On getting elections right and getting them wrong

 

Pro-BJP trolls on Twitter keep saying I’ve got no election right. Ever. 

The accusation is made repeatedly to delegitimise my reporting and views on elections. So here are some elections I’ve got right: 

Uttar Pradesh assembly election 2007: “The BSP is hoping not just to form a coalition government but one that lasts five years.” 

Bihar assembly election 2015: “Based on recent travels in Bihar, here is this writer’s admittedly subjective view of why the Grand Alliance’s prospects look better than the NDA’s in Bihar.” https://shivamvij.in/2015/10/12/10-reasons-why-the-grand-alliance-is-doing-better-than-the-nda-in-bihar/

Karnataka assembly elections 2018: “Perhaps there is a hawa — the hawa of a hung assembly. The perception that a hung assembly is likely might just result in one.” 

Gujarat assembly election 2017: Anger against the BJP will not turn into a victory for the Congress. 

Telangana assembly election 2018: “There are two reasons why the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) could overcome the arithmetic advantage of the opposition.”

In the Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2017, I did a deep dive into Kasganj, the state’s bellwether constituency, and clearly found the BJP was likely to win the bellwether seat.

Despite what bellwether Kasganj said, I wrote like many others there was no wave in UP and I stand by it. There was instead an undercurrent for the BJP, because a wave screams at you. But I did write on 22 Feb 2017: “The lotus could be blooming.”

Most recently, I stuck my neck out on 7 December 2018 to say the BJP was not going to win a single state on 11 December – not even Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh – and I did so even before the exit polls were out.

Only fools try to predict elections and one inevitably falls into the trap. There are very few people, if any, who get all elections right. Politicians and parties themselves get their assessments wrong. So-called scientific opinion and exit polls often get them wrong. And so do I. Most embarrassingly, I felt Mayawati would prevent the BJP from doing too well in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. That is what happens when you don’t travel and don’t talk to voters and theorise from Delhi.

One of my greatest regrets is to not have travelled in the 2014 elections. I was instead sitting on the desk and working my ass off to help a brand new website establish itself.  One of the reporters of this new site felt the BJP would win only 9 seats in Bihar, something that trolls wrongly attribute to me. I am also wrongly given the flak for another reporter who travelled by train from Assam to Kashmir and couldn’t see the Modi wave anywhere!

About the important Phulpur Lok Sabha by-poll in 2018, I wrote the BJP could win. I got it wrong because I didn’t speak to too many upper caste voters, presuming they will vote for the BJP anyway. As it turned out, they didn’t turn out to vote! Nevertheless, here’s the key thing I got right in Phulpur: the BSP’s Dalit voters were happy to vote for the SP.

The BJP and its organised troll armies make your life hell if you suggest the BJP is losing and it wins instead. I know journalists who maintain the default position “BJP is winning” only because they fear the consequences of saying “BJP is losing” when the BJP does win. There is at least one journalist who lost a job under BJP pressure only because she got an election wrong in this manner. Is it really a big deal to express one’s sense of an election to find out one was wrong?

Such is the fear of saying “BJP is losing” and getting it wrong that one news channels had dropped its Bihar 2015 exit poll because the numbers for the BJP looked too bad. That was the only exit poll that turned out to be right! I’m told the BJP’s organised troll armies have folders on liberal journos so whenever a liberal journo says anything against BJP/RSS/Hindutva, the folder is opened and the key words come out. Among them is “you never get an election right”. 

It’s okay to get elections wrong because it’s a pretty damn tough thing to get them right, for many reasons. One reason people don’t appreciate enough that public mood can and does change over the course of the campaign, from phase to phase. Many top editors, especially in news channels, have an easier time getting elections right because they have access to exit poll data collected during phases. The putting out of such data is prohibited by the Election Commission before the last phase.

It is not the reporter’s job to predict elections but it is the media’s job to gauge and reflect public mood around an election. This is incredibly important for democracy for many reasons. It’s important to know why people are voting the way they are. If, for instance, there’s a controversy about elections being rigged, you will need the media’s documented sense of the election as a reference point.

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Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point

(First published in HuffPo, 16 November 2015.)

Home minister Rajnath Singh, himself a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has this to say on the BJP’s resounding defeat in Bihar: “Victory and defeat are part of the democratic process. We had won elections in the past, we had lost elections in the past. We will not do justice to future if we decide future only on the basis of one elections.”

