The trouble with predicting polls in foreign lands

Foreign diplomats in India have often missed the mark in predicting political outcomes here. Indian diplomats have been no less erratic in calling elections in their foreign stations.
The trouble with predicting polls in foreign lands
Mandar Pardikar

For many ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission and even political counsellors in Chanakyapuri, the national capital’s diplomatic enclave, life changed on June 4. The comfort zone they had become used to during their posting in New Delhi—usually lasting three years—disappeared overnight. For most of them, and their rotational predecessors going back to the summer of 2014, India had been a political theatre of certainties. Those certainties vanished overnight as results of the elections to the 18th Lok Sabha came in. Many of them were stunned, pretty much like unsuspecting Indians who watched television on June 1 and fell hook, line and sinker for the exit polls aired that night. 

For 10 years, diplomatic missions in New Delhi sent unceasing reports to their headquarters about the rise and rise of Narendra Modi. There was an inevitable predictability about the fundamental premise of their reports: the dominance of the BJP over India’s political landscape, with the exception of a few outliers like Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

For a variety of reasons, Kolkata is on the early itinerary of almost every important head of mission who is newly credentialled to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Numerous political counsellors from Chanakyapuri went to West Bengal before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to prepare for visits by their bosses. They correctly predicted that the BJP would replace the Congress and the Left as the foil for the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress.

The Seven Sisters of the northeast were no exceptions for the most part. Visiting diplomats have a special interest in the region because of its crucial geography or controversial proselytisation drives by Christian missionaries. Many of these missionaries are compatriots of the diplomats who visit the northeast. Embassies and high commissions, which reported a consolidation or furtherance of the BJP’s gains made in Bengal five years ago, will now have to live down their predictions on the recent elections to superiors back home. These pro-BJP assertions were couched in certainties. 

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Such certainties provided ample time to Delhi-based foreign envoys to attend literary festivals, which have proliferated across India in recent years. Some of them have used such forums to promote their books—works of fiction or nature, since they don’t write about their profession while in service. Germany’s ambassador danced in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk last year to the tunes of the Oscar-winning song ‘Naatu naatu’, and made it to every newspaper in the national capital.

South Korea’s envoy and his entire team did the same with that hit song from the Telugu film RRR, but confined such soft power display to their mission compound. After the video of their performance attracted 1.2 million views, according to BBC, Modi tweeted from his official account that it was a “lively and adorable team effort”. Not to be left behind, the ambassador of superpower US danced to a Bollywood number at his embassy’s Diwali celebrations last year. He broke from his two allied colleagues and chose a Shah Rukh Khan number, ‘Chhaiyya chhaiyya’.

It is not unusual for ambassadors in New Delhi to be old India hands. Several of them have served in this country as junior diplomats, some of them stayed for months as backpackers soon after graduation. A few others have sought a second posting as ambassador because of their love for India. In the last decade, these Indophiles have recalled in private conversations what a nightmare it used to be to report on India for their governments back home.

There was never a dull moment in India, but everything was fraught with uncertainties—V P Singh’s Mandal experiments and the attendant violence, musical chairs with Rajiv Gandhi pulling the rug from under the non-Congress prime minister’s feet, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 13-day government, and the unstable H D Deve Gowda-I K Gujral years. Many diplomats who had to toil hard during those periods have had a good time at work since Modi came to power with an absolute majority.

But no more, from last month. By and large, India had become ‘Congress-mukt’ and chanceries could afford to ignore the rest of the opposition because other parties were considered irrelevant. Embassies in New Delhi are now delving into their archives and dusting up old files that they thought would never be needed. 

There are missions that are exceptions to this rule, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Russia is one such. In February 2023, from the highest levels in Moscow, it was conveyed to equally high levels in New Delhi that it was Russia’s assessment that the just-concluded elections would not be a cakewalk for the BJP. This was 16 months ago. The Russians, of course, gave their convoluted interpretations for such a conclusion. The Kremlin cautioned its Indian interlocutors that a conspiracy was being hatched in Washington to destabilise India and the Modi government. Such an alarm was sounded at least twice more last year.

Russia has done this before. In December 1979, then Prime Minister Charan Singh severely admonished Yuli Vorontsov, the Soviet Union’s then ambassador, the day after Soviet troops marched into Kabul. An unfazed Vorontsov told Singh he had already talked to Indira Gandhi, who had shown an understanding of Moscow’s compulsions. Indira Gandhi became prime minister soon thereafter. 

In empathy with resident ambassadors in Chanakyapuri, it must be said that the shoe is on the other foot as well. Indian diplomats are notorious for having predicted wrong election results in countries where they have been posted. Not once, not twice, but over many successive decades.

In 1992, Indian diplomats in Washington blithely assumed George H W Bush would be re-elected president and did not even bother to make connections in the victor Bill Clinton’s team. They never learned from that experience. In 2000, they assumed Vice President Al Gore would win. When George W Bush defeated Gore, Vajpayee had to rush his top foreign policy aide, Brajesh Mishra, to the US to make contacts in the Republican camp.

On a personal note, the only Indian foreign affairs expert who told this writer in 2016 that Donald Trump would win the US presidential election was Hardeep Singh Puri, now a Union cabinet minister. He was then a private citizen living in New York.

K P Nayar

Strategic analyst

(Views are personal)

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