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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 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?

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]


On Shinde’s Hindu Terror Remarks

This isn’t about BJP’s hurt feelings! 

Media reports suggest that Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde would offer regrets for his infamous ‘Hindu Terror’ remarks delivered at the Congress party’s Chintan Shivir in Jaipur. While it is unclear that if a full apology is in the offing, a statement acceptable to the BJP is likely to be delivered by the Home Minister. Apparently, the Home Minister is motivated by a desire to avoid the disruption of the budget session of the Indian parliament.

So all fine and dandy? Hardly. In his comments at Jaipur’s Chintan Shivir, Shinde had not only commented on the involvement of some Hindus in terror incidents in places like Malegaon and Hyderabad but had specifically alleged that BJP and RSS were running training camps to spread saffron terror across the country. That is an extremely serious charge as it suggests that the country’s largest opposition party is virtually a terror organization. This is a far more serious allegation than indirectly linking some of the alleged Hindu terrorists like Sadhvi Pragya to RSS and its affiliated units.

Let’s not beat around the bush here. There is a deep and abiding distrust among Indian Muslims for the BJP and its ideological fountainhead: RSS. On similar lines, among Muslim intelligentsia and thought leaders, it is widely believed that the Indian state is intrinsically unfair to its largest minority. In often impassioned speeches and opinion columns, it is argued that Muslim youth have been falsely accused  and arrested in terror attacks. The cases in Malegaon and Hyderabad where innocent Muslims were implicated in the terror incidents before the role of Hindu extremists was exposed lend further credence to these charges. It would be no exaggeration to state that many Muslims believe that Hindu extremists are behind virtually every terror attack India has witnessed in the last few years. Indeed, it may not be politically correct to explicitly state it any longer  but a section of Muslim intelligentsia believes that there is some deep mystery behind the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 and the unfortunate death of Hemant Karkare was no accident. There is a deep and simmering discontent among Muslims and India’s leaders would be very unwise to ignore it.

Indeed, among Muslim opinion-makers, Shinde’s comments on the terror antecedents of BJP/RSS were widely seen as a vindication. Here was a leader who was not afraid of calling a spade a spade. Who finally articulated what Urdu newspapers had been arguing for years.  And how would Shinde’s capitulation be received in such circles?: That the ‘Hindu India’ had again managed to marginalize a truly secular leader who was not afraid of speaking truth to the power. Irrespective of the contents of Shinde’s regret, it is only likely to further exacerbate the growing divide between the Indian state and the average Muslims.

And can they really be blamed in this particular episode? After all, if a person as responsible as the country’s home minister charges the main opposition party with blatantly encouraging terrorism, what should be the next logical step? That its leaders should be hauled to the jail while the party itself is banned. Instead, he has now decided to express regrets. Isn’t the Indian state in that case directly complicit in encouraging Hindu terrorism?

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time the Congress party has played a similar game. During 2012 UP assembly elections, Digvijay Singh repeatedly alleged that Batla House encounter was staged and had promised an inquiry. In his eagerness to court Muslim votes, Digvijay Singh completely ignored the fact that a decorated police officer had died in that incident which happened under the auspices of Congress governments both at the central as well as the state level.  And what has happened to the inquiry now? Unfortunately, this is now virtually a race to the bottom in which the Congress party and other ‘secular’ formations compete to fan the flames of Muslim disenchantment.

This sorry episode calls for an introspection for all the parties concerned. The BJP should think about why the average Muslim is so ready to believe terror charges leveled against the country’s second largest party? What explains the trust deficit between the party and the Muslims? And what has the BJP done to address it? Surely, a party which ardently believes that it is a serious contender for political power should worry that it attracts the hostility of India’s most significant minority. Shouldn’t it worry that individuals who appear to be at least tangentially linked to RSS are accused of killing innocent Indians? The opinion makers in the Muslim community should evaluate if destroying the already tenuous trust in the Indian state would really serve the community’s interests. And if ignoring the extremist elements within the Muslim ranks is really the ideal way forward.  And Congress party should introspect if encouraging Muslim sectarianism is really the best way to preserve secularism and seriously think about the threats it poses to the long-term security and stability of India. And indeed to its own political relevance. After all, if Muslims conclude that the Indian state is inherently unfair to them why would they trust its most visible representative?

There are no winners here. There is only one loser though and that is the idea of India.


The Great Indian Middle Class Awakening

And the pit-falls ahead 

In my column in The Wall Street Journal, I examine the recent protests against the brutal rape-cum murder of a medical student in New Delhi,

So it’s worth paying attention when this important section of society realizes it has a stake in the state’s performance. Some of this was apparent in the anticorruption movement that began in late 2010, when activist Anna Hazaretapped into the middle class’s frustrations about pervasive corruption.

Last month’s incident in Delhi is perhaps a bigger moment. Housewives and office-goers understand that while they may be secure in their homes and offices, they still require a strong and accountable police force to protect them on the streets. The recent protests underline that India needs a strong but limited state, an entity which does fewer things but does them well. [link]

Read the rest on The Wall Street Journal. (subscription required)

On the Delhi Gang-Rape

Before blaming the police, let’s try to understand the context in which they operate

The brutal gang-rape and the subsequent death of a Delhi medical student have grabbed the national headlines over the last couple of weeks. There has been a sense of outrage amongst a section of the urban middle class* and it has renewed the  focus on gender and sexual violence which is all too common in India. Naturally, Delhi Police has come in for severe criticism not only for its apparent mishandling of the protests but also for its alleged failure to prevent the incident itself.

For instance, critics have pointed out that the bus with its heavily drawn curtains passed through no less than five check points, and yet no one bothered to stop it. Considering the general level of corruption in Indian police, it is entirely conceivable that this happened because the local cops were on the take. They were simply not interested in their policing duties busy as they were in ensuring that their ‘accounts’ were in order. This argument clearly suggests that if Delhi Police was not corrupt, it could have possibly prevented this terrible incident.

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