When Jesus fails to cross

Ever since I watched Spain in the 2010 Football World Cup, I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve since called the “Jesus Navas model“. In game theoretic terms, it can be described as a “mixed strategy”.

In that tournament, when the normal tiki-taka strategy failed to break down opposition, Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque would send on (then) Sevilla winger Jesus Navas. Navas would hug the right touchline and fling in crosses. So the opposition defence which would have otherwise been massed in the middle of the pitch to counter the tiki-taka now had to deal with this new threat.

Based on Spain’s success in that tournament (despite them winning most of their games by only a single goal), the strategy can be termed to be a success. The strategy is also similar to how Kabaddi is typically played (at RSS shakhas at least), where six defenders form a chain to encircle the attacker, but the seventh stays away from them to lure the attacker further inside.

I revisited this Kabaddi-Jesus Navas model some 2-3 years back, during the last days of the UPA government, when senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh made a series of comments that ran afoul of the party’s stated strategy.

I’d described Digvijaya as “Congress’s official lunatic”, who had been authorised by the party’s high command to take stances contrary to the main party line. The advantage with this strategy, I had reasoned, was that there was one “official looney form of dissent”, which the party rank and file who wanted to dissent could follow.

At that time, I had pointed out that the then-opposition BJP had lacked such an “official lunatic”, because of which there were too many “fringe elements” associated with the party which ended up damaging the party’s prospects.

I don’t know if anyone in the BJP had read that post of mine, but they presently recruited Subramanian Swamy, who, in 1999, had been responsible for bringing down the BJP-led government. While the induction of Swamy into the party didn’t make intuitive sense, it was clear that he was being brought in to be the party’s official lunatic.

From all measures, he seems to have done rather well. The BJP’s looney fringe has rallied around him, and instead of having different fringes representing different ideas, the fringe has now been united. Swamy’s policies are crazy enough to attract the craziest of the fringe, and for those who find him too crazy, there’s always the mainstream party to back.

The problem for the BJP, however, has been that the “official lunatic” has now become too powerful. When Spain put on Navas, it was one guy who represented the alternate strategy – the rest were all committed to tiki-taka. In the BJP’s case, the official lunatic has got much more weight in the party.

And as Raghuram Rajan’s exit, and the attacks on leading finance ministry officials show, Swamy has actually started getting his way, with the rather large looney fringe cheering him onwards. The question is how the BJP should deal with this.

The obvious solution is to appoint a new official lunatic, one who is lunatic enough to attract the fringe, but no so popular as Swamy to have a following that rivals the mainstream party. A Digvijaya Singh equivalent would do well, but such “moderate lunatics” are hard to find. And even if one is found, the question is how the party can move the looney fringe to backing the new official lunatic.

Even worse, if a new official lunatic is appointed, the party will have to (at least temporarily) deal with two internal official lunatics, not an enviable task by any means. And if they decide to expel the incumbent official lunatic, there is the risk of alienating his (now rather large) support base!

It seems like there is no way out of this mess for the BJP! Sometimes copying policies from political rivals may not work out that well!

Centralised and decentralised parties

In the spirit of the just-concluded Assembly Elections in Bihar, here is my attempt at political theorising, which Nitin Pai classifies as “political gossip”.

During the ten years of UPA rule at the Union government, the opposition BJP lacked a strong centre. The central leadership was bereft of ideas following defeat in the 2004 General Elections, and this was badly shown up in the 2009 General Elections when the BJP put in an even worse performance.

All was not lost, however. The lack of strong political leadership at the centre had meant that BJP units in different states managed to thrive. Narendra Modi became Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 (albeit following a directive by the BJP central leadership), and won three consecutive elections there. His track record as Gujarat CM was pivotal to him getting elected as Prime Minister in 2014.

Around the same time, Shivraj Singh Chouhan emerged as a strong leader in Madhya Pradesh, and Vasundhara Raje, who had once before been chief minister in Rajasthan, came back with renewed strength. Manohar Parrikar was a strong Chief Minister in Goa. The period also saw the BJP forming its first state government in South India under BS Yeddyurappa.