The top leadership of the BJP is playing down the Bihar defeat. The opponents came together, they say. We lost to their caste arithmetic. It’s just one election. We still got a good vote-share. Continue reading “Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point”

Why Pakistan Won’t Burst Crackers if BJP Loses Bihar

(First published in NDTV, 31 October 2015.)

In an election address in Bihar yesterday, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election Chanakya and president expressed concern about crackers in Pakistan. “Even if by mistake,” he said, and repeated the caveat, “should the BJP lose Bihar, there will be fireworks in Pakistan. Would you like that?”

By now I don’t know what the BJP is seeking votes in Bihar for: for the Ganga of development to flow in the state, to ban cow slaughter which has already been banned here since 1955, to save or disturb affirmative action for the lower castes, or to prevent fireworks in Pakistan.

Let us take his statement at face value for a moment, and not infer it to mean that Muslims in Bihar would happy to see the BJP lose.

Amit Shah’s concern over firecrackers in Pakistan not only reveals his anxiety over the numbers that November 8, counting day, will throw up, but also what he thinks the BJP represents in Pakistan. He seems to suggest that Pakistan likes the BJP to be out of power in India. This is not true.

The truth is, many in Pakistan were looking forward to Narendra Modi becoming prime minister. If you look at media coverage from Pakistan around the 2014 general elections, it was quite positive.

For one, many Pakistanis think the BJP is better placed for an India-Pakistan detente. As a right-wing party, it whips up nationalist paranoia when the Congress tries to do the same. Liberal Pakistanis fondly remember how Atal Bihari Vajpayee was able to push India-Pakistan peace, both before and after Kargil. The Congress’ Dr Manmohan Singh didn’t even have the support of his own party to pursue peace with Pakistan beyond a point.

Secondly, the trade lobby in Pakistan thought that Narendra Modi, like Nawaz Sharif, was more openly for laissez faire than the Congress was, and would thus be good news for India-Pakistan trade.

These hopes haven’t come true, because they were silly in the first place. For liberal Pakistanis to think the Indian right-wing in power is good for crossing the Wagah border is akin to Indians loving General Pervez Musharraf in power.

Thirdly and most importantly, Modi’s ascent has been the best news for the Pakistani right-wing. Why just right-wing, even a liberal Pakistani friend told me why he was happy to see Modi take the prime minister’s office. “India’s secular mask needed to go,” he said. “India pretended to be this secular country and Pakistan looked bad in contrast.”

It goes further. Pakistan’s formative idea is the two-nation theory, the idea that Hindus and Muslims are not just separate communities but separate nations, deserving their own nation states. It’s an idea whose polar opposite is Indian secularism, which sees Hindus, Muslims and everyone else co-existing together, with no state discrimination on account of religion.

So why would Pakistan be unhappy to see the rise of the BJP and the discrediting, indeed disavowal, of Indian secularism?

When an Akhlaq is murdered on false beef rumours, Pakistanis feel vindicated. When BJP leaders and ministers justify the incident – it was an accident, cow slaughter hurts sentiments, etc, – it proves for Pakistanis the rationale of the two-nation theory. That without their own country, Pakistanis would have been facing bans on cow meat, and getting lynched even if they were eating mutton.

The RSS-BJP’s clear agenda is to make Indian Muslims second class citizens, one election at a time, which is exactly what Jinnah said he feared, except he feared it from the Congress!

The Hindu right likes to provoke neighbouring countries with the idea of a Greater India, Akhand Bharat, but if you sit down and ask, they don’t think Partition was such a bad thing. Partition reduced the proportion of Muslim population vis-a-vis Hindus, how could it be a bad thing?

“Narendra Modi is the best thing that could have happened to Pakistan,” veteran Pakistani journalist Ayaz Amir wrote recently. “He is making India look like General Zia’s Pakistan. Can there be a bigger favour to Pakistan than that?” he asked.

He writes what India looks like from Pakistan these days: “Assaults on liberalism, threats to free speech, people killed because of their beliefs or what they stand for, hate and bigotry on the loose, extreme expressions of religiosity, indeed religion entering the political discourse like never before…these were things that were supposed to happen in Pakistan.”

