Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India


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The tittle and blurbs of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India might give an impression that the book is about economics or more specifically about how economics could help us understand modern India. The book indeed has many examples related to India. However not all examples are confined to economics. The authors try and make sense of a range of topics from the surprising verdict of 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Nehru’s (and India’s) surprise when China attacked in 1962 and how MSM (Main Stream Media) in India confuses opinion with facts.

In one of the chapters, the authors describe how in Delhi economic incentives are used by Delhi Police to improve pedestrian safety and in Mumbai an NGO is using behavioral psychology to prevent deaths at unmanned railway crossings. These two examples show different applications of behavioral economics, a branch of economics closer to psychology than economics. The NGO in Mumbai succeeded in reducing the death toll at railway crossing whereas the experiment in Delhi seems still to be a work in progress. Different chapters in the book explore themes like randomization or luck, how traditions gel with modernity (the most interesting example in this chapter is from China) and how MSM (Main Stream Media) in India prefers sensationalism over fact checking.

The chapter on randomization or luck had two election results (2004 Lok Sabha and 2012 UP Vidhan Sabha) as examples among others. Based on the electoral data and opinion polls/exit polls the authors make two interesting points. First being that close elections are like a coin toss and second (a corollary of the first point), it is a matter of luck to correctly predict the election results. So the authors suggest that saying that NDA lost because of India Shinning campaign and BSP lost because UP voters voted in favor of development politics makes little sense.

I am a student of Indian Politics and hence this chapter was of special interest to me.  The authors conclude that in a close election even data (opinion and exit polls in this case) would not be of great help in predicting the outcome. They arrive at this conclusion by comparing the relation between vote share and seat share at macro level i.e. for the whole of India while analyzing 2004 Lok Sabha elections and for entire state of UP while analyzing 2012 UP elections. Lets us look at the case against polls. Yogendra Yadav, India’s most famous pollster and a fox has been conducting exit polls since 1996 Lok Sabha elections and announced his retirement from polling after 2o12 UP polls. A fox is someone who is pragmatic, not ideological and open to discard a cherished theory according to Philip Tetlock, author of Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? where as a hedgehog is a single minded devotee to a particular big idea or concept, which they stick to through thick or thin. According to Indianomix such people exude confidence, boldly tell you without mincing words whats going to often and are more often wrong. Yogendra tried explaining 2004 debacle (of exit polls) by suggesting that there were three main reasons why polls can go wrong: sampling error, response bias and difficulty in translating vote share to seats.

The explanation given for sampling error in 2004 is that urban voters were oversampled and since BJP has most of its supporters in urban areas, most exit polls were off the mark. However a closer look at election results of 2004 would reveal that BJP under performed in urban areas. It did not win a single seat in Delhi and Mumbai. In 1999 NDA had won every seat in these two cities. In Maharashtra, the second biggest state in the country, NDA won 25 out of 48 seats and UPA won the remaining 23. The 23 seats won by UPA include 9 urban seats of Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Nagpur. NDA could win only 1 urban seat in the state. In fact in the Vidarbha region, the agrarian suicide capital of the country in 2004, out of 11 seats, NDA won 10 and the one seat that NDA could not win was the lone urban seat in the region i.e. Nagpur. In Maharashtra, NDA won more rural seats then UPA and UPA won more urban seats than NDA. Outside the state too, NDA lost most of its seats in urban areas. So this argument of sampling error does not hold much water. Response Bias as explained by Yogendra Yadav, where voters purposely do not divulge correct information, is very similar to the Bradley Effect in US. A closer study of polls in India would reveal that hardly has any poll correctly predicted seat share and vote share correct at the same time. Now if pollsters want to explain this by citing response bias then it would be better if they stopped conducting polls altogether.

The third reason i.e. difficulty in converting vote share to seats has some merit. In a multi-cornered fight, it is almost impossible to predict seat share. Even when the contest is mainly between two parties, it is not easy and we would soon see why.