This state-level buildup of strength was key in driving the BJP (and Modi, who had managed to appoint himself leader) to success in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Modi brought on his trusted aide from Gujarat Amit Shah as the president of the party.

While the objective of capturing the Union Government had been met, this created a new problem for the party – it had a strong centre once again. And the strong centre has meant that regional leaders now have less chances to thrive. After Modi and Parrikar moved to the Union government, relative lightweights have been installed as chief ministers of Gujarat and Goa, respectively.

Chouhan and Raje have been implicated in scandals (related to the Vyapam recruitment and Lalit Modi, respectively). Yeddyurappa has been kicked upstairs as National Vice President of the party. Elections are being fought in the name of Modi and Shah rather than projecting a strong state leader. No chief ministerial candidate was projected in the recent Bihar poll debacle. The Haryana chief minister was a nobody when he was installed. Lightweight Kiran Bedi was projected in the Delhi polls, which ended in a massacre for the party.

 

In other words, ever since Modi and Shah came to power a year ago, the  BJP has been showing promise towards becoming a “high command driven” party, like the Congress before it. The Congress, which has looked rather clueless since the last days of its 2nd UPA government, should serve as a good example to the BJP in terms of what might happen to an over-centralised party.

The BJP has its own template on how strong state level leadership can lead to success, yet it looks like it’s in danger of discarding its own successful formula and following the Congress path to failure.

Analysing the BBMP Elections

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) went to polls on Saturday, and votes were counted today. The BJP has retained its majority in the house, winning 100 out of 198 available seats. While this is a downer compared to the 113 seats they had won in the previous elections in 2010, the fact that they have won despite being in opposition in the state is a significant achievement.

Based on data put out by Citizen Matters, here is some rudimentary analysis. The first is a choropleth of where each party has performed. Note that this is likely to be misleading since constituencies with large areas are over-represented, but this can give you a good picture.

blrelec
Red: BJP Green: Congress Cyan: JD(S) Blue: Independents Black: Others

Notice that there are a few “bands” where the BJP has performed really well. There is the south-western part of the city that it has literally swept, and it has done well in the south-eastern and northern suburbs, too. And the party hasn’t done too well in the north-west, the traditional “cantonment” area.

We can get a better picture of this by looking at the choropleths by assembly constituency. These shapes might be familiar to regular readers of the blog since I’d done one post on gerrymandering.

blrelec2

This tells you where each party has done well. As was evident from the first figure, the BJP has done rather well in Basavanagudi, Jayanagar and Padmanabhanagar in “traditional South Bangalore” and blanked out in Pulakeshi Nagar in the cantonment. In fact, if you try to correlate these results with that of the last Assembly elections, the correlation is rather strong. Most constituencies have gone the way of the assembly segments they are part of.

Then there is the issue of reservation – there were a lot of murmurs that the Congress party which is in power in the state changed the reservations to suit itself. Yet, there are a few interesting factoids that indicate that the new set of reservations were rather logical.

The next two graphs show the distribution of SC and ST populations respectively as a function of the reservations of the constituencies (population data from http://openbangalore.org).

Rplot03 Rplot02Notice that the constituencies reserved for SCs and STs are among those that have the highest SC and ST populations respectively. The trick in gerrymandering was in terms of distributions between general and OBC constituencies, and among women.

I could put the performance of different parties by reservation categories, and on whether the reservation of a constituency has changed has any effect on results, but (un)fortunately, there aren’t any trends, and consequently there is little information content. Hence I won’t bother putting them in.

Nevertheless, these have been extremely interesting elections. All the postponement, all the drama and court case, and finally the underdog (based on previous trends) winning. Yet, given the structure of the corporation, there is little hope that much good will come of the city in the coming years. And there is nothing in the election results that can alter this.