“Narendra Modi is a godsend to Pakistan. More power to Hindutva,” Ayaz Amir writes. Amit Shah should read his column to realise Pakistanis would actually burst crackers not if the BJP loses Bihar, but if it wins Bihar.

No matter who wins Bihar, the falling depths of the BJP’s communalised campaign have already made India lose some of its claim to moral superiority over Pakistan.

Pakistanis won’t need to wait till 8 November to say, in Fahmida Riaz’s words:

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
ab tak kahaan chhupe thay bhai

(You turned out to be just like us
where were you hiding all this while).

After travelling hundreds of kilometres in Bihar, a reporter’s diary on why Modi lost

(First published in Quartz, 8 November 2015.)

Patna, Bihar

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost a key, prized state election in Bihar. His party’s alliance had done stupendously well in the state in the general elections in 2014, winning three-fourths of the seats. But, in the state elections, the incumbent tied up a better coalition.

The BJP had hoped to transform its 2014 victory into a 2015 win in a state that it has never directly ruled. They had hoped that the Modi government’s performance would be appreciated and applauded by voters in the state, who would thus reward them with a chance at the state level, too.

This has not turned out to be the case. The BJP told voters that the same party ruling the centre and the state would be ideal for Bihar’s development. But voters have clearly rejected the idea, giving the incumbent alliance a two-thirds majority. Why?

Travelling hundreds of kilometres to different corners of Bihar this election, I met many voters expressing disenchantment with the Modi government. Referendum is a strong word, but voters were clear in judging the BJP’s campaign with its performance so far at the centre.

Voters complained, most of all, of food inflation. Thanks to falling oil prices, overall inflation has been under control since Modi became India’s prime minister. But rising prices of certain food products have pushed the retail inflation higher in the last few months. In the middle of the campaign, the prices of arhar dal—split red legume—shot through the roof, becoming a campaign issue.

Voters also complained that the Modi government had reduced funds in social welfare schemes, particularly the Indira Awas Yojana, a scheme to help build pucca houses for the rural poor. They were also unhappy over funds drying up in a rural employment guarantee programme and a food subsidy programme, as well as reduction of the minimum support price for farmers.

“Modi is good for the country. Perhaps he is good for the cities. But he is not good for the villages,” said a wealthy farmer in West Champaran, near the India-Nepal border.

Taking the government’s focus away from poverty alleviation programmes is an article of faith for Modi’s government. When his key aide, Amit Shah, took over as president of the BJP, he said in his acceptance speech:

“We have to understand that the entire emphasis of the Congress-UPA government was on entitlement-based policies. They believed in entitlement first and empowerment later. In our thinking, empowerment has to come first and entitlement would naturally follow. We do believe that people have right to good governance. But more importantly, first and foremost it is the duty of the government to give good governance. Using rights as a vote catching gimmick is just unacceptable to us. We believe that neither framing of an act nor an agitation by the people is required for them to get their rights. It is our considered opinion that we have to create conditions in such a manner that people automatically get their rights.”

The unequivocal response from Bihar’s voters is that the Modi government needs to rethink this formulation of entitlement versus empowerment.

There were many voters across castes, and even some Muslims, who said they had voted for Modi in the 2014 general elections, partly because they needed to oust the Congress government, and partly because Modi showed them hope. Now, they said, they were losing hope. Voters expressing this sentiment insisted that they didn’t care about caste.

Even those who said they were voting for the BJP again, who came mainly from the upper castes, said that food inflation was a problem. Meanwhile, they struggled to name Modi’s biggest achievement as prime minister. “He has improved India’s stature before the world,” they said, and soon became defensive about the prime minister’s frequent foreign trips.

It can easily be said that the Bihar results are a reflection on Modi’s government in New Delhi, because Modi himself campaigned extensively in Bihar, telling voters about his achievements as prime minister so far. He spoke, for instance, of signing up hydropower projects with neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan, which would bring electricity to Bihar. He also spoke of the Jan Dhan Yojana, an effort at banking inclusion, which has so far given bank accounts to 190 million citizens for the first time.

However, poor voters complained that they had queued to sign up for the bank accounts under the impression that they would get money from the Modi government into those accounts. The impression was fed further by the opposition parties, who went around Bihar showing voters a video of Modi from the 2014 campaign. In the video, Modi was seen telling voters that they could get Rs15 lakh ($22,700) each if he managed to bring back India’s black money stashed abroad.

