Politics

Indian Elections: Honest Forecasting Versus Svengali Psephology

Venu Gopal Narayanan

May 18, 2024, 12:21 PM | Updated 12:21 PM IST


According to Yogendra Yadav, the BJP will fail to cross the halfway mark of 272 by 40 seats. (Photo: Yogendra Yadav/Facebook)
According to Yogendra Yadav, the BJP will fail to cross the halfway mark of 272 by 40 seats. (Photo: Yogendra Yadav/Facebook)
  • There's a difference between making a prediction and trying to set a political narrative.
  • Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav recently predicted that his party, and its ally, the Congress, will win 79 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh.

    No one took him seriously, and no one questioned him on the true value of his forecast, because no one needed to. After all, Yadav himself knows that, leave aside winning 79 seats, the chances of his alliance winning even seven to nine seats are moderate to poor.

    Instead, everyone laughed, since it was election season: a time when extremely silly, bombastic rhetoric is the flavour du jour. Statements like Yadav’s are not meant to be taken seriously. We know it, he knows it, and he knows that we know that he knows!

    Slightly lower down on the bombast scale is everyone’s favourite ultracrepidarian, Dr Shashi Tharoor, who declaimed with a fashionable flick of his famous forelock that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will struggle to win 200 seats.

    Thank goodness the man was only thinking, by his own admission, with his gut; any further downstream on the alimentary canal, like the business end of the sigmoid colon, for example, and a shell-shocked BJP would have been reduced to single digits. Anatomy is destiny.

    Again, people laughed and went back to watching the Indian Premier League (IPL), because the probability of Tharoor's predicted electoral outcome is lower than the chances of Ukraine defeating Russia in war.

    Then there is the wishful-thinking school of electoral analysis. Case in point: a recent article in a left-leaning newspaper of record. Penned by two prominent voices from the usual circles, it showcases the admirably high quality of rigorous scientific investigations and deductions adopted by this school: random quotes from a few people in Uttar Pradesh are strung together to infer that a vast consolidation of Muslims and selected communities, like Kurmis, is taking place in the secular ranks because of social media messaging, with heavy electoral benefits accruing to a Congress-led opposition.

    The conclusion derived by the two writers from this intensely technical exercise is to die for: “If Congress wins this election, it will be because of Dhruv Rathee.” ‘Nuff said!

    But the laughing stops when a Marxist academician and self-styled psephologist trots out state-wise seat predictions and authoritatively claims that the BJP will fail to cross the halfway mark of 272 by 40 seats, and that the BJP plus allies would fall short of the magic number by a few seats.

    Per the prediction, the BJP and its allies are losing 10 seats in Karnataka (from what they had won in 2019), losing 10 more in Maharashtra, 10 in Gujarat plus Rajasthan, 10 in the Delhi-Punjab belt, 15 in Uttar Pradesh plus Uttarakhand, 15 in Bihar, and so on.

    Oddly, this prediction is not based on surveys, but on personal visits to various states and “35 years of experience in studying elections.”

    Are we really supposed to believe that the truly diverse, and extremely subtle, local political conditions that mark this land can be reconciled and tallied up so easily without the support of opinion polls?

    How can anyone quantify the qualitative in such detail, and representatively, without opinion poll data?

    Accurate or not, all major media houses and political parties mandatorily run detailed surveys, often more than once, precisely in order to numerically gauge the public mood and to infer voting patterns. It is the bedrock of electoral quantification. Instead of that exercise, we are now supposed to accept state-wise outcomes without any statistical basis.

    Moreover, while this prediction offers seat numbers, it does not provide vote shares. This is putting the cart before the horse, since anyone with “35 years of experience in studying elections” would know that seat numbers are derived from vote shares using proprietary vote-to-seat conversion curves and not the other way round. It is an elaborate exercise where multiple variables have to be reconciled.

    Indeed, this writer has consistently maintained that seat forecasts sans vote shares are meaningless.

    The questions ask themselves: how can the BJP lose so many seats in India’s largest state when it has a new ally in the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), when its vote share is projected to go up, when the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is contesting on its own, and, consequently, when the index of opposition unity is far lower than what it was in 2019?

    If so, then what is the actual objective of this so-called prediction that says the BJP will fall short of the majority mark by a fair bit? The answer is simple: it is not a prediction but a political narrative.

    The grave losses forecasted for the BJP are not, in fact, outlandish, but devious. Its ulterior motives are clear as day: to insidiously plant the thought in as many voters’ minds as possible that if the BJP is not doing well, then it makes sense to vote for the opposition instead.

    This is not honest psephology; it is Svengali politics. And readers must appreciate the difference. Because come counting day, when the results contradict this forecast with such force that it is forthwith consigned to the scrapheap, they should also realise that whatever credibility was earned through “35 years of experience in studying elections” has turned to mud, as well.


    Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.

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