Elections 2019: 'Narendra Modi stands a 50 per cent chance'
If numbers, stats and incumbency make you wonder which way the LS polls are headed, psephologists Dr Prannoy Roy and Dorab R Sopariwala share in a new book how to make sense of the chaos
When Dr Prannoy Roy responds to our questions over email, he tells us the edits have been made on "the bumpiest road I have ever been on, between Gorakhpur and Varanasi". For the last few days, the veteran journalist, synonymous with psephology in India, has been navigating the length and breadth of Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, doing what everyone knows he does best. His most recent interview was with Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and wife Dimple Yadav, who spoke to him about their decision to not take the Congress along.
"This is the most exciting and important election we have ever analysed. The problem is we seem to say the same thing before every election," he shares with us. Yet, his new book, The Verdict (Penguin Random House), which he has co-authored with election expert Dorab R Sopariwala, which uses rigorous psephology and original research, reveals why we are at the cusp of something huge.
The authors tell us why numbers - of all kinds - will be crucial to this election. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Like most Lok Sabha elections, this one is also going to be important. Yet, as you cite in the book, "you don't recall ever" seeing this level of interest in the election outcome. Why do you think this is the case?
In all our recent election travels, during which we speak to voters, it's clear that they believe that this could be "the most important election of their lifetime" (to paraphrase Barack Obama). Not only is the future of many major leaders at stake, the continued existence of some major parties could be determined by which way this election swings. It is also the clash of diametrically opposing ideologies. The amazing interest in this election is because voters view it as India traversing along a sharp ridge - and whether India will slide down one way or the other.
Moreover, an increasingly shrill media with 400-odd 24x7 news channels - partisan like never before - is raising adrenaline levels. And, the ubiquitous social media is adding to the tension. Just go back five years, we had probably half the mobile phones that we have today. And Facebook and WhatsApp were relatively new in India in 2014 and not many had access to them.
Today, we probably have amongst the largest number of users in the world of these two social media platforms. And finally, there is Fake News on a scale that we have never seen before. When you are bombarded day in and day out by these forces, it's little wonder that the interest in elections is so high.
In The Verdict, you write about how we are now in the wiser-voter phase, where flamboyance and charisma of a leader are secondary to winning an election. But, showmanship seems to be the order of the day. How discerning is the voter?
Voters are discerning in a way that matters to them. You may make promises and announcements of beneficial policies. But to the individual voter, the question is: Is it making a difference to my life? Is it making life easier and better for me and my family? Showmanship does not make the kind of difference it did earlier - it is the icing on the cake - and not the cake. In an earlier era, the politicians believed that the icing was the cake. Now, to their cost, they know that it is not.
Would you say the women voter turnout, which has risen significantly (it was higher than that of men in the state Assembly elections), might prove to be a game-changer?
Firstly, numerically, they have become much more important as their turnout has increased substantially over the years. This year, it will probably overtake the turnout of men. Secondly, research over the years shows that women are voting not as appendages of the men folk in their houses and are voting independently. Just recently, we met a man in Lucknow who told us that while he would vote for party X, his wife was voting for party Y and his parents for party Z. And each of them had a cogent independent reason for the choice.
Traditionally, the BJP doesn't enjoy a high support base amongst women. Could pro-women policies, introduced over the years, make a difference?
Yes. Traditionally, BJP has had a higher support base among men than women. But they have realised that as women start making independent decisions and their turnout increases, they need to focus their efforts on this so far neglected sector. Policies such as free gas cylinders to poor households is one such policy and there will surely be more for women in their manifesto.
You make a particular reference to the 21 million missing women voters, calling it the biggest shame of 2019.
Not only is this denying women the right to vote the biggest scandal of our democracy - what is noticeable that these failures are much greater in the Hindi belt than in the South. And, to have an average of 80,000 women missing in every Lok Sabha constituency in Uttar Pradesh is totally unacceptable and frankly outrageous in our democracy. Well, the Election Commission (EC) makes sincere efforts to register all individuals over 18 years of age. But the task of administering this policy is in the hands of the state authorities. Then there are social norms such as reluctance to be photographed or giving out a woman's age that may, in some cases, affect the registration process. The "dark arts of voter suppression" is a worrying new trend in the west. Perhaps, we need to investigate if it has reached Indian shores yet!
We are, as the book mentions, in the fifty-fifty era (a 50:50 chance of ruling governments being re-elected), where anti-incumbency no longer governs the fate of elections. You describe it as reassuring for the ruling government.
Fifty-Fifty means you have a 50 per cent chance of being re-elected. Not a 100 percent chance! In the anti-incumbency era between 1977 and 2002 there was only a 30 per cent chance of being re-elected [for the ruling government]. To your question: "does the BJP have anything to worry about?," an increase from 30 to 50 per cent chance of coming back is good news for Mr Modi. However, this is only the underlying probability of winning - each election has a number of key factors that disrupt the underlying 50 per cent. By the way, even this improved 50 per cent chance of being re-elected is very low by global standards. In the US for instance, there is pro-incumbency with an 80 per cent chance of being re-elected.
You have set the record straight about EVMs, expressing your confidence in it. What, according to you, is the biggest advantage of the EVM machine in our elections?
The biggest advantage probably is that it has done away with the menace of booth capturing. EVMs have also helped modernise and streamline the process of voting and counting, making it more efficient. The most important aspect of India's EVM's is that they are not connected in any way to the Internet, which makes hacking EVMs extremely difficult. In fact, EVMs don't even have WiFi or Bluetooth. However, there is a widespread credibility gap that EVMs are facing. This may be unjustified, but it exists. To overcome this credibility crisis, it is important to double check the EVM's electronic tally by counting a large sample of VVPAT paper trail votes.
The opinion polls with an impressive 97 per cent strike rate, is not something to be ignored. But what should a voter keep in mind, when going through these 'forecasts'?
The voter should look at the track record of the polling agency, check whether it has given data on sample size and spread, has used an acceptable methodology, etc. But, it is a fact that while the opinion poll strike rate is very high, i.e. getting the winner right, the strike rate of getting the forecast of the number of seats right is not so good.
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