Numbers have stories to tell, but they need a mediator. This book plays that role, and unwraps many a fascinating but hidden story behind the stale and often intimidating numbers and tables on Indian elections over decades. But The Verdict is not only that. Besides number-crunching, it is also anecdotal, and in part, a political history of the country.
It is also a How To guide — whether you are an election junkie or dummy, this book might help you prepare for the counting day better. “On counting day, beware of the bump at the end!” It coaxes you to try your hand at election forecasting. It has a dose of Lutyen’s Delhi’s gossip — a cabinet minister who remains unnamed in the book once told a Doordarshan director to broadcast a particular Bollywood song for the benefit of guests at his party, apparently, by delaying the news by five minutes!
This also has some interesting trivia: for instance, between 1952 and 1998, paper ballots in Indian elections cost at least a million trees. How many trees have been saved after India moved to electronic voting machines? You could use the numbers in this book to make a calculation.
Talking of Electronic Voting Machines, the authors are supremely confident that they cannot be tampered with. In a different context, they point out one hazard — the machines are fixed to particular booths, the political leaning of which will be revealed at counting. Paper ballots from all booths were mixed before counting in the pre-EVM days.
The book helps us understand the evolving nature of the Indian electorate and its politics in both the long term and the more immediate perspective. A naive optimism and public trust in politicians led to repeated re-election of incumbents in the early phase of the republic, followed by frustration and anger leading to incumbents being voted out furiously. The pro-incumbency period transitioned to anti-incumbency in 1977 and continued until 2002.
Now we are living in the Fifty-Fifty Era, the authors tell us, which is not pro- or anti-incumbency. The authors offer a qualitative explanation for this phenomenon — governments which perform are re-elected and those that don’t are rejected. “Voters, now smarter, see through all that ostentatious showmanship (of politicians)… What is more important for the electorate’s vote is that the leader must be a ‘doer’, and indeed, a quietly competent administrator is preferable to just flamboyance,” the authors write. Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, Manik Sarkar of Tripura and Narendra Modi in Gujarat are examples cited in this context.
It is unclear whether the increasing and disturbing marginalisation of Muslims — as numbers establish in another section of the book — is in any way linked to any increasing smartness of Indian voters. “In fact, Muslim under-representation has got significantly worse during the latest, third phase (2002-2019,” the authors say. Numbers do tell stories, but they might be telling them in fragments, perhaps?
A pollster’s nightmare
The authors, who pioneered election surveys and forecasting in India in the 1980s with support from India Today’s owner-editor Arun Poorie, remain a team till date, continuously fine-tuning their tools and the craft along the way. Indian elections are not easy to predict for multiple reasons and people are not always forthcoming.
The global standard for canvassing opinion — that the surveyor must not engage the voter in any pep talk before asking prescribed questions — does not work in India, they have figured out.
To get truthful answers, an average Indian voter needs some cajoling. The storied diversity of India is a pollster’s nightmare, and Malayalis are her worst tormentors, followed by the Bengalis, we learn. An average survey interview is 20 minutes, but in Kerala it could take up to an hour! The ever sceptical Malayali will interview the surveyor first and even suggest that his questions could be framed better. If you ever thought Indian elections are madness, this book explains its methods — through tables, graphs and, of course, prose.
The Verdict; Prannoy Roy & Dorab R. Sopariwala, Penguin Random House, ₹599.