Para Science: Predicting the 2009 Indian Parliamentary Elections


Shortly after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections that brought Congress to power and ended BJP's term, The Hindu wrote the following:

EXIT POLLS were many. Yet none of them could accurately predict such a turn of events. Forget others, the general election results must have left even A.B. Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi astounded. But one soul has been holding a lone flag forecasting a Congress Government at the Centre since August last year. He is J.B. Malik. A self-acclaimed para-scientist and an astrologer, Delhi-based Malik is really upbeat post-May13, thrilled at the pinpointed predictions of his turning into a reality.

There are many hypotheses I can come up with for why the predictions of the 2004 election were so badly botched by the Indian literati that they were outpaced by a para-scientist. One is that there was a total disconnect between the perceptions of the Indian rich (i.e. the 'middle class' and 'civil society) and the people and processes who most influenced the results- whether that was  parties stealing votes, the rural poor reacting against their economic situatuon and constantly being told that India was growing wealthy, or the real middle class ('the intermediate classes') - the shop owners, the low level party clerks and workers, the etc. - expressing disatisfaction for whatever reasons with the current system.

There are other explanations too, which have to do with epistemology and political and economic power. Does India actually constitute a singular society that can be fully legible to an information collecting mechanism like the media or is there an overall level of resource shortage that makes the skewing of resources to certain groups and disconnection almost inevitable in creating inaccurate or absent information about different groups.  By this I mean two things - is 'India' one thing or many things beause of how fragmented it is; and, put crudely, whether 'Indian society' is fragmented or singular, can the media and other ways of undersatnding society from within a society(societies) effectively do that if there simply isn't enough money to go around to force such a consideration?

Of course, you could argue that having a two month election period would allow one to go through the vernacular presses of many, many places and of different audiences by class level, politics, propensity to vote, have other forms of influence, etc.   This would help you to try to get a better understanding of what's happening in a massive and fractured electoral space, even if it's not perfect. 

But even if it's possible, it's a pain in the ass.  I can't imagine most newspapers or journals in India bothering to do that, even if they have the resources available to them to conduct a quick and timely study of Telugu, Tamil, Bangla, Hindi, etc. language newspapers and journals, maybe even talk to some people, get a through real-world understanding of how the electoral process works in particular areas.  But that's a big bet to take that requires self-reflection about your position in society, what functions your institution and you perform, and an acknowledgement of your massive limitations.  These are things that Indian civil society and the media are not always prone to doing.

I mention all of the above as an apology to the people who make up the Indian elite, some of whome are quite nice on a personal level, for saying the following: if you didn't know what happened before the 2004 election, why the f"£k would you think you were equipped to quickly analyse after the fact what had happened? 

Immediately after the election results, we heard countless explanations about how the rural vote had turned on the BJP, or the India Shining campaign had backfired, etc. etc.  For example, consider the following from Asia Times on May 15, 2004:

In a stunning upset, belying all predictions of India's proliferating pollsters, the electorate have given a decisive mandate in favor of the Italian-born scion of the Nehru dynasty, Sonia Gandhi, and her Congress party and its allies, including communists, rejecting the communal and sectarian politics of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition in no uncertain terms.

I'd recommend looking through the whole thing and running a google search on articles on the Indian election from about May 2004 if you're interested in seeing exactly how extensive the very fast election post-mortem was and consider whether or not it was or is reliable at all, and in what ways.


Almost five years later, the 2009 Lok Sabha elections are underway.  In the intervening years, I have gone from being thoroughly uneducated on India in a formal sense to being partly informed.  As a result, I have become one of those people that is willing to offer a prediction, something that I have been asked to do about three or four times by various people I respect enough to give a serious answer to.  I do so with the dangers of prediction noted above.

The general trend in elections for the last 10 years or so has been anti-incumbent results leading to a relatively stable alternation of Congress and BJP led coalitions.  There are many, many things that can account for this reality.  These range from the process oriented (e.g. political parties shifting around their agendas in accord with what is most advantageous to them) to those that have more faith in the democraticness of India's election procedures (e.g. perhaps the bottommost section of the population that has influence over the election results has actually had an impact and voted against the rulers; or perhaps the intermediate classes had incentives to mobilise in particular ways in their voting).

I am not going to pretend to know what these factors are, but try to give you a best guess of what I think will happen based on intuition, my social position, and what I have learned through living in India and studying Indian politics since the last election.  As a result, this is in some sense a way of testing whether broad analyses of macrotrends and structures can help you understand a system that you don't have nearly enough details on (e.g. how Toqueville suggested that the United States and Russia were destined to get into a rivalry). So here it is:

1) There is probably still an anti-incumbent trend to the political system given that there seems to be no sign that the Indian elite has sufficiently taken into account the massive suffering that has continued to affect most Indians while the wealthy disconnected from society - in some cases, quite literally, like Tata buying Jaguar.

2) The financial crisis will have an effect on the elections in a narrow sense, but I don't know what it will be.  In the U.S., it seems to have opened a space in the media for already existing problems to actually make their way to public knowledge and permissible grounds for protest.  I don't know if the same has happened in India and I also don't know what the result will be.  However, I do know that the leadership of the U.S. was rejected, the leadership of the UK is about to be, and despite the vast differences and the inadequacy of comparing a state-society like India to those of the U.S. and the U.K., if I had to bet, I would see no reason that the financial crisis would lower the prospect of voting anti-incumbent.

