Friday, August 30, 2013

A GROWING DISTORTION - The sinking rupee and black humour

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the mid-1970s, a small Left-wing publishing house in London produced a slim volume entitled The Big Red Joke Book to coincide with the Christmas sales. However, instead of the usual repertoire of anti-capitalist jokes, it was a scintillating collection of the black humour that resonated through the erstwhile Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact countries. The sharpness of the humour and the underlying note of profound disgust clearly suggested that all was not well in the socialist paradise.
Black humour has invariably served as a symbolic, but impotent, protest of people exasperated with their rulers. In totalitarian societies, they are probably the only instruments of subterfuge available to a disenfranchised people. However, when black humour starts assuming epidemic proportions in the democracies, they suggest a steady build-up of anger and frustration. Indeed, they are often more revealing of the public mood than the made-to-order opinion polls that are routinely trotted out in the media.
Over the past fortnight, as the Indian rupee defied the stern warnings of the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, and the silent stare of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and began its steep southward descent, the social media (which remains mercifully unregulated and insulated from the blandishments of the Bharat Nirman lollipops) has witnessed an epidemic of irreverence. On Rakshabandhan Day last week, it was suggested that the rupee should tie a rakhee to the US dollar with a plea: Mera raksha karo [Please protect me].
Nor is the parlous state of the national currency the only cause of concern. Earlier this week, the talk in the Central Hall of Parliament, arguably the capital’s most favoured destination for tittle-tattle and gossip, was all about an online petition to the prime minister imploring him to rename the state of Haryana Jamai-ka. It reminded me so much of the ditties around the Bofors gun that used to do the rounds in the last months of Rajiv Gandhi’s dispensation when the conventional wisdom of the chatterati was that the Congress would return to power with a ‘reduced majority’.
If the national disgust with a government that has made a proverbial dog’s breakfast of a promising economy, it may well be asked, is so profound, why is it not reflected in the media? Why was the focus so deftly shifted this week from the likely cost of the food security bill to the national exchequer, to 30-minute court bulletins on Sonia Gandhi’s well-being? Why wasn’t the United Progressive Alliance chairperson’s imperious comment about not being concerned where the money came from as long as it came buried in the fine print? Why wasn’t the finance minister’s pathetic attempt to palm off responsibility for the mess to his predecessor in Rashtrapati Bhavan not the subject of intense editorial scrutiny? Indeed, why are the UPA chairperson and the finance minister (but, curiously, not the prime minister) treated as holy cows? Why is the coverage of the Jamai- ka episode so perfunctory and mealy-mouthed, and why isn’t there a greater insistence on the Haryana government and a corporate house to be transparent?
The social media, particularly the hyper-activists on Twitter, would like us to believe that what are called the MSM (mainstream media) are horribly compromised and totally lacking in integrity. In the past, I used to discount these conspiracy theories as an unfortunate by-product of people who are unaware of how the media actually works. I still try to maintain my faith in the innate goodness of the Fourth Estate, but that is increasingly becoming an intellectual challenge.
In the past, the seamy underside of the media was most in evidence during elections. The issue was not of political bias. There is nothing resembling absolute objectivity in political reporting, and even the ‘quality’ publications of the most evolved democracies are never loath to reveal their subjective preferences, depending on their larger editorial world view. The problem was with a phenomenon that has come to be called ‘paid news’. You just have to talk to any politician involved in election planning to realize the pressure that is brought to bear upon parties and candidates to buy what are euphemistically called ‘packages’.
In plain language, this involves securing lavish and favourable coverage for a handsome consideration. Mercifully, the Election Commission has cottoned on to this blatant misuse of democratic freedoms and has driven the business of ‘paid news’ underground. But it still persists, and will continue to persist until the political class musters the courage to say, “Publish and be damned.”
In today’s depressed economic climate, the issue of subversion has assumed a different complexion. The media, contrary to public misconceptions of being a ‘mission’, is a commercial proposition and subject to the same laws of economics that govern other enterprises. The past three years have witnessed India’s growth rate plummeting from an encouraging eight per cent to below five per cent. This, coupled with the curtailment of liquidity and the rise in interest rates, has led to the assumptions on which the media based their future planning going totally awry. Some media houses have coped with the downturn through a combination of belt-tightening and an exploration of new opportunities. But others have not been so nifty in coping with adverse economic circumstances. They are in serious crisis resulting from over-extension and indebtedness. It is this dire predicament of the industry as a whole that has made it vulnerable to manipulation and pressure.
Let me illustrate the problem with an example from Delhi. The national capital boasts a multitude of daily newspapers in different languages. On my part, I subscribe to seven dailies and one is delivered to me free of charge. This Wednesday, which happened to be a public holiday on account of Janmashtami, I perused all eight of these Delhi editions for their advertisement content — the main revenue source for the print media. Four of the eight were entirely dependent on display or tender advertisements of either the government (both Central and state) or public-sector enterprises. Only three of the eight dailies had a healthy contribution of private sector advertisements in addition to the ones issued by State bodies.
The methodology of assessment may not be entirely scientific, but I think it indicates a growing distortion in the media: their over-dependence on subsidies from the State. Expressed more cynically it suggests that there is an increased willingness — perhaps involuntary and triggered by market conditions — to be more accommodative to the concerns of the government. And what is true for the print media is even more applicable to the electronic media, where news-gathering expenses are higher and the operating losses even more significant.
At one level, this crisis may lead to a greater corporatization of the media, a trend witnessed in other parts of the world. However, this is likely to be a long-drawn process and may even be resisted with restrictive government legislation. But, in the short term, we are likely to witness two parallel trends. First, there will be an increasing involvement of entrepreneurs who seek to use their stake in the media as a form of political leverage. This is already happening in the states and in mid-sized towns all over the country. Secondly, a beleaguered government will increasingly use its financial clout to influence both the tone of news dissemination and the hierarchy of what constitutes news.
In such a situation, black humour may well become a much more relevant index of the popular mood.