But again this reason would sound valid if at least pollsters could get vote shares for parties right. Predicting the vote share correctly is a rarity for Indian pollsters and mostly happens when fight is between two main parties. Ironically, Yogendra Yadav who correctly predicted seats for Samajwadi Party in 2012 UP elections, could do so because his vote share predictions were spectacularly wrong. He overestimated SP’s vote share by a massive 5%. In UP, where vote share difference between top two parties was just 3.4%, this error is huge. However, Yogendra Yadav was widely praised for correctly predicting the UP polls as most people including astute political observers (foxes and hedgehogs included) seldom look at the details of elections or polls.

So are outcomes of close elections really like a coin toss as the authors of Indianomix seem to suggest? If we only look at polls conducted in India, we would have to agree with the author. However, if we look at the second biggest democracy, a math geek has cracked the code of predicting elections. Nate Silver not only correctly predicted the final outcome of US Presidential Elections (that Obama would win) but his prediction was correct in all fifty states. And this was a close election with less than 4% vote share difference between Obama and Romney. Its equivalent feat in India would be to not only predict the winning party or alliance in a Lok Sabha election nationally but to also correctly predict the winning party/alliance in each state of the country (if not the actual seats in each state). Needless to say, no pollster has been able to achieve this in India since the first national opinion poll conducted in 1980 by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala for India Today.

Nate Silver is not a pollster. His methodology is very simple. A poll of polls where each poll is weighted by its past performance, sample size and other attributes. A blogger who goes by the pseudonym Albatrossinflight, performed a similar exercise before Gujarat election results and predicted 130 seats for BJP. The actual tally for BJP was 115. So does that mean the Nate Silver approach would not work in India? It most probably would not if surveys are conducted in the same way as they are conducted now in India. Most surveys only cover a handful of constituencies and extrapolate the results to the remaining constituencies. Even Lok Sabha elections in India, are an aggregate of 543 constituencies. An urban voter in Mumbai voted differently in 2004 (where BJP lost all seats) from an urban voter in Bangalore (where BJP won both seats of the city). Nate Silver could predict the results correctly in US, because his sample size i.e. the opinion polls were better in quality than the polls in India. His algorithm had multiple state specific opinion polls at its disposal. Indian pollsters assume that an urban voter in Nashik would vote in the same way as an urban voter in Nagpur. It hardly matters to them that MNS is a strong factor in Nashik and may not win the seat but still impact the result whereas in Nagpur MNS has no major impact.

In short, because of quality and quantity of the polls, Nate Silver was better placed to predict elections than an Indian Nate Silver would ever be. Indian pollsters would not only have to conduct polls in every constituency but also get the sampling right in each constituency. This may seem difficult to execute but this is exactly what C-Voter, a survey company tried in Gujarat this time. For their exit poll, they collected samples from each constituency in the state. They may not have got the seat share correct but were very close (within 1% ) in predicting vote share for BJP and Congress. A more detailed study of the poll results of C Voter would give a better idea of its performance. So by 2014, if we have more C-Voter type survey companies, who poll in every constituency, predicting the election result would not be an outcome of coin toss. Since any election is an aggregate of results of its constituencies, the authors are most probably right in asserting that making sweeping generalizations about election outcomes at a macro level makes little sense (like NDA lost in 2004 because of India Shinning or SP won in UP because people voted for good governance).

My favorite chapter in the book is News from India. As the title suggests, this chapter is on Indian Mainstream Media. The authors cite several examples ranging from HIV, child malnutrition, violence against women etc and show how our media in general either does not understand data and logic or choose to take the easy way of rhetoric and sensationalism. Not only this chapter but the entire book should be made for compulsory reading in all journalist schools in the country.

The book may not focus exclusively on any one field and has a range of topics but the theme that binds all the topics is that data and reasoning should be given prominence over popular belief. In one of the chapters, Nehru is quoted after the defeat in 1962, “We were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation”.  Whether it is a Prime Minister, an NGO working towards saving lives of people who cross railway tracks, someone trying to predict outcome of an election or someone who wants to understand factors affecting women safety after the horrific Delhi gang rape, we all need to be open to reasoning & logic and not swayed by rhetoric. This is the first India centric book which makes this point and hence is a must read for all.


Why I Voted Congress?

