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Political versus Data Journalism

And the search for an Indian Nate Silver

Writing in The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan argues,

His [Nate Silver] entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine. [link]

Nate Silver’s great insight in the 2012 US presidential elections wasn’t that Barack Obama was  likely to be reelected president. Anyone who dispassionately read polls reached the same conclusion. Even Realclear politics which merely averages polls performed nearly as well as Nate Silver’s much heralded model. What Silver was really arguing—and what really irrigated the likes of Joe Scarborough—was that contrary to reports of daily swings, the race was consistently in favor of President Obama for pretty much the entire duration of the campaign. Sure, his numbers dropped a little bit after his stumble during the first presidential debate but Obama remained the consistent favorite.

This minimalistic numbers based approach naturally militates against the traditional political reporting where every stumble or mistake is highlighted and the race swings widely from one candidate to another. The kind of traditional political reporting where bar interviews and the body language of advisors are supposed to suggest which way the election is heading. Hold on, said Silver: the basic nature of the race hadn’t changed despite media obsession over each and every surreptitiously recorded YouTube video. In other words, Nate Silver attempted to rob the elections of their traditional excitement.

As the election season arrives in India, this debate may have interesting parallels in India. The Indian media has started to pay attention to data journalism though it remains limited by Western standards. And as media houses release polls on the 2014 elections, there is a yearning for Indian Nate Silver who can help make sense of the often contradictory results. But it faces at least two significant challenges.

First, there is simply not enough polling to yield panel data which is often far more interesting and explanatory than simply looking at numbers. Polling a country like India is terribly expensive and the Indian media has limited resources. Second, polling India is really hard even if the best methodology is employed and adequate resources are devoted. For instance, the US is a two-party country where the vast majority of states are non-competitive at the national level. You don’t need polling or any fancy statistical analysis to understand which way California is likely to vote. In sharp contrast, India has multitudes of regional parties and the national formations are restricted to a minority of states. And to state the obvious, polling Delhi and rural Maharashtra are entirely different. Ultimately, the predictive power of Nate Silver’s model was driven by the quality of polling; if the polls were wrong, so would have been his model.

So the search for Indian Nate Silver is likely to be futile exercise. Traditional political journalism will continue to dominate reporting in India with polls making for some intriguing TV discussions but having limited salience otherwise.

p.s To be clear, this is not to suggest that polls in India are entirely useless. State level polls at least in two-party states usually get it right. However, their significance at the national level—beyond suggesting broad trends—is limited.

On the CNN IBN Survey

Reading the electoral tea leaves 

The CNN IBN election tracker poll has projected that the BJP would win between 156 and 164 seats if the elections were held now; the congress  is projected to win between 131-139 seats. Some quick thoughts.

First, if the current trends hold, a UPA-3 is the most likely outcome of the 2014 elections. The difference between the BJP and the Congress is simply not large enough to beat the acceptability factor. Some analysts argue that despite the terrible governance record of the UPA government, the BJP has failed to take full advantage of its troubles. There is some truth to this of course. However, the bigger problem for the BJP is that it is simply not competitive in large parts of the country. Indeed, the party is very lucky that three of its chief ministers are so popular that they can deliver the same states election after election.

Second, two pieces of good news for the BJP. First, the campaign hasn’t quite begun yet but the party already holds a small but significant edge over the Congress. Whether it can further expand its lead by another 20 odd seats would determine whether Narendra Modi can fulfill his prime ministerial ambitions. Second, its mascot Narendra Modi is ahead of Rahul Gandhi in the popularity game. There is simply no argument for the BJP to prevaricate overs its prime ministerial candidate; it should anoint Modi as soon as realistically possible.