 

Understanding the by-election results

Kindly note that this post falls under the category of “political gossip” and not under the category of “policy analysis” that this blog is mostly filled with

So the BJP has got trounced in the by elections that were counted yesterday. People have been quick to call this a referendum on Modi’s government and are asking him to change course (each commentator is calling for a change of course in a different direction – possibly with the vector sum of them being nothing). I got an email this morning asking for reasons of the BJP’s poor performance and this is what I wrote back:

So in that one vote that you have, you need to collectively express a range of emotions – like which party you want to form the government, who you want the prime minister to be, who will take best care of your community in your constituency, who is the best person to represent your constituency in the assembly, which local person you can  turn to in times of trouble, etc. (it’s a very long list). So your vote is essentially a weighted average of your emotions in all these aspects.
In the elections in May, thanks to the non-existence of a government for a very long time, the weights given to a stable and strong government at the centre and choice of prime minister shot up. Like crazy. And it was clear before the elections that there was only one party and one man who could offer this kind of a government.
Since the weight given to this factor in the minds of people was so high, it trumped everything else, and even the proverbial lamppost on a BJP ticket (especially in Uttar Pradesh) managed to get elected! And thus we got a party with full majority. And we got the desired man as PM. And we will most likely have a stable  government for the next five years.
A bypoll is different – especially when you have a small number of by polls they simply don’t affect who forms the government and who the prime minister should be. Thus, the weight given to those elements of the vector, which were extremely high in May,were set to zero. Thanks to that, people voted based on the other components – like caste, local dominance, community support and all that. In that respect I’m not surprised at all in terms of the result.
Also it’s not fair to compare the performance in these bye-elections to the party performance in the respective assembly segments in the lok sabha elections. What we should compare these bypolls to is to the parties that held these seats before they fell vacant. The media has once again succeeded in distorting the narrative to come to hopefully desired conclusions?

 

Modi and Advani

Here’s how I think the BJP should’ve reacted to the fact that LK Advani wasn’t too happy about Narendra Modi being announced as their candidate for Prime Minister in next year’s elections.

Yes, Mr. Advani is still not on board yet. However, we are a democratic party and there was strong demand from an overwhelming majority of our party workers that Mr. Modi’s name be announced as the Prime Ministerial candidate. As in any democratic process, there will be the minority who will not be happy, but we are sure that they (including Mr. Advani) will respect the democratic process and extend their support to Mr. Modi.

 

Kabaddi, Jesus Navas, Digvijaya Singh and Modi Bhakts

Writing during the last FIFA World Cup in 2010, I mentioned a concept that I named after the Spanish (and now Manchester City) winger Jesus Navas. It was the strategy of one guy breaking off separately from the rest of his teammates, and ploughing a lonely furrow in a direction different to what his teammates were working on. So when the rest of the Spanish team played tiki taka and relied on a slow build up based on intricate passing through the middle, Jesus would come on and run away on his own down the right flank. It was a useful distraction for the Spanish team to have, for now the opposition could not mass its defences in the centre.

In the same post, I had mentioned that it is similar with Kabaddi. When a team is “defending” all but one person in the team form a chain and try to encircle the attacker. The other guy works alone, and his job is to lure the attacker deep into the territory so that the chain can close in around the attacker. This way, the lone ranger and the team work together, towards a common objective, just like Jesus and the rest of the Spanish team.

Having observed Indian politics for a while now, I realize that the Indian National Congress has successfully adopted this strategy, while the BJP has failed to keep up. Now, the reason you want to use a lone ranger in politics is slightly different, but on the same lines. Sometimes, there can be disagreements within a party on certain issues. For political reasons, the party can officially adopt only one of the two possible paths. Yet, they know that by sticking to this official path, they might lose out on some support. How then can parties tackle this issue of giving out the “dissenting judgment” while still appearing united?