3. However, the Indian political system is complicated.  For example, if there was anti-incumbent voting in West Bengal, would that mean voting against CPI(M) which has been running the state for 32 years and was part of the UPA government or voting for CPI(M) because they are running an anti-Congress campaign in an effort to form a national Third Front in politics (finally!) alongside Mayawati, or something else entirely.  And if it meant voting against CPI(M), then what does that result in, given that the main opposition party, Trinamool Congress, has shifted from the BJP alliance to the Congress alliance.  There are many different configurations that could result, and this is assuming a model of voting (an individual making up their mind from their social and personal position) that is probably ludicrously ill-suited to, say, rural West Bengal.

4. In the long run, there are certain trends that are evident.  

Congress has muddled along for generations now and I see no reason why it won't continue to in the short run, adjusting on a practical level where it  can, having a semi-benevolent paternalist ideology where necessary, representing socially entrenched powers above all. 

The BJP and the CPI(M) had roughly the same national percentage of votes 30-40 years ago (about 8% from what I remember from a couple wonderful analyses by a political scientest named E Sridharan).  However, the BJP rose in power to become a national power by forming alliances with regional parties and then cannibalising them, whereas the CPI(M) got confined to largely three states as a significant power- Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura.  

However, the CPI(M) has also persisted as a political party, and that in and of itself is an accomplishment especially if you consider that this last few deades was an era of the gutting and sometimes the destruction of any institutions that were nominally left in many countries and the rise of institutions that were religious right like the BJP .  Atul Kohli has provided a good common sense explanation for why this happened - if you have pro rich politics (neoliberalism or whatever you want to call Reagan-Thatcher politics) and you work in an electoral democracy, you have to find a way to mobilise people.  Since you've abandoned economic payoffs because your politics is pro-rich, and you've abandoned massive coercion through force (because you legitimise your state as a democratic one) that only really leaves an ideology that is not explicitly pro-poor or pro-worker - e.g. religious politics, nationalism, homophobia, sexism, etc.   This happened in several places around the world that I can think of, though Kohli focuses on India.

5. However, one of the broad structural trends that I think we will see is in the next few decades is a broad decline of communal politics as the lever of change and a broad increase in  social democratic politics. I would think these would be based on caste politics in India - e.g. Mayawati - and class-based ideologies or practical measures - e.g. CPI(M), naxals, former Maoists, etc.  This doesn't mean that BJP will die, since it has been a highly effective political machine - much more so than Congress.  It would mean, though,  that the dominant mode of politics will change over time and the CPI(M)-Mayawati-others will have more scope to grow because the kinds of things they say will be more receptive to the blackbox of the Indian political process.  Whether they're effective at it and how so will probably go along way in determining which aspect of social democraticness takes precedence at different times and what level of power they are able to accumulate and at what cost to principle.


In the near term: this election, I would give BJP an edge over Congress based on an anti-incumbent tendency, with Third Front making some gains, but not enough to do more than play kingmaker if they can hold it together to be a unified third front, which I doubt.  What kind of government this results in is hard to say, but I'd be skeptical that it will serve a full term.  I could see BJP getting a majority in a strange occurrance where the 3rd Front targets Congress and Congress's incumbency and incompetency get the better of it, but I think that a coalition run by BJP or perhaps even by Congress as the second-largest vote gatherer is more likely.  Regardless, I think that any party that is running politics at the Centre and doesn't start delivering for the intermediate classes and the upper strata of the poor is going to start having severe problems mobilising people. 

That does't mean I expect a social democratic revolution, but just that the ways in which to maintain and expand the power of the status quo is going to shift to something more populist (i.e. different techniques of governance).  This takes us to the medium term: there should be a transition period where stable coalitions running full terms in parliament no longer occur and instead you get a series of short-term government or something along those lines.  During this time, I would expect the Third Front or something like it to continue to grow and change - or some equivalent that is more politically effective to emerge (if I had to bet, I would put money on BSP / Mayawati before doing so on CPI(M) to become the core of a national party).  The extent to which this will actually redistribute power is a good question to ponder; I'm skeptical it will do much without strong influence from people outside the electoral system.  I expect BJP to either reconfigure itself or die, and for Congress to coopt what it can from the social democratic agenda and hope that it can continue to persist as it has for several generations now or die - perhaps they will merge with Third Front types. 

In the long term (i.e. 20 years, 30 years),  perhaps it's going to be ugly, and then things will sort of slowly hash themselves out into a consensus, and then a period of stable alternating coalitions or even a two-party system might emerge (I doubt this emerging for a long time - it depends in large part on the resources available to the government and political parties).  I would expect a social democratic party (of some sort or another) and a party that is focused more on winning and therefore does some kowtowing to populism but is generally more concerned with upholding the existing social order.  But the farther out you go in time - even if you're a parascientist - the harder it is to be accurate if the structures of power you're talking about work in convoluted ways and you don't know enough about them to begin with to be able to offer reasonable predictions. 


The following are factors that I haven't thought about and which might severely effect what I'm talking about above: the impact of higher resources for the political system to use in India; the Maoists in India and what they choose to do; the impact of the GoSL's military victory on the politics of Tamil Nadu and Indian politics more generally; what happens in Pakistan; shifts in American domestic politics; China's economic situation; nuclear incidents; the evolution of politics in political Islam over time; that the future often diverges from past patterns dramatically; and all the other things that make India as a nation-state part of a global society and all the things below the nation-state level that are unknown to me but which will have an impact on what happens;

which includes, of course, the ideas of ordinary people, as mentioned at the top.

What will happen to national electoral politics in India in the next few weeks and the next few years?

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i also want 2 know abt this. 

i also want 2 know abt this. 

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