Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rise, 2008

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Rise, 2008

Is this the ultimate opinion poll? In early December a press release issued in Islamabad cited an opinion poll conducted by a Boston-based organisation called, slightly obviously, International Public Opinion Polls (IPOP: was the acronym significant?). The respondents in Pakistan, it said, had been interviewed by phone or Internet, and concluded that a very satisfying 74% thought that President Pervez Musharraf’s popularity had risen ever since his tailor had the good sense to change his dress code to civvies. To complement such good news, 55% of the respondents thought that the general elections in Pakistan should be held in early January as announced by the government, without any delay.

All would have been well, except for those pesky fact-checkers who never seem to understand a good thing when they see it, or have any appreciation of the huge burden of national interest that weighs so heavily on the soul of self-appointed dictators. A little bit of checking discovered that there was no such organisation based in Boston, and that the zip code on the address was false. We all know that some of Mr Musharraf’s family live in Boston, but they are not involved in polls in any way.

In the middle of December, an American institution that works for the Republican Party did conduct a poll and discovered that there was only 23% support for President Musharraf, 25% for Nawaz Sharif, and 30% for Benazir Bhutto. Some establishment type in Islamabad taunted these figures. It couldn’t be because someone actually believes that three fourths of Pakistan is anxious to keep Musharraf in power; it must be that old sin of loyalty above the demands of truth. Actually, the President should take comfort in the second set of figures rather than delude himself by staring at the first lot. With 23% of the vote, he becomes a genuine King’s party, and will decide who, between Bhutto and Sharif, will form the government in partnership with him. That is not bad for a chap who can’t take no for an answer.

There is a strange quality to opinion polls on the subcontinent; they matter far more to those in power than to those who elect individuals to power. Opinions are not shaped by opinion polls. They are merely the comfort food of politicians. The voter is never gulled by declared trends. If anything, a frontrunner may be hurt by too repeated an insistence on projected victory because it might leave his supporters complacent and his adversaries energised.

The opinion polls that have emerged after the first round of polling in Gujarat are not as parentless as the IPOP offering in Islamabad, but there is a hint of illusion or bias in what they suggest. The vote difference is too small, making the variables that much more important: a tweak here and a massage there can take figures in any direction you want. It is far more fruitful to watch the face in the crowd. Check out which leader draws the glow on the faces of the audience, and whose meeting raised perfunctory applause and slogans, and you might be closer to the truth. Numbers at a meeting actually indicate very little, but involuntary reactions are more revealing. And of course, there is always the standby reliability of the bookie. The bookie is important because, unlike the journalist, he puts his money where his mouth is. Opinion polls of course are a joy unto themselves: they have fun at your expense, literally.

An election season seems to have begun, and will get into full gear after the results of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are known two days before Christmas. Two weeks after Gujarat, the political agenda will have changed so sharply, Gujarat might well have never existed. The time balance on the nuclear deal will be exhausted. Dr Manmohan Singh will have to take a decision on whether he wants the deal or whether he wants his government.

Events that have taken place in the silence of the shadows will determine the results of elections next summer. At the very top of the list will be the price rise of food.

Statistics do not lie outright; they merely tease and mislead. When a government issues a statement that the price rise has only been five per cent, the number says nothing of political importance, although it has great validity as a figure of economic importance. The prices of manufactured goods, for instance, purchased by the middle or upper middle class, might be flat, while the price of food, the prime necessity of the poor, taking away a substantial part of his income, might rise by 10% on an average, and register a 15% rise in essential items. Food prices have been going up consistently in India for the last four years, for a variety of reasons, including tectonic shifts in delivery patterns and a slow but determined shift in the nature of trade. There are variables in availability, as new forms of capitalisation take food out of circulation and into preservative environments. No single change is happening on a dramatic scale, but too many small changes are taking place simultaneously.

Perhaps the most significant change is in the nature of consumption, as rising prosperity among certain sections of India (particularly in the South) changes dietary habits as well as scales up levels of consumption. The demand for wheat in South India is an instance. This may not be because South Indians have suddenly fallen in love with the chapatti and the paratha, but the explosion in the number of bakeries in small towns will provide the answer. Breakfast is becoming a more sophisticated meal. Simultaneously, poverty and indebtedness are driving the marginal farmer to suicide; the price of disparity, or the distance between aspiration and availability, will have to be paid by those in authority.

This is compounded by changes in the international pattern of consumption. An average Chinese person ate 20 kg of beef per year in 1985; today that figure is over 50 kg. The hasty and misguided shift to farming for ethanol-based fuel is creating quiet havoc in the farming sector. At another level, the West continues to subsidise its farmers so that the market forces it advocates for others do not affect its own core constituencies. Three fourths of the world still lives in rural areas — outside the comfort zone of secure subsidies. A billion urban consumers worldwide live around what might be called the urban-anger line. World food prices have jumped a massive 75% since 2005. The knee-jerk reaction might be to blame the jump in oil prices, but this is only one of many factors, and not necessarily the most important one.

To cut a long story short and place it back in perspective, 2008 will see a sharp rise in food prices in India. This is not just an economic statement. This is a political fact in an election year. Any delay in the election date cannot help a government in such an environment. The trigger for an election might be the nuclear deal, but the direction of the bullet will be determined by the price rise. This is one of those bullets which could do a 180 degree turn and travel back towards the gun.

Wealth creation is not synonymous with poverty elimination. A country needs the first, but elections are won by the second.

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