By Dhawal Shah

Congress Administration Rocks:

o Fiscal Deficit at 10.3% of GDP (highest in the world)

o Deaths from terrorist Attacks:  3674 lives (next only to Iraq and higher than North, central, south america, europe, asia put together)

o Real GDP Growth Rate (GDP Growth Rate less Inflation) is negative for last quarter. Will we finally witness the stone age with the current deceleration in our economy?  My camera is Ready, should the Congress win because of the following :

–          For not supporting the War on terror:  The War on terror is after all for countries like UK and USA that have been affected by terrorism as India’s victims proportionately are quite minuscule, just 3674 out of 1 Billion !!

–          Stalling Infrastructure Projects:  Several Infrastructure Projects have been temporarily stalled. Not a single highway was completed in last five years.  Our very own Bandra Worli Sea Link took over 10 years to complete. Compare it to the Empire State Building built in record 13 months and that too in 1929 (Great Depression).

–          Making Aviation Expensive:  Allowing the Private Airport Developers to charge User Development Fee, thereby making air travel more expensive. Lets rejoice once again and enjoy the good old fashioned rail travel. After all its always been the notion that only the elite can fly.

–          Decline in healthcare:  It was quite annoying to visit a government run hospitals that are disgustingly, rat and cockroach infested. What good is USD 320 Billion Forex Reserves, where a nation cannot guarantee its citizens quality, affordable healthcare.

–          Making India a safe haven for terrorists: Mr. Qasab is in jail.  Well as the thinking goes if Mohammed Afzal, the terrorist that attacked the Indian Parliament is safe and sound, why should Qasab be any different. After all an Indian Jail is better than being trained at a Jihadi Camp in Pakistan. Terrorism has endangered public lifes.

–          Indian Army: Feel extremely proud of the Indian Army presentation during last year’s Republic Day, the short and medium range missiles. However, I feel we can reduce our fiscal deficit by creating a museum as we never intend to use these weapons.  Our military rocks, we are # 4 in the world, but we still continue to be bullied by our hostile neighbours, Bangaldesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China.

–          Banning Smoking in Public but being least bothered to enforce it, making a sheer mockery of the government enforcement

–          Congress Inheriting a booming economy and it comfortable crashing it miserably, finally we can go on a vacation to Italy, what else does one have to do anyway.

I fondly remember, Aam Admi Ko Kya Mila Campaign by Congress, its good that they left it as a question, as it is still a question, after all what can the, ‘aam admi’ get when for terrorists welfare (Mr. Qasab) the tax payer simply pays closer to about 10 crores a day, what can the aam admi expect

Aam Admi should not get anything as Congress is all about ‘Khaas Admi’, its just been one Nehru family that has been controlling the destiny of this country since 1947, maybe we haven’t suffered enough from Mr. Nehru’s Socialist approach. It does appear if everyone that has a Gandhi Surname has a political future. What good is meritocracy, when most talented Indians are already abroad, why not get away with ridiculous reservations?

Mr. Shivraj Patil finally resigns after over 4 years of slumber, thank God he at least woke up. Why should he get fired any which ways, after all what good are reservations if they don’t protect the incompetent?

Our local candidate, Mr. Milind Deora during a meeting mentioned that do not come to home for water, electricity and any other problems. It is not quite as relieving as watching him on news channels after the Mumbai attacks.

My Fellow Brothers and Sisters, Lets get our Country Back.

(Dhawal Shah, an entrepreneur, rues voting for Congress in 2004 Lok Sabha elections. India Unbound concurs with most of the points raised by him.)

Will we see the return of nervous 90s ?

Till poll results do us apart ..

Till poll results do us apart ..

The next eight weeks would be very cucial for India’s future. This may sound cliched as the phrase is repeated before every general election but India is at a very important point wherein if we fail to capitalise on our demographic dividend, we may miss the bus again. And when we see leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Ram Vilas Paswan aspiring for the top job with no national agenda, it sends shivers down the spine. Will we again see someone like Charan Singh (1979), VP Singh (1989), Chandrashekhar (1990),  Devegowda (1996) or I K Gujral (1997) who became Prime Minister not because of public support but because they had least political opposition? Will we again see a period of political uncertainity, policy paralysis & indecisive Government? We are told that Manmohan Singh could not carry out any economic reforms as he was dependent on Communists. What would a Sharad Pawar, Ram Vilas Paswan or Mayawati do who would be even more dependent on Communists and other smaller parties ? If scientific and not so scientific polls are to be believed, we would see UPA leading a hung parliament i.e. none of the pre poll alliance will get the majority. In 2004, all opinion polls, exit polls and astrologers were proved wrong. There is no reason to believe that this may not happen again.

