65 or a bit less. The rest would go to regional parties, largely to soft or hard allies of Prime Minister Modi. NDA would grow. Prime Minister Modi’s new government in the summer of 2024, however, would be literally new.

Experience tells me that the tide of victory swings the marginals onto the winning side raising its numbers by a rough 10 per cent. We shall know in May.

*

As I write, polling for the election of the 24th prime minister of Pakistan is an hour old and the ousted-imprisoned Imran Khan has issued his first bulletin of the morning. Citing the sudden and mysterious coma into which the internet had fallen on polling day, Imran Khan alleged that the establishment (polite codename for the army) was rigging the ballot heavily to defeat his candidates.

POLITICAL LONGEVITY: Imran Khan is fortunate to have lasted as long as he did

Irony is always the first casualty in a tortured farce. Imran Khan has perhaps forgotten that in the last Pakistani elections, the same establishment had switched off the same internet as the first part of a process to rig him into office. The whirligig of time is spinning through the windmills of the kind, to paste a line from 16th-century Shakespeare to a song from that brilliant 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. Imran Khan would know the song.

Imran the cricket-legend-cum-variable-politician has one advantage. Unlike most of his predecessors he will be remembered, if only because of his personality rather than his politics. He was and is a good human being. He meant well but understood late.

He was fortunate to have lasted as long as he did. No Pakistan prime minister, elected or anointed, has completed a full term. Army dictators have ruled for decades, because their institution is in permanent power in a country without a past and, possibly, without much of a future. The future should not be defined by geography for that will last. If the future includes the welfare of the people and the fortunes of a nation, then the terrain becomes more difficult.

Imran Khan should also know by now that in Pakistan it is more sensible to ask an army general to predict the outcome of an election than an astrologer.

MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, and Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns