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regular-article-logo Sunday, 23 June 2024

Hollow punditry

There are some who approach every election as a voyage of discovery. This is unfortunate since the absence of a historical perspective can lead to avoidable miscalculations

Swapan Dasgupta Published 23.05.24, 06:23 AM
Puzzle endures.

Puzzle endures. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Every general election in a country as large and diverse as India produces something unique. This year’s election witnessed the Trinamool Congress taking out a ‘victory’ rally in a North Bengal constituency on the day after polling and a month or so before the votes would be counted. Based on anecdotal accounts, the belief that a party has done well on polling done is often widespread. This has often occasioned premature celebrations involving the faithful. However, a formal ‘victory’ rally before the first votes have been counted is a rarity, at least in an election that is marked by genuine competition.

Arguably, the rationale behind a localised celebration may have been limited to raising the morale of the faithful or, perhaps, to intimidate and demoralise opponents. But unearthing the precise reason for such grandstanding is of academic interest only. At the same time, examined dispassionately, what happened in a corner of Bengal was not qualitatively different from the speculation in the mainstream and social media.

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There are some who approach every election as a voyage of discovery. This is unfortunate since the absence of a historical perspective can lead to avoidable miscalculations. However, those disinclined to reinvent the wheel every five years will discover that disproportionate energy is expended on fostering contrived beliefs. These may be based on either elaborate fabrications or amplification of something trivial, but they constitute an important element in both the information wars and the psychological operations of an election.

It is understandable that political parties with a vested interest in optimising their representation in the legislatures will use all strategies and tactics — the proverbial sama, dama, danda, bhed — to influence voting intentions. These efforts are, however, supplemented by the hidden persuasion games played by individuals and institutions whose political connections aren’t always obvious.

Every general election results in countless research projects. Among the projects that need to be undertaken is one that involves an audit of the election coverage by the mainstream media: how faithful was the coverage to the eventual outcome? Did the publications and television/ YouTube channels accurately gauge the overall mood of the voters, even if they erred in reporting micro trends?

That a section of the voters relies on the media, both print and electronic, to gauge the direction of the political headwinds is obvious. This is not merely because there is an understandable urge among individuals to side with “those who shout the loudest”, as Mr Pickwick put it nonchalantly. More important, there is a natural inquisitiveness about how fellow citizens are thinking outside a person’s immediate neighbourhood and community. To this can be added the delights of experiencing — at least passively — the charms of the carnival spirit that accompanies every election. There is a section of puritanical activists — the same lot that introduced NOTA in the ballot — that would rather a general election is reduced to a clinical exercise (as is the case in Europe). However, the people’s natural sense of tamasha has prevented this derailment of what Indians regard as democracy.

Over the past four decades, professionally conducted opinion polls have entered the political market. In time, the number of polls has multiplied and, inevitably, the quality and the veracity of opinion polls have suffered. Moreover, since opinion polls were being seen to influence voters directly, the Election Commission of India banned the publication of opinion polls during the course of the election. This was a desirable move since it was clear that under the guise of reporting the popular mood, unprofessional bodies engaged by political parties were using the polls to influence the actual voting.

Now that general elections are long drawn-out affairs, stretching for five weeks or more, there are little openings for phase-wise exit polls. The underground satta market works on its own logic and is both unaccountable and unregulated. In the absence of credible advance indicators of how people have voted, a curious market has turned to people it imagines are in the know and are, at the same time, ‘independent’ observers.

In 2014, it was put out by intrepid English language journalists that the Bharatiya Janatya Party’s chances of forming a government at the Centre had gone up in smoke after the phases one and two of the polling. It was also suggested that Jat voters had taught the BJP a lesson. In 2019, the very same story circulated once again in social media. As a matter of information, the BJP did spectacularly in western Uttar Pradesh in both the 2014 and 2019 elections.

These prognoses of the imminent political demise of Narendra Modi were supplemented by the punditry of experts. “We can say now with confidence,” one of them posted on Twitter on April 6, 2019, “that this election will be fought state-by-state, more like 2004 than 2014.” This was retweeted by an eminent Indian-American professor at Brown’s with the comment, “The 2004 comparison is indeed most appropriate.”

The opinion polls that were published prior to the campaign getting underway, without exception, predicted a comfortable victory for the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance. They also indicated that the chances of the BJP securing a majority of seats on its own were high. Yet, the whispers of a repeat of the 2004 election refused to go away, and not merely because a Sitaram Yechury or a Shashi Tharoor said so.

The tale of 2004 was also said to be responsible for a dip in the stock market indices on Dalal Street last week. Although the sell-off was confined to the foreign funds that may have had their own compulsions, quite unrelated to the vagaries of domestic Indian politics, the story of stock market nervousness did the rounds of circles that are unfamiliar with financial speculation. The longevity of this nervousness was woefully short since the punters also tend to correlate their investments with what they see and hear around them.

A legitimate question arises as to whether there are people who confuse what they believe should happen with what is most likely to happen. It’s a common malaise and often tends to be repeated in the tea shop-cum-taxi driver conversations that form the basis of analysis. In its best year, the Congress polled 48% of the popular vote and secured 414 Lok Sabha seats. That means 52% of the electorate voted for others. It is therefore entirely possible that eminent editors and distinguished professors chanced upon only such people.

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