There are several possibilities if neither NDA, UPA or the third front gets majority. But the three most probable scenarios are :

  • Post elections, parties which comprise third front would join either NDA or UPA resulting in a Congress or BJP led Government
  • Communists could support Congress led Government which does not include Manmohan Singh and P Chidambram
  • Either Congress or  BJP decide to support a Sharad Pawar or Mayawati as PM.

Of all the three possibilities, it is the third possibility which is the bleakest of all. All previous third front Governments were either supported by BJP or Congress  (Janata Party of 1977 had Jan Sangha (former BJP) as an important constituent). Both BJP and Congress have nothing to gain politically by supporting a third front Government at the centre. Congress has seen its base shrinking and loosing ground to the same parties which it supported to form Government in the centre (SP in Uttar Pradresh, RJD in Bihar and JD (S) in Karnataka are a few examples). BJP paid the same price in UP for supporting Mayawati thrice to become Chief Minister. So will Congrerss or BJP support Mayawati to become PM ? Not if they are serious about being relevant in Indian Politics. 

Mayawati and her supporters believe that the country is moving towards bi polar polity and wish to see BSP as one of the two poles. That means exticntion of either BJP or Congress. Any move by Congress or BJP to support Mayawati would be detrimental to both BJP and Congress. And hence even if Maywati gets 60 seats from UP (the most optimistic scenario) and insists on becoming PM,  she would be as irrelevant as Mulayam was with 37 MPs in the fourteenth Lok Sabha. Apart from Mayawati, leaders like Sharad Pawar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Jayalalita are not serious contenders. All these leaders are fighting for their political survival and are not even contesting all the seats in their respective states. Talks of Prime Ministership are just a gimmick to enthuse voters on regional and caste lines. Sharad Pawar’s party is facing a dual anti incumbency in Maharashtra. The fact that he raised the issue of Marathi PM should clear doubts about his seriousness for the top job. Pawar is too seasoned a politician (He has tried his luck before in 1991 after the death of Rajiv Gandhi) to know that one cannot become a serious contender for PM of India by stoking regional passions.

The carrot of Marathi PM is for the voters in Maharashtra to beat the anti incumbency factor. Shivsena realised this a little late. But will the voter in Maharashtra realise this gameplan before he votes? We will know this only on 16th May.

Narendra Modi and Rajiv Gandhi

The last few days have seen a lot of prominent voices in support of Narendra Modi as future Prime Minister of India. Since NDA has declared LK Advani as its Prime Minestrial candidate, these voices are not relevant at least in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election. However, the onslaught of secularists against supporters of Narendra Modi exposes their hypocrisy. One could have understood their discomfort with the Chief Minister of Gujarat if they have had similar opinion about Rajiv Gandhi who was ruler of India during the 1984 Sikh riots, the worst ever riots after partition.

In fact the 1984 violence was so one sided that it was not a riot but a pogrom unleashed on the Sikh community by workers of the ruling Congress party to avenge the assassination of their leader Indira Gandhi who was killed by two Sikh terrorists. Very little is known about the extent of 1984 killings as there was no internet and no 24/7 news channels in those days.  Khushwant Singh, then the editor of The Illustrated Weekly Of India and a Gandhi family loyalist had called up President Gyani Zail Singh, a Sikh, for protection during the riots. The President, who also happened to be commander-in-chief  of our armed forces advised Khushwant Singh to take shelter in a Hindu house. Neither the Police nor any Government Department but a good Hindu friend was the suggestion by the then President to a fellow Sikh who had called up for help. We may be baffled at this helplessness of the President but he knew what he was talking for it was not a Hindu – Sikh riot and hence the advice to Khushwant Singh to take shelter at any Hindu’s house. The President also knew that the pogrom was being carried out under the watchful eyes of Delhi Police and hence did not advice Khushwant Singh to take the help of Police. In fact the day after Indira’s assassination, when the pogrom had just begun, a peace march by some residents of Lajpat Nagar, a Delhi locality was stopped as participants did not have official permission!! In many places Police took away kirpans from Sikhs and made the job of Congress workers much more easier.