This is where people like Digvijaya Singh come in. Digvijaya is a known loose cannon, and has mastered the art of taking a line different from the mainstream Congress line. In case he turns out to be right, later on the party can claim that he was right all along – and quietly bury the official party line. In other cases, the party can publicly castigate him, and distance itself from his claims. In a way that I can’t fully understand, the Congress has mastered the art of managing the loose cannon, such that they “recognize” his statements when he is right and unceremoniously ditch him otherwise.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, hasn’t got its act together. The biggest problem with the BJP is that there is no one loose cannon with whom an agreement can be struck on the lines of what the Congress possibly has with Digvijaya. At different points in time different party leaders espouse views that are out of line with the party’s official line, and this being hard to control, the party gives off an image as being disunited. The matter is made worse by the thousands of online fans of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who like to voice their personal opinion which may not tally with the party line, but whom the party cannot publicly dissociate from.

It is in this particular issue that the BJP significantly lags the Congress when it comes to media management. As a BJP supporter mentioned on twitter yesterday, Digvijaya can say whatever and the Congress can get away with it, but whatever a Modi Bhakt says gets attributed to the BJP. It is this differential handling of fringe elements that leads to significantly worse press for the BJP than for the Congress. The answer lies in appointing an official lunatic whose job it is to make outrageous statements and be prepared to get censured by the party frequently.

Too many fringe elements, all of them shooting off in different directions, weakens the core, and weakens the focus of the attack. One can be managed, and is useful. More is the problem.

Why The Congress Party is Pro Big Government

Back in 2009, just before the general elections, I had advised people to vote for the NDA. My argument there was that irrespective of the relative merits and demerits of the parties leading the two coalitions, the BJP was a more likely candidate to lead a reformist government for it was not the incumbent. Incumbent governments tend to get cozy with unelected people who are in power (for example, leaders of PSUs, unions, civil servants, etc.) because of which they are loathe to take up policies that cut the power of such people. In other words, they are loathe to take up reformist steps that decrease the size of government.

The same argument can be extended to argue why the Congress is inherently a pro-government party. The fact of the matter is that it is the party that has been in power at the Union government for most of our history. This means that a large part of the unelected government organization has its loyalties with the party. Consequently, the party too sees itself as being loyal to this cadre, and will not pursue policies that cut down their power.

This explains why the Congress-led UPA1 government decided to reverse the earlier NDA government’s decision to repeal the Essential Commodities Act. It explains why the Congress-led UPA1 government did not pursue the reforms in the APMC act that had been set in motion by the earlier NDA government. This also explains why the Congress-led UPA2 government is trying to push through the Food Security Bill, which seeks to increase the role of the government in the agricultural supply chain.

The reforms that the UPA governments have been trying to pursue are those that do not significantly impact its unelected-government-organization constituency. Foreign investment in retail, for example, will only affect the retail industry, and the government doesn’t have much skin in the game there. The Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement again doesn’t trample on government feet. Conversely, nuclear energy is a field where a compelling argument can be made in favour of a government monopoly, so that agreement will only increase government participation in the energy sector (note that I’m not against the deal. I’m only trying to explain why it is acceptable reform for the Congress). The MGNREGA again brings in several thousand more people into the government folds. The only exception in the list of UPA-led reforms that might challenge big government is the Right to Information, but that act was passed in the infancy of the UPA1 government when it was much more beholden to the National Advisory Council (NAC) than it is today.

So what explains 1991? Two things. Firstly, it was a whole bunch of low hanging fruit. Though government was reduced, the resulting incremental growth increased the size of the pie so much that the proportion of the enhanced pie that the unelected-government-organization had access to was enhanced. So from a rational tradeoff perspective, it was the right thing to do. Secondly, and more importantly, the reforms were inevitable. The Indian economy was in such bad shape that there was no way out but to do those reforms. So holding up 1991 as proof of the Congress Party’s reformist credentials is wrong.

But what is the guarantee that a non-Congress government will pursue reforms that could reduce the size of the government? They fully recognize the fact that large parts of the unelected-government-organization cadre are beholden to the Congress party, and they will want to cut this constituency down to size. Hence, they will work towards reforms that will reduce the size of government. Yes, there is no guarantee that they will not open up other fronts that will increase the government’s footprint, but they are unlikely to do worse than a government involving the Congress.