The Telegraph, September 29, 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Congress vs BJP? No, it's the establishment vs the outsider

By Swapan Dasgupta

In nine months, at the very latest, Indians will know whether the drive to catapult Narendra Modi from Gandhinagar to New Delhi has been successful or not. Indian elections being notoriously unpredictable, it is hazardous to predict the outcome of a national contest with any measure of surety. At this stage, before formal campaigning has begun, it is only possible to identify trends. But whether these trends will crystallize into definite voting patterns or be derailed by events are predictions best left to astrologers. Lesser beings can merely chronicle the flight path of politics.
The pitfalls of crystal ball gazing have, however, not prevented people with a stake in India's future from taking positions. With the anointment of Modi as the challengerin-chief to what he calls the 'Delhi Sultanate' , the air is thick with partisan interventions. For some social media enthusiasts, 'NaMo' is India's definitive answer to national underperformance. To the entrenched Durbar of Lutyens' Delhi, the interloper from Gujarat is more than a challenge to the dynasty: he promises not merely a change of government but a regime change.
In the past too incumbent governments have been threatened by alternative formations. In 1977, there were redoubtable Indians who seriously believed that the alternative to the Emergency was anarchy. In 1991 when the BJP arrived on the national scene riding on Lord Ram's chariot, a powerful section of the Establishment intelligentsia detected the sounds of stomping jackboots. Fascism, we were assured in the editorial pages, was just a block away.
For those familiar with the scaremongering that precede possibilities of change, the equation of Modi with the end of civilization as we know it isn't unique. Incumbents love to project alternatives as juju men. This, more so in India where a single party has dominated the Centre for 57 of the 66 years since Independence. A political dispensation, it should be remembered, isn't only made up of MPs and their favoured bureaucrats and police officers. Over the years the Congress has used its discretionary powers to accumulate considerable baggage. From those who sit on innumerable committees and acquire the status of Cabinet ministers to the lesser ones favoured with membership of advisory committees of public sector units and governing bodies of centrally-run educational bodies, the corridors are invariably crowded with people who survive on the extractive potential of their visiting cards. It is this parasitic class that are most threatened by the winds of change.
Yet, there is a significant difference between the fear that is taking shape today and the concerns that greeted the emergence of Atal Behari Vajpayee as the PM-inwaiting in 1997-98 . For one, Vajpayee was a Delhi insider. He may not have been in government (except for the two years of Janata Party rule) but he was a known commodity with strong cross-party connections. Secondly, Vajpayee was a Brahmin and was linked to India's most significant network of influence. Finally, in appointing Brajesh Mishra, a former diplomat with an impeccable Congress pedigree, as his principal secretary, Vajpayee sent out the clear message that he wasn't interested in unsettling the Establishment. Unlike President Ronald Reagan in the US, Vajpayee had no interest in nurturing a 'counter-Establishment'.
Modi is a different kettle of fish altogether. For a start, he is an outsider in the cosy political world of the Capital. He is not linked by the elaborate networks and cross connections that make Lutyens' Delhi an incestuous arrangement. He hasn't been sullied by the compromises and adjustments that are a feature of governance through entitlements. Modi neither possesses nor yearns for the old school tie; he is content being what he is. Despite long years as CM of Gujarat, he has not been co-opted by the Establishment. In fact, being a loner he doesn't really care whether or not the beautiful people find him acceptable or repugnant. After all, for the past 12 years they rarely if ever deemed it appropriate to woo him with awards for being the most reformist state or something similar.
The outcry over Modi's 'polarizing' agenda isn't really centred on a defence of the much-acclaimed 'idea of India' . It is essentially an expression of fear and apprehension over the rise of a leader who owes little or nothing to the Establishment. When the pundits decry him for being 'tasteless' in contesting the Prime Minister's monopoly over Independence Day and 'ruthless' in bulldozing the opposition to him inside the BJP, they are not necessarily passing aesthetic judgments. Modi's class and caste have become objects of derision for the entitled precisely because the old Establishment fears for its relevance. What we are witnessing is more than a Congress-BJP battle: a beleaguered Establishment is trying to ward off a social upheaval and the rise of an impatient, new class. 
Sunday Times of India, August 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Large Inheritance and its Conflicted Parts