Third, the argument for Modi was that he is more popular than the party and would bring additional support. There is little evidence in the survey to support that conjecture. Except in one state: UP. If the BJP ends up winning 30 seats in the state, the credit should go to one and only one man: the party itself has neither any organizational strength nor any credibility to win more than a dozen seats. Will a Modi campaign consolidate these significant gains in UP? Can he make a difference in other states like Rajasthan? The most crucial question may be this: Can Modi nationalize the elections? It is frequently pointed out that elections in India are aggregate of state elections. That is largely true.  However, in 2009, the Congress outperformed its natural strength in almost all states including Gujarat and MP. Will there be a similar positive vote for Modi?

Fourth, Rajasthan may end up as the state which decides 2014. It appears that both the BJP and the Congress party are locked in a close fight in the state. However, as Swapan Dasgupta has pointed out, Rajasthan traditionally has close assembly elections but the victor is rewarded disproportionately in the general elections. So whether Ashok Gehlot maintains his hold on the state or Vasundhara Raje is able to translate her obvious popularity into an electoral triumph may make a difference of up to 20 seats to the final tallies of the BJP and the Congress.

Finally, for the Congress the best news is that the news is not bad enough. Not even the most optimistic Congress supporter expects to see a repeat of its spectacular 2009 triumph. The 135 odd seats the Congress is expected to win in 2014 are just about enough for the formation of UPA-3; any lower and it would be impossible to make that case. For the Congress, much will depend upon how it manages Andhra Pradesh—a state which it swept in 2009. Will its decision to grant Telangana help the party or will the TRS will walk away with all the credit? In addition, if it is able to work out pre-poll alliances or understanding in states like Bihar or Andhra Pradesh, the party is likely to benefit.

What the current poll does is to establish the baseline. When it is repeated in a few months, the picture of 2014 would be much clearer. Let the games begin!

On the Batla House Verdict

Let’s learn the right lessons from the Batla house encounter.

After a long legal battle, a local court in Delhi has delivered its verdict on the controversial Batla House encounter. The court has not only held Shahzad Ahmed guilty of killing Delhi police inspector M.C. Sharma, it has also clearly ruled that the encounter was genuine. Obviously, the legal battle continues  as the guilty party would appeal to the higher courts. Nevertheless, there are three clear messages from this rather sordid episode.

First, the verdict is a resounding rejection of the ‘theories’ advanced by the likes of Digvijay Singh and Salman Khurshid who have repeatedly argued that the encounter was ‘fake’. At the time of the Batla House encounter, Delhi was ruled by the Congress government both at the state as well as the central level (as it continues to be the case to this day.)  Therefore,  Digvijay Singh played a particularly perverse kind of politics in which he claimed that they were merely demanding a judicial inquiry in the encounter while the Congress ‘officially’ disassociated itself from the demands of its maverick leader.  For obvious reasons, the Singh-Khurshid duo had little interest in actually discovering what really happened on that particular day; keeping the pot boiling perpetually is what really serves their purpose. (Useful analogy:  BJP and the Ram Temple issue.)  Not to put too fine a point on it:  it was communal politics of the worst kind in which the Muslim community was merely a sacrificial lamb for Digvijay Singh to achieve his political ends. In this endeavor, he was aided by the so-called ‘Muslim leadership’ which specializes in politics of permanent victimhood where the Indian state is always at fault and no Muslims are ever involved in terror attacks. And while these purveyors of victimhood gain followers and public acceptability, who really suffers are ordinary Indians—both Hindu and Muslims. Let’s not mince words here: This isn’t secularism by any stretch of imagination but naked communalism. And it is time Digvijay Singh is called out what he truly is: a communal opportunist who preys and feasts on the fears of ordinary Muslims.

