Anybody with a slight recollection of the 1980s when Prannoy Roy along with Ashok Kumar Lahiri became pioneers of opinion polls to ‘forecast’ elections and later towards the end of the decade and the early 1990s where the former became a common sight on television during each election, knows that in India, Roy and elections are near synonyms. In this light, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections, which chronicles key factors that make India’s democracy tick, readily assumes a sense of importance and urgency. Moreover, releasing around what could easily be an epoch-making general election, the book uses decades of original research and ‘as-yet-undisclosed-facts’ to position itself as a document worthy for anyone who would like to learn about India’s electoral history.
By the end of the brilliantly researched book filled with hundreds of tables, one might learn a lot about India’s previous elections but more than anything, it’s about how predictions were made by Roy and friends besides learning some fun facts: How the average Indian woman’s height has gone up by 4.9 cm as against an increase of 2.9 cm in an average Indian man’s height over the past century, which for some strange reason, is accompanied along with the detail of how between 1962 and 2014 the women’s turnout has increased by 18.8 percent compared to men’s 4.9 percent.
A five-minute conversation with the average voter, believed Sir Winston Churchill, was the best argument against democracy. Be that as it may, Roy and co-author Dorab R Sopariwala pose a plethora of questions ranging from, “How do you forecast seats from votes”, “How many ‘forecasting polls’ have there been in India?”, to “Is a high turnout a sign of who is going to win?”, etc, and serving data through rigorous psephology to demystify Indian elections. It is all a build-up to try seek an answer to the one mega questions—will the incumbent government win or lose the 2019 general elections?
If the questions raised by The Verdict create the perfect environment to jump into the wonderful maze of deciphering future elections based on previous ones, a few of the observations seem to completely omit to take into account some factors that could probably shed a light on the working of the voter’s mind. Take for instance, the brief explanation of how ‘State Capture’—the misuse of state institutions of agencies, facilitated by increasing state contributions over the economy for personal gain (Page 12), played a role in elections. Roy and Sopariwala attribute its emergence and growth in the 1970s but chose not to talk about the impact it might have had in the truest sense on Indian democracy. Instead, they recount incidents that reveal abject misuse of power in an anecdotal manner.
Perhaps this isn’t the kind of book that intends to tug at the emotional chords of the reader—by extension the voter as well—as it opts to concentrate heavily on data to interpret the voter’s actions. Using the past to predict the future is wonderful and could work as well but the case The Verdict builds in this context is far removed from the emotional heart of the book—democracy being at the core of every Indian’s DNA.
The book claims that every time democracy comes under attack, the Indian voter fights back at election time. But one gets the sense that the book doesn’t really believe in this. It appears to be focused on the science of crunching numbers and therefore, the emotional aspect of the adult franchise doesn’t seem to concern the authors. So, the election malpractice by Indira Gandhi, which led to her dismissal from the Lok Sabha and as a result she would have had to relinquish the Prime Minister’s office had she not imposed the Emergency, is not discussed. Instead, this period is called ‘The Pro-Incumbency Era’ and the years between 1977-2002 are called the ‘The Anti-Incumbency Era’ and even though it covers “the birth and growth of the angry voter” it doesn’t delve deep into the reason of the anger.
Reading The Verdict, you wonder if data really tells you anything about the mind of the voter at all. Roy and Sopariwala dedicate reams to how to forecast India’s elections, especially 2019, and how one can make their own forecasts but the moot question—how much of the voter’s word can be trusted—never gets answered. In 2015, during the Bihar elections, Roy’s channel NDTV first showed that the BJP was ahead for that’s what the data showed. Later as the counting carried on, the data, unfortunately, turned out to be incorrect and Roy, for the first time, at least in this reviewer’s memory, apologised to the viewers for causing confusion. Had The Verdict also told the reader that the increase in female literacy rate, which went from around 8.6 percent in 1952 to a little over 62 percent in 2014, instead of average height, could have been a great reason for the steady increase in women turnout, it might have made more sense.