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Telegraph, August 15, 2013

Indians, it is often said, have the disconcerting habit of tailoring their views to suit the listener, especially if he/she happens to be powerful or influential. I don’t know if that charge can be levelled against the 1st Baron Sinha of Raipur, a man who conformed to the highest ideal of empire citizenship. Asked by the vicereine, Lady Minto, of the possible consequences of a British departure from India, Lord Sinha replied insouciantly: “If the English left India today in a body, we should have to telegraph to Aden and get them to return as fast as they could, for in a couple of days India would be in chaos.”
Nor was the Bengali peer showering Britons with excessive flattery. Around the same time, Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked quite matter-of-factly: “The attainment of a democratic form of self-government depends upon the average strength in character and capacity of our people as a whole, and that is far below the British average.” It was a perspective that was even shared by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1923, he answered the same question Lady Minto had posed to Lord Sinha some 15 years earlier: “What should we do if, for any reason, England was driven away? We should simply be victims for other nations.”
That enlightened Indians entertained doubts — at least until the mid-1930s — of India’s ability to replace British rule with something more worthwhile may come as a surprise to a generation that has been nurtured on a diet of over-mythologized nationalism. Maybe in the immediate aftermath of a troubled passage to Independence, some robust flag-waving was necessary to instil self-confidence and a sense of modern nationhood into India. But the passage of 66 years, while a mere speck in the traditional Hindu sense of the yug, is sufficient time for a more rounded and less emotive assessment of two historical currents. First, there has to be an appreciation that the passage to self-government and independence was far more contested than today’s India cares to admit. Second, that the modern Indian state matured and even prospered because the larger philosophy that propelled the British empire in India was left relatively undisturbed. In the world’s largest subject nation, ‘post-colonial’, quite mercifully, didn’t involve too much of a rupture.
The first assertion is relatively non-contentious. Even after 1947, a spirited debate over whether India ‘won’ freedom or benefited from a mere ‘transfer of power’ has agitated intellectuals and political activists. At one level, the issue of an outright victory against a cowering British lion is spurious. Even Winston Churchill, who watched with “deep grief… the clattering down of the British Empire” in 1947, was compelled to admit in a moving speech to the House of Commons on March 6, 1947 that a war-weary Britain had lost the will to persevere with the empire. “Many have defended Britain against her foes,” he lamented, “None can defend her against herself.” At the same time, Churchill cited the voluntary enlistment of more than three million Indians into the British army during World War II, in spite of the fierce opposition of the Congress and the ambivalence of the Muslim League, to suggest that “loyalty to Britain and all that Britain stood for in their lives” counted more than the grandstanding of the “men of straw” who would inherit India.
Churchill was echoing the sentiments of Lord Curzon, another great advocate of empire, who celebrated the fact that more than a million Indians enlisted to fight for the king-emperor in the Great War of 1914-18. “Why are these men coming? What has induced them to volunteer to take part in the fighting?” he asked. “They are thousands of miles away. They cannot hear the thunder or see the smoke of the guns. Their frontiers have not been crossed, their homes are not in jeopardy. They are not our kith and kin; no call of the blood appeals to them. Is it not clear that they are coming because the Empire means something to them?”
Whether it “speaks to them of justice, of righteousness, of mercy, and of truth”, as Curzon believed, or suggested a traditional respect for authority is an issue that can be debated. But the larger questions raised by the former viceroy are calculated to make those who believe that the 190 years after Plassey was a period of monstrous oppression and national humiliation squirm with embarrassment. However much it offends contemporary sensibilities, the fact that British rule was also seen as a force for good and a much-needed respite from post-Moghul chaos and anarchy cannot be seriously doubted.