Second, the human rights organizations and particularly the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association (JTSA) need to introspect on their role. The essential argument against these organizations is not that they fight for human rights—a worthy goal in a constitutional republic—but that they believe the Indian state is inherently biased against Muslims. And nothing will convince them otherwise.  So if a court judgment establishes that in a particular case Muslims were wrongly accused, then it proves their point. However, if another court rules against terror accused, then it affirms the prejudice of the Indian state!  Heads I win; tails you lose. In a country like India where police brutality is unfortunately all too common, an organization like JTSA can play an effective role. However, their attempts to ride roughshod over the judicial process through their own ‘investigations’ is something which must be stoutly resisted. As Ashish Khetan has pointed out, Atif Ameen (one of the suspect killed in the Batla house encounter) was possibly responsible for deaths of over 300 Indians. If JTSA wants to defend Ameen, it is their choice; however then others are as much entitled to draw their own conclusions about it’s credibility. They also must understand that the police are not always the enemy. For instance, the ‘encounter culture’ in India has thrived with the de facto approval of the political class. After all, it is much simpler to encourage trigger happy cops rather than improving their investigative skills or ensuring that the glacial judicial process can move faster.

Third, the police and security agencies in India must introspect why they  have such low credibility amongst Indian Muslims (and in the general population as well.)  Here’s a starting point: The vast majority of Indian Muslims have no sympathy for genuine terrorists just like the vast majority of Hindus have no sympathy for those accused of setting off blasts in Malegaon. What the ordinary Muslims truly fear is this: That he would be held responsible and an entire community tarred for the terror activities of the likes of Indian Mujahideen. This fear is strengthened when cases like Malegaon merge where ordinary Muslims are incarcerated for years for crimes they never committed.The security establishment must commit to a zero tolerance policy for instances when their officers transgress the limits imposed by the law. More importantly, to the extent it is possible, the security establishment should reflect the demographics of the population they serve; the low percentage of Muslims in the police is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently.  This is something police forces all over the world recognize as essential to improving their effectiveness.

As the recent blasts in Hyderabad and Bangalore have demonstrated, the war on terror is an ongoing battle in India. There can be no sympathy—none whatsoever—with those who kill ordinary Indians. In this war, everyone has a role to play from the political class to the police as well as human rights groups. If India can learn the right lessons from the Batla house encounter, the fight against terror would only be more effective.


On Modi the Prime Minister

Narendra Modi is handicapped by BJP’s geographical reach. Don’t fall for the hype

(This a guest post from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous. Lightly edited for clarity)

If the Delhi-based media and the popular commentary are to be believed, Narendra Modi is the frontrunner for the Delhi crown by a fair distance. Even his opponents appear to be in a state of panic with columns across multiple newspapers lamenting how his inexorable rise threatens the ‘idea of India.’ But beyond the media hype and the promise of a glitzy campaign, is that really true?

Let us look at some facts from the 2009 general elections in which the Congress scored a comprehensive victory. Why 2009?: Because it is the only general election held after the fresh delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies. In 2009, Congress contested 440 seats on its own, and on 350 seats, the party either won or stood second. In contrast, BJP contested on 433 seats, and was either first or second only on 226 seats. This sharp difference— 350 seats for the Congress and 226 for the BJP – is a fair assessment of the seats on which the respective party was a serious contender. In other words, the BJP would be nearly 50 short of a majority even if it won every single seat it was a serious contender in 2009 on. Even if you extend it to the seats on which the party saved its deposit, the BJP will still fall short by 10 seats. It saved its deposit only on 263 seats compared to 366 for the Congress party. Therefore, the argument that BJP can achieve a near majority on its own is fallacious. Even to win 180 seats–considered by many to be minimum number required for Narendra Modi to become the prime minister–would be a tough task.

It is also important to consider how really unequal the battle between the two parties is. For instance, rather than looking at the gross percentage votes won on 545 seats, let us look at the effective percentage votes won on the seats actually contested by the party. The vote percentage of Congress on the 440 seats it contested in 2009 was 35.8 percent. In the case of the BJP, it was 23.4 percent on 433 seats. That is an effective difference of nearly 12 percentage points—a substantial advantage in a multi-polar polity like India. Not only is the BJP not a serious contender on enough seats, it is substantially less popular on the seats it contests.

