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Salt of the earth

January 28, 2012

THE virtues of salt are infinite, both in diet and language. Salt was a symbol of the honour code in the institution that held together empires and colonies, the army.

The metaphor for a soldier’s loyalty was salt. If you were true to your salt, you remained loyal to whosoever’s salt you had eaten. You were namakhalal. The opposite, namakharam, is still an accusation that stings although contemporary values are determined by mercantile attitudes rather than ancient oaths.

In today’s job market, one is more loyal to the next salary than word given to the company you kept. Proverbially, salt has also become a symbol of civil behaviour in a potential confrontation. You are taught to take some load of rubbish with a pinch of salt, rather than remonstrate.

The leader of the British Labour Party, the very wooden Ed Miliband, found an interesting variation recently when confronted with an opinion poll that put the ruling Conservatives far ahead despite a mood of gloom if not quite doom in Britain. Miliband said he had taken the news with a pinch of sugar. As Freudian slips go, this wasn’t very sexy. But it was nevertheless revealing. He must have subconsciously remembered the bitter medicine that mummy must have forced down on young Ed, and possibly the jam that followed to sweeten things up. When the truth gets bitter, no one adds salt. A little sugar is the only consolation.

In the first week of March, when the results of the current round of Assembly elections come out, a lot of politicians who are comforting themselves with salt at the moment will be desperate for a lump of sugar.

Salt today helps them digest the opinion polls they have commissioned. Firms who do the polling are telling them what they want to hear; that is the only explanation for the fact that both the Congress and Akalis expect to win in Punjab. Both can’t be right.

Does this amount to deceit by the firm commissioned to do opinion polls, and delusion by the parties? Not quite. The electorate this year is in such a turbulent mood that the space for interpretation has widened considerably. Opinion polls are not simple arithmetic. Two and two are not always four. It is an algebra with lots of brackets in the equation.

An important variable, to cite just one instance, is the demographic density of a party’s support. If this support is spread too wide, you can pick up numbers but not winning numbers.

That is one of the problems that Mayawati faces in Uttar Pradesh. She has tremendous support among Dalits and other impoverished castes, but their presence is state-wide rather than consolidated in a particular cluster of districts. She could, therefore, end up second in over 200 constituencies and win only a 100-plus. Conversely, the Muslim vote is an effective determinant of results because it is consolidated in a semi-circle of districts from west to east. The dynamic of interpretation introduces the Piper Principle: he who pays the piper gets the tune.

Number-crunchers are understandably reluctant to depress their clients, so all they have to do is interpret the data in one way rather than another. Political parties do not remember after the results, in any case: winners are too exhilarated, and losers too depressed.

Smaller geographies make prediction easier. UP is difficult. Eight Punjabs, 20 Uttarakhands, 40 Goas and 80 Manipurs could fit into Uttar Pradesh. UP is a mini general election. It is unsurprising therefore that that has not been an election here in the last three decades that did not deliver a surprise.

One opinion poll suggested that both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress could enter three figures, which would change the political environment radically; but there was a roguish touch to that poll which is why no one has made too much of it. We can predict with reasonable certainty that Mayawati’s vote has eroded, but no one has any real idea about the extent of this erosion, and in how many directions it has travelled. The Brahmins who allied with her for tactical reasons in 2007 should go to the BJP or Congress, but there are too many micro eddies in play that shift any pattern. The emerging Peace Party, with its bank of Muslim voters, is depending on such shifts. It has put up non-Muslim candidates in the hope that they will bring enough voters from their caste to nudge ahead.

It is virtually impossible to find a formula that can absorb all the minute sub-plots that bristle through a narrative as complex as an election in Uttar Pradesh. Uncertainty is the essence of democracy. If opinion polls were enough, we would not need polls, would we?

The multiplicity of sentiment, the gradations of anger, the constant interplay of conviction and pragmatism, the charm and limitations of charisma: an election in India is a political-cultural festival. It is the salt of the earth.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.