Acknowledging this simple truth doesn’t necessarily make our ancestors lesser beings who colluded in the national humiliation of the motherland. It suggests that there are serious limitations of viewing the past through the prism of the present and being judgmental. Those who welcomed Lord Clive into their Durga Pujas, endorsed the suppression of the 1857 uprising, flaunted their Rai Bahadur and knighthoods but subsequently joined the clamour for self-rule had their own compulsions.
One of these compulsions was the appreciation of the fact that the British empire in India rapidly transformed itself from being the vehicle of greedy, self-serving merchants into a self- professed trusteeship. Re-reading the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 in the 21st century, it is difficult to not appreciate the nobility and grandeur of the empire’s mission statement. Indeed, apart from the addition of self-government through representative institutions which entered the lexicon of the raj after Sir Edwin Montagu’s declaration of 1917, the spirit of the Queen’s Proclamation can be said to have been faithfully reproduced in the Preamble of India’s 1950 Constitution.
The implications of this are worth considering. That India, among all the former colonies which secured independence after World War II, has an unbroken record of democratic governance is often a source of bewilderment to outsiders. This is particularly so because India, unlike, say, Britain, the United States of America and maybe Holland, didn’t possess indigenous institutions that acted as a deterrent to autocracy. There was no Magna Carta, no Glorious Revolution, no Bill of Rights and not even professional guilds. Even sympathetic officials such as Lord Ronaldshay felt that, apart from the loose bonds of the Hindu faith, there was little in India to nurture common citizenship. Indeed, Montagu’s 1917 announcement of a gradual transition to self-government was greeted with deep scepticism, prompting Lionel Curtis of Round Table fame to wonder, “How much scope can you give people to hurt themselves without destroying the fabric of government altogether?” Curiously, this is a question that is also being asked today.
In hindsight, it would seem that the sceptics underestimated the larger consequences of a system of government which, in spite of its duplicitous imperfections, injected the principle that political power in the colonies, particularly those with “antique civilisations”, was a trust for the benefit of the native populations. Along with the rule of law and, subsequently, representative government, trust added a new dimension to modern statecraft in India. And this ‘duty’ to India was dinned into the minds of the ICS recruits as they embarked on their journey to the East.
As often happens, the empire’s adherence to lofty principles was uneven: the do-gooding impulses of the ma-baap sarkar were invariably offset by arrogance, swagger, condescension and even contempt for the subject peoples. But at least the basic architecture of modern, enlightened governance had been put in place. Independence Day is the celebration of the moment India took its larger inheritance a big step forward.

Monday, August 12, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is both an accomplished politician and blessed with a pleasing personality. He has admirers cutting across the political and ideological divide. If the opinion polls are to be believed, his popularity and administrative skills should see the BJP win a third term in this mid-sized state of central India.

However, Shivraj has recently been confronted with a unique problem that, to be fair, is not of his own making. He has become the favourite BJP politician of those who have never supported nor are ever likely to support the party he belongs to. Ever since it has become clear that Nitish Kumar’s departure from the NDA on the question of Narendra Modi does not enjoy the unqualified endorsement of the people of Bihar, Shivraj has become the darling of those who otherwise hate the BJP. L.K. Advani tried hard to fill this unlikely slot but somehow there is growing realisation that his moment to be the proverbial right man in the wrong party has gone. Hence the chattering class’ anointment of Shivraj as the man they would love to oppose.