It is important to consider the points voters across Bihar have told me. For the next few days, there will be a lot of commentary on the Bihar results, on the arithmetic of caste and religion, on personality clashes and vote share percentages, but most will miss the voice of the electorate.

Our political pandit-ji: A profile of Prashant Kishor

(First published in Mumbai Mirror, 6 March 2016.)

After an incident of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab last year, the Congress legislator for Khadoor Sahib in Taran Taran resigned. A by-poll was held. The Aam Aadmi Party, which has taken Punjab by storm, said it wouldn’t contest. The Congress party wasn’t sure if it should. What if it lost? Yet, not throwing a hat in the ring could be taken as a sign of weakness. Will Congress, won’t they, was a matter of political speculation in Punjab for many days. Continue reading “Our political pandit-ji: A profile of Prashant Kishor”

Why CNN-IBN Dropped Its Bihar Exit Poll

[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 6 November 2015.]

The CNN-IBN news channel had aired promos for its Bihar exit poll through last week. The exit polls, like counting days, are big for all news channels so this was not out of the ordinary. On Friday night though, as polls came to a close in the crucial battlefield of Bihar and every major television channel rolled out exit poll results, CNN IBN did not air the exit poll results it had promised viewers the previous week.

According to multiple sources in the channel, it decided to drop the poll due to inadequate explanations that were forthcoming from its polling partner, an agency called Axis APM. Its results forecast very high numbers for the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance, at 169-183. It said the BJP and its allies would get 58-70 and others would get 3-7. Continue reading “Why CNN-IBN Dropped Its Bihar Exit Poll”

Bihar’s Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?

By Shivam Vij

(First published in HuffPost India, 25 October 2015.)

First they said they have an OBC-EBC strategy. Then they gave away a large number of tickets to upper castes. Then they said their chief minister will be from amongst the backward castes. Now Amit Shah says it could be from upper castes or backwards, we’ll decide after the elections.

The BJP’s shifting, confused, botched up caste strategy in Bihar can best be described with the Hindi proverb, Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka. By now the party finds itself between a rock and a hard place, sending mixed signals and confusing all voters. Continue reading “Bihar’s Greatest Mystery: How Did BJP Let Its Caste Strategy Go So Awry?”

Why Red And Yellow Are Nitish-Lalu’s Colours This Bihar Election

(First published in HuffPost India, 20 October 2015.)

PATNA — The visuals of the Grand Alliance’s outdoor campaigning stand out not only for the lack of clutter, but also for their colours. The hoardings, the 300 raths traversing Bihar, the election stage–everything in the Grand Alliance’s election campaign in Bihar is blood red in colour. Some of the hoardings are yellow, and some of the early Nitish Kumar hoardings were in a bright multi-colour pattern that would have better suited a mobile phone advertisement. Continue reading “Why Red And Yellow Are Nitish-Lalu’s Colours This Bihar Election”

Yes, we clan: The sibling rivalry in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home

(First published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 August 2015.)

Photo via Twitter/Tej Pratap Yadav

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s official residence in Patna, 7 Deshratna Marg, is heavily guarded. People from across Bihar wait to be called in. They want their grievances addressed. Mobile jammers disable their phones, and men in uniform have a tough time controlling the crowd that is desperate to get in.

Only three houses away, at 10 Deshratna Marg, lives Lalu Prasad Yadav. Access here is easy. People seem to enter and leave with ease. All you have to do is name the person you want to meet. Lalu Yadav doesn’t give appointments to journalists. They simply walk in. Continue reading “Yes, we clan: The sibling rivalry in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home”

Amit Shah vs Prashant Kishor: Who will be wizard for forthcoming Bihar elections?

Firstpost, 20 July 2015

The forthcoming assembly election in Bihar is arguably the most important state election during Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister. Bihar’s result will have an impact on the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017. If the BJP is unable to fly its flag in Patna and Lucknow, it will have frittered away the chance to reap long-term benefits from the Modi wave of 2014.

The election will also be a litmus test for Amit Shah whose reputation as an electoral wizard has been dented considerably by the gargantuan AAP victory in Delhi. With so much at stake, the man in the BJP crosshairs, however, is not even a member of the JD(U). Continue reading “Amit Shah vs Prashant Kishor: Who will be wizard for forthcoming Bihar elections?”