Or consider this. In 2009, the BJP was a in direct contest with the Congress party only on 140 seats. In other words, only on 140 seats were both winners and runners up either from the Congress or BJP. (Congress won 74 of these seats.) Only in 140 out of 350 seats (where Congress was either first or second) was thus BJP a direct challenge for the Congress. In the balance 210 seats, the main opponent of the Congress was a party other than the BJP.

If the argument is that2009 was an exceptional election, let’s look at it differently. As this Tehelka report showed,  even if a ‘Best of BJP’ tally is created by totaling the party’s best ever performances in individual states since 1984, it adds up to only 251 seats. To achieve 251 seats, BJP won 18 seats in Karnataka (2009), 5 seats in Tamil Nadu (1999), 9 in Odisha (1999), 7 in Andhra Pradesh (1999), 52 seats in Uttar Pradesh (1998) and 12 in Jharkhand (1998). Is it remotely possible that these numbers would be replicated in 2014?

If anything, the situation has only worsened for the BJP since 2009 (map) in terms its of reach as well as alliances.  The anointment of Narendra Modi is shrinking the party geographically, socially and politically. Mr Modi’s ascension means that minorities can’t even consider BJP as an alternative and in fact would vote strategically to defeat the party in states like UP and Bihar.  Geographically, the party is conspicuous in North-eastern, Eastern and Southern parts of the country only by its absence. Because of the substantial negative baggage associated with Modi, no party in these parts of the country wants to ally with the BJP and suffer grievous electoral consequences. No amount of propaganda, demagoguery, and social media outreach can overcome hard socio-political realities of India.

Attempts are being made to sell a political narrative which doesn’t match the facts on ground. It aims to portray that the Congress Party is in deep political trouble heading into the general election, and the BJP is on an upswing. Here is what has actually happened. Since 2012, Congress and BJP have contested five assembly elections where they were the two principal contesting parties — Karnataka, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa. Congress won three of these five states, including Karnataka. Karnataka, lest you forget, was the largest source of BJP’s Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 election. In fact, the Congress Party today is in government in 14 states. This is the largest number of states governed by it since 2006, and only one fewer than the most states it has governed at a single time in more than twenty years.

Despite the charges of corruption and bad governance, it is still advantage Congress in 2014. It will certainly not repeat its performance of 2009 but even 140 odd seats are enough to ensure the formation of UPA-3 at the Centre. Rather than resurrecting the BJP, the virtual anointment of Narendra Modi as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has only made the Congress’ task easier.

The Third Front Wars

Would Jayalalitha really want to be the prime minister?

It’s been nearly two decades since a Third Front government ruled India. However, come election time, the ghost of  Third Front is duly resurrected with political pundits debating its permutations and combinations and the various prime ministerial candidates. For instance, in a recent discussion on the CNN-IBN election tracker, historian Ramchandra Guha repeatedly made the point that the Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha is a serious prime ministerial aspirant.

Leave aside the larger debate for a moment and consider this: Would Jayalalitha really want to be the Prime Minister in 2014?

As the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha rules over one of the richest states in the Indian union. She is virtually unchallanged within her party—for all practical purposes, AIADMK is one woman formation. The political opposition remains weak with Karunanidhi unable to reconcile the vast interests of his extended family. Tamil Nadu’s growing economy presents substantial opportunities for rent extraction.

Contrast that with what Prime Minister Jayalalitha would encounter in New Delhi: A disparate coalition with multiple leaders all pulling in different directions. And whether the Third Front is propped up by the Congress or the BJP, she would be virtually at their mercy and susceptible to constant blackmail. And if the past is any indicator, the Third Front government is anyways unlikely to last more than two years.