That the sudden discovery of Shivraj owes considerably to the fear of the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is not in any serious doubt. If the projection of Modi was likely to result in a clear electoral sweep for the Congress and its allies—as the likes of Digvijay Singh like to proclaim—there would have been no gratuitous show of concern for the fate of the BJP. Atal Behari Vajpayee was another so-called ‘right man in the wrong party’ but you just have to go through the old newspaper files of the election of 1996 and 1998 to realise that the same class of people who shower Shivraj with flowery compliments were also the ones who warned the country of impending fascism if the BJP somehow managed to come to power. A casual perusal of newpaper files of 1998 files, the time Sonia Gandhi joined politics formally, will reveal a higher intensity of the attack on both Vajpayee and the BJP. Yes, a small section of the old Establishment (mainly retired bureaucrats and military officers) did endorse Vajpayee openly but they were a small minority.

Those who believe that if the BJP re-calibrated its politics to appeal to appeal to the old Establishment (what may better be called the ancien regime) it would acquire greater acceptability are living in a dream world. Yes, there is a definite political objective in broadening the scope of the nationalist umbrella and reaching out to Congress voters who are disgusted with the UPA’s dismal record in government. No election can be won or even closely contested unless a political party acquires the ability to reach out to those who are not its natural supporters. But this is different from being swayed by the syrupy pronouncements of those who have an ulterior motive in projecting their version of the alternative.

Having been out of the power structure for long and having been the objects of social disdain of the Nehruvian Establishment, some BJP leaders have craved social acceptability. They are secretly pleased when the beautiful people whisper “such a good chap, pity he is in the BJP.” Worse, they often indulge in political contortions to reach out to the other side and invariably end up falling between two stools. Advani’s certificate to Mohammed Ali Jinnah was such an exercise and ended up destroying him politically. Nitish Kumar’s anti-Modi grandstanding was also driven by similar compulsions.

Shivraj has so far resisted all such blandishments. He has tried to be nice to everyone and the outcome hasn’t always been wholesome. Advani’s generous praise for him was not entirely innocent; its subtext was tantamount to the disavowal of Modi. Raza Murad, the person Uma Bharti described as a C-grade Bollywood actor wasn’t even that subtle. He took advantage of a Eid gathering where Shivraj was present to declaim against Modi’s national candidature. The occasion was such that it was singularly inappropriate for Shivraj to either protest or respond. Consequently, the CM of MP found himself engulfed in a needless controversy by sheer association.

Perhaps Modi should surprise everyone by suddenly appearing on a public stage with an embroidered skull cap, just as Shivraj did. Would that impress his detractors enough to suddenly hail him as the epitome of “secularism”? Would that result in all the talk of him being a communal ogre abruptly coming to an end? For that matter, will Raza Murad be seen on the streets of Bhopal in November appealing to his co-religionists to vote for the local BJP and ensure another term as Chief Minister for Shivraj? Symbolism has a place in public life but its practice doesn’t necessarily influence election results. A few years ago the CPI(M) formally censured one of its stalwarts in West Bengal for offering puja at the temple in Tarakeshwar. Was there an outcry? Did the party’s godlessness become an election issue, and did the anti-Red forces seize upon that lapse to call the Left Front anti-Hindu? The answers don’t need elaboration.

India is a land of many languages and faiths, but it is also a land bound by a common nationality. What matters is not who engages in how much symbolism and who goes to how many mandirs, mosques, gurdwaras and churches. The relevant criterion for governance is common citizenship. 

Sunday Pioneer, August 11, 2013

Time to let go of a bigger line of control?

By Swapan Dasgupta

For once it is difficult to blame the media for getting into a tizzy over events on the Line of Control. If enemy action resulted in the killing of five Indian soldiers, the matter cannot be shrugged off with the lament that ‘these things happen’. Nor can we be so heartless as to suggest, as a silly minister in Bihar did, that men in uniform have to be prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. No doubt the incident will be forgotten by the time Parliament re-convenes on Monday and shifts its gaze elsewhere, but the anger at a truculent neighbour will persist.

What will add to the hurt is the realisation that the those who have been entrusted with national security view human lives as a statistic in the larger game of ‘nuanced’ and ‘calibrated’ diplomacy. The national outrage that led to Defence Minister A.K. Antony modifying his initial statement about ‘men in Pakistani army uniform’ was not another example of sloppy drafting—recall how the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement of 2009 was similarly explained.  When it comes to Pakistan (and, for that matter, China) the ruling establishment is guilty of political and diplomatic cringe.

Whether this stems from the cultural inferiority of those who continue to believe that life begins and ends in Lahore or from the dissimulative skills of time-servers adept in telling political leaders what they want to hear is for historians to ascertain. The point is that Indian foreign policy has yet to come to terms with a curious question: how do you make peace with a neighbour whose sense of nationhood is centred on an enduring hatred of India? If this was merely a civilizational tussle, India could have lived with this dilemma. Unfortunately, the problem has extended to armed conflict: the “war of a thousand cuts” is a doctrinal facet of Pakistan which will not go away whether Zia-ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif rules in Islamabad.

For just too long India has been clutching at straws, trying its best to strengthen the ‘good’ Pakistani vis-à-vis the ‘bad’ guys in the seminaries and cantonments. There is no harm in giving a helping hand to those Pakistanis disturbed by the country’s drift away from Jinnah’s political exclusivism. If collective appreciation of cricket, Bollywood and Manto could ensure that outstanding boundary disputes are left to another generation, India can encourage many more Pakistani writers and artists to attend literary festivals and mushairas. In pure economic terms, it makes more sense to dish out junkets to starry-eyed, American-educated, Pakistani women journalists who are active on twitter than re-equip entire artillery divisions with expensive military hardware. There is also little harm in allowing Pakistani traders to develop a stake in the Indian market because commerce has the ability to temper aggressive designs.

The problem, unfortunately, is far larger and many times more sinister. What Indian foreign policy seems to be underplaying is that the Pakistan of our imagination doesn’t really correspond with the Pakistan of 2013. The mismatch has been evident for some time, even when Zia-ul-Haq charmed the Delhi elite with presents of carpets and onyx ashtrays. But we have pretended otherwise.

Pakistan’s strategic doctrine rests on the belief that a weakened and, hopefully, fragmented India is in its national interest. This conviction was born after the General Niazi’s humiliating surrender in Dacca in 1971, was reinforced following the Kargil war of 1999, the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002 and the global hype over India’s economic achievements.

These setbacks have, however, not derailed the larger strategy. Pakistan successfully harassed India with the Khalistani movement, the insurgency in Kashmir and by nurturing terrorism. Today, it is sensing the re-conquest of Afghanistan and is emboldened by the religious radicalism in the Arab world. It also detects openings from a weak and fractured government in Delhi.

It is too late in the day to inject cement into the spine of the present Indian dispensation. This government seems a passing show. The time has come for India to ask a question that goes beyond the Prime Minister’s overdue visit to his ancestral village in Pakistan. Is a united Pakistan any longer in India’s larger national interest? The answer will suggest long-term strategies.

Sunday Times of India, August 11, 2013 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A POLLSTERS’ REPUBLIC - Opinion polls as a business opportunity

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a precocious and somewhat impressionable 15-year-old in Calcutta, I was enthralled by the political drama that was being enacted in 1970-71, between the Congress split and the general election. I devoured all the political news from The Statesman and the Madras edition of Indian Express (which my father used to receive at his office), and I also followed the political jousting between the two Parsi rivals, R.K. Karanjia of Blitz and D.F. Karaka of Current.

This over-reliance on the printed word, which I also assumed to be the definitive version of politics, led me to the conclusion that the so-called Grand Alliance would prevail over Indira Gandhi in the 1971 election. Consequently, I was in a state of shock when the results started trickling in and indicated that the Congress-R (as it was then called) was heading for a conclusive victory.

The experience shattered my faith in the infallibility of the Indian press and prompted a healthy scepticism of the election assessments of journalists—a scepticism that persists.

Mercifully, I soon realised that gullibility wasn’t my exclusive preserve. Throughout the 1980s and till the 1991 election, when the reach of TV was patchy, I recall being accosted many times by political workers in the localities and the idlers in the tea shops of eastern Uttar Pradesh with the information that the BBC had predicted that so-and-so candidate was winning in such-and-such constituency. It was never clear to me why the BBC (which enjoyed a formidable reputation in those days of media squeamishness) would even care to forecast the results of some obscure constituency where there was no one of any consequence contesting. But the fact remains that the phrase ‘BBC ne bola hai’ resonated throughout the Hindi heartland at election time and added to the general tamasha.