On the other hand, a BJP government at the Centre is a virtual impossibility without the support of  Jayalalitha  who can then truly call the shots. Her policy interventions would be treated seriously and she would be in a position to extract financial packages which would likely benefit her at the local level. Remember how Bihar chief minsiter Nitish Kumar has forced the UPA government to revisit the criterion for ‘special status’ as a price for his support

A similar dynamic applies to the likes of Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik. It is unclear why would they willingly sacrifice their stranglehold in their respective states for an opportunity to become the Prime Minister of India for a year or two. Remember Deve Gowda?

What this really illustrates is how India has changed since the 1990s. No longer are state chief ministers beggars dependent upon the largesse of the Central government. Often they are absolute rulers within their fiefdoms with growing economies and an ability to hold the central government hostage. It would make little sense to sacrifice this and risk their political career for a short stint as the Prime Minister. In that sense, the idea of a Third Front as an entity to promote federalism may only have worked too well.

Would this logic apply to  Mualyam Singh Yadav? Perhaps not as he has already anointed his son as his successor in UP. However, Mayawati and Mulayam will veto each other and it is hard to imagine a Third Front government which is not supported by both the SP as well as the BSP. That leaves the wily Sharad Pawar but it is unclear that with eight or ten MPs he can truly be a serious contender for power in New Delhi.

The likelihood of a Third Front government in 2014 remains low. However, if such a formation is indeed forced upon India, we may witness the strange phenomena of regional leaders passing on the opportunity to become the Prime Minister.

Pahle aap rather than a mad scramble for power. Wouldn’t that be something?

The Sanjay Dutt Saga

A response to Justice Katju 

The Chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI) Justice Markandey Katju has penned a letter to the Maharashtra governor requesting that Sanjay Dutt be pardoned for his recent conviction by the Supreme Court in the 1993 Bombay blasts case. Justice Katju believes that Dutt should not be sent back to the prison—a point he has reiterated in multiple TV debates. So let’s look at the letter.

For example in the case of Commander Nanavati who was held guilty of murder, the Governor gave him pardon although the minimum sentence for murder is life sentence.

In the case of Sanjay Dutt, the Supreme Court has not found him guilty for the 1993 bomb blasts, but only found him guilty of having in his possession a prohibited weapon without license. Surely, this is a lesser offence than murder. When the Governor of Maharashtra granted pardon to Nanavati, surely he can grant pardon to Sanjay.

Continue Reading →

On The Wharton Saga

Debating Free Speech

In their op-ed in Business Standard, Vivek Deheija and Karuna Nundy argue,

So the Wharton affair isn’t at all comparable to, say, the cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s appearance at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival due to the presumed threat of violence from mobs gathering outside the venue. There is a world of difference between boycotts and peaceful protest on the one hand and thuggery and the threat of violence on the other. When mobs intimidate those with unpopular views and governments fail to guarantee individual freedom, it is threats of violence they are failing to address. No such threat was present or implied in this case.

Deheija and Nundy are broadly right. The University of Pennsylvania professors were well within their rights in protesting against the invitation to Mr. Modi; it was indeed an expression of free speech.

However, Deheija and Nundy may be guilty of being overtly influenced by how speech is impeded in India: Threats of violence followed by ‘spontaneous’ outrage. But among mature democracies, that is an exception rather than the rule. There are other less obvious ways in which expression can be curtailed.

Take for instance a Kashmiri separatist leader who may be unpopular because of his views and is invited to an Indian university. Leave aside the violence argument for a moment. The university may be forced to rescind its invitation due to popular opinion or because it is concerned that association with a controversial figure may delegitimize it in popular opinion. And there may be more insidious factors at work. For instance, the faculty may fear losing research grants and other support from the state especially if the government is opposed to that particular individual. So even without any threat of violence, speech can be chilled in many different ways. Legitimacy ultimately is a contested opinion. And we should be wary of those who claim to be arbiters of acceptable opinion.

That is why universities should always err on the side of more speech—and not less. Universities are a forum for learning and open discussion—they benefit from hearing diverse opinions some of whom may be disagreeable to large segments of the population. It is disconcerting and arguably harmful when universities fail to appreciate their important role in the larger social discourse.