I guess Indians have become more sophisticated. The myths surrounding BBC psephologists in distant London are no longer in circulation. Instead, political buffs are inclined these days to sit for hours before a TV set watching the election returns from opinion polls hosted by excitable anchors. From the mid-1990s till the 2004 general election which upset all pre-existing calculations, the last word belonged to the India Today and NDTV polls. As the media has mushroomed, opinion polls and exit polls have multiplied with the added complication that each TV channel believes their poll constitutes the last word on the subject. Today we have the somewhat ridiculous spectacle of spokespersons of the political parties being grilled and taunted by aggressive anchors who take it for granted that their poll findings constitute the final results.

It is not merely the media that has succumbed to political forecasting as entertainment, each of the major political parties spend significant sums of money engaging in-house pollsters who advise them on everything from candidate selection to constituency-wise resource allocation. Over the past fortnight, for example, I have been forwarded opinion polls conducted by a political party which not only indicate levels of popular support, identifies issues but even suggest the choice of candidates for particular constituencies. Polls, it would seem, have become an additional input in the larger process of factional lobbying.

At one level, the departure from purely instinctive politics to a more focussed approach is welcome. India hasn’t quite reached the levels of parties in the more advanced democracies where tactics and strategies are decided by the feedback from focus groups, but it is clear that gut feel no longer counts as much as it did earlier. But this shift to a more ‘scientific’ orientation has also generated a tribe of charlatan pollsters who manufacture polls to suit conclusions that politicians have already arrived at. In an ideal world, pollsters are meant to convey ground realities to their clients with a premium on accuracy; in India there are just too many exercises that are aimed at conveying good news.

This disingenuity is also a consequence of large-scale ignorance of pollsters on polling methodology. Just as the hallmark of good leadership lies in the ability to separate bad advice from good, political leaders must possess the ability to distinguish between polls with robust methodology from polls that merely boast a gigantic sample size.

Some years ago, a polling organisation claimed that random sampling (preferred by statisticians) has no relevance in India and should be replaced by the ‘cluster’ method. On probing, I discovered that the ‘cluster’ method was a euphemism for polling people at bus stops and tea shops—the preferred method of journalists. Indeed, there are polls which rely almost exclusively on the aggregate of journalistic assessments, a methodology that has the advantage of cutting costs. One canny pollster has actually dispensed with fieldwork altogether and depends almost exclusively on private information channels—much like the Intelligence Bureau and satta market assessments that make their way to the news reports. What is astonishing is that he often gets the actual results right.

Of course, there are legitimate problems in translating popular vote share into seats in a fractious, multi-party environment. Although some people have developed mathematical models that minimise errors, their findings are invariably tempered by the wisdom of the editors of media organisations. Only too often, and immediately after an unexpected outcome in the actual elections, I have been told by ‘editors’ that the statistician had got it right but that the outcome had been ‘toned down’ on the strength of gut feeling of the editors.

Likewise, it is accepted by all reputed pollsters that the larger the area of consideration, the greater the chances of getting the aggregate outcome right. Yet, it is routine for pollsters to present political parties with constituency-based projections. Recently I saw an all-India survey that even suggested a seat tally for Goa, a state that sends two MPs to the Lok Sabha.

What seems sufficiently clear is that opinion polls have become a business opportunity for both the genuine and the carpetbagger. Some political parties have also concluded that “paid polls” should also complement “paid news” at opportune moments. In 1999, for example, a well-known media group in Maharashtra allowed itself to be used to publicise a clearly dubious poll showing that the Congress would emerge as the largest party. And in 2002, a weekly magazine allowed a pollster to transfer the entire bag of uncommitted votes to the Congress in Gujarat.

The tendency of Indians to subvert any worthwhile endeavour is well known. But the answer to this problem lies in clients becoming more discerning. It does not lie, as the government seems to think, in pressuring the Election Commission to ban all opinion polls from the day of the notification—which can be a full two months before polling day. Such a draconian order will drive motivated polls underground and we may be confronted with a situation where wild rumours, based on internet postings which can’t be controlled, have a field day. There is insufficient evidence to suggest that opinion polls mould voting intentions in any significant way. And the present over-zealousness of the Central Government, it would seem, stems largely from a desire to underplay the massive negative ratings of the UPA-2.

There are already restrictions in place for the publication of opinion and exit polls. These are worthwhile restrictions and there is no need for further curbs. What is needed is for politicians to educate themselves on the design and interpretation of polls, and for TV anchors to undertake a crash course in the responsible dissemination of poll findings. 

The Telegraph, August 2, 2013
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