Now, it is certainly true that University of Pennsylvania administration may deserve a larger share of the blame than the professors who, after all, were only exercising their right to protest. Nevertheless, as scholar Ashutosh Varshney correctly points out, even the professors failed to understand and appreciate the liberal milieu they inhabit and should further nurture.

More substantively, it would be difficult to sustain the view that there is only one correct way to respond to such a situation. Universities must weigh the benefits to the campus community of engaging with an interlocutor, perhaps one that is disliked by many, against the costs of so doing. In this case, allowing a keynote address on economic development by Mr Modi would involve legitimising, with honour and endorsement, a controversial and polarising figure.

Again, that is broadly correct. Nevertheless, let’s go back and think about Salman Rushdie. Indubitably, Mr. Rushdie is a highly controversial figure and is disliked by large segments of the Muslim population—and not just in India. In that case, couldn’t it be argued that by inviting Mr. Rushdie the Jaipur Literature Festival is ‘ legitimising, with honour and endorsement, a controversial and polarising figure?’  Taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that only non-controversial figure should be hosted otherwise there is a risk of legitimizing them by mere association. It is a dangerous argument with the potential to adversely affect free expression.  Surely, it can’t be Deheija and Nundy’s argument that literature festival and universities are merely an excuse for backslapping bonhomie—and not a platform for serious discussion and strong disagreements.

Or as Ashok Malik argues in The Hindu,

 It presumes that an American campus — likely one based on the East Coast or in Berkeley — is the international arbiter of decency, values and good taste and can, with the magisterial flick of a switch, turn off the intellectual oxygen for a disagreeable individual and render him a non-person. [link]

Further, Deheija and Nundy’s argument about the treatment meted out to President  Ahmadinejad by the Columbia University is a red herring. Why should any speech by Mr. Modi be immediately countered by his opponents and that too on the same platform? Indian and foreign newspapers frequently feature op-eds against Mr. Modi. They are under no obligation to give Mr. Modi’s supporters an equal opportunity  to critique the critics—and mostly they don’t. Or should each appearance by Salman Rushdie be balanced by a Muslim leader explaining why he finds his views so odious? This isn’t an exercise in free speech; it is political correctness masquerading as one! If anything, the farcical treatment of President  Ahmadinejad (a most disagreeable man!) by the Columbia University itself illustrated how speech can be inhibited by factors others than violence.

Finally, this isn’t really about Mr. Modi. As a powerful chief minister and a prospective prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Modi has ample opportunities to exercise his right to free speech. But some other equally controversial figures may not enjoy the bully pulpit which is Mr. Modi’s privilege. And that should worry those who uphold free speech not only as a right but as an ennobling feature of democratic discourse.

What Makes Modi Unacceptable

In the Outlook

In a piece in Outlook, I argue,

In a multi-ethnic/religious country like India, no leader can perhaps command the support of all communities but he must not attract the implacable hostility of India’s largest minority. For instance, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee may not have enjoyed widespread support among Muslims but was not treated as an enemy either. Call it what you will, but it is this ‘Muslim veto’  which makes Modi unacceptable as India’s next leader. This may disappoint those who place their faith unflinchingly in the power of the individual. But as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued, even some of the founding fathers agreed that any concept of citizenship which distances itself completely from religious identity would be untenable in India. Communitarianism is a sociological reality in India and while there is always the danger of it degenerating into narrow sectarianism, its political effects simply cannot be ignored.

Whether it makes Modi unelectable as NDA/BJP’s putative leader is another story. Nevertheless, India can survive poor governance for the next few years but what it cannot survive is the further estrangement of its Muslim minority. Even if the promise of a high Modi-led growth is accepted at its face value, it is simply not worth risking the fraying of India’s multiple fault lines.  [link]


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