For three days, killings continued unabated in the capital and around 3000 Sikhs were killed. But the national television did not show any footage of the riot (Doordarshan was the only Television Channel in those days).  All that the state run TV channel showed was the dead body of Indira Gandhi and her mourners. It was as if the city of 9 million people was in the somber mood of mourning. The world was totally unaware of the happenings in the capital of India. People did listen to some Congress workers shouting Khoon Ka Badla Khoon Se Lenge (We will avenge blood with blood) well within the earshot of new Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi but were unaware of the extent of the bloodshed as it was totally blacked out by the only Television Channel in the country.

The official toll by the Government immediately after the riots put the death toll at 425. Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was then the president of BJP contested the official death toll and asked his colleagues to collate figures. BJP’s total added up to 2800. The Congress quickly branded BJP as an anti-national party. Later the Ahuja Committee, appointed by the Government to compute the number of deaths, put the death toll as 2,733 in Delhi. Rajiv Gandhi and his Government never apologised or regretted for the bloodshed. Instead he defended the pogrom by saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” Editors of national dailies rationalised the killings. Girilal Jain, editor of The Times Of India explained that the Hindu cup of patience had become full to the brim. N.C. Menon, editor of The Hindustan Times wrote of how Sikhs had clawed their way to prosperity and it was about time. When Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan award, Vinod Mehta, current editor of Outlook magazine and a shining jewel of the secular pack , wrote that when it came to choosing between a Sikh and an Indian, Khushwant Sikh chose to be a Sikh!!

During the Lok Sabha elections of 1984, Congress ran a hate filled campaign which included advertisements and posters that had a picture of a Sikh Taxi driver with the caption Kya Aap Ek Sikh Taxi Driver pe Bharosa kar sakte hain ? (Can You trust a Sikh Taxi Driver?). In Amethi, where Maneka Gandhi was contesting against her brother in law Rajiv Gandhi, slogans like Beti hai Sardar ki, Qaum hai Gaddar ki (She is the daughter of a Sikh, a community of traitors) worked and so did the hate filled posters in the rest of the country. Congress got 401 seats in the Lok Sabha; a feat which not even Indira Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru had achieved. Of course for a congress sympathetic mainstream media, this victory was result of a sympathy wave.

Congress leaders like Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler, HKL Bhagat who actively took part in the killings continued getting Lok Sabha tickets in successive elections. Jagdish Tytler was even made a minister in the UPA government. PV Narasimha Rao who was the Home Minister during the pogrom, was severely censured for his connivance with the killers, by Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, hero of 1971 war, in his affidavit to Nanavati Commission . Not only did Rajiv Gandhi made him a cabinet minister again after the 1984 elections but he was also made the Prime Minister after the death of Rajiv Gandhi. Even today mainstream media criticises P V Narasimha Rao more for the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya, in which non one was killed than for the 1984 massacre of thousands.

Now compare this with the Gujarat riots of 2002. According to UPA Government 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims were killed in the riots. Now if it was a state sponsored riots against Muslims how come 254 Hindus lost their lives ? Gujarat is the only state where many rioters have been convicted by courts whereas the first conviction in anti Sikh pogrom happened in 1997. Even during the riots a lot of rioters (both Hindus and Muslims) were killed due to police firing. The state has progressed a lot since the 2002 riots and hence Modi’s popularity has soared not just in Gujarat but in the entire country despite the fact that he is still held responsible for the riots unlike Rajiv Gandhi who was darling of the same section of the media. This double standard is unfathomable.

People who hold Modi morally responsible for the riots would be probably justified in doing so if they apply the same yardstick to Rajiv Gandhi and Congress regime of 1984. When they dont do that, they expose the hollowness in their secularism.

BJP won the semis by 2-3

The recently held Vidhan Sabha elections in five Indian states were touted to be the semi finals before the general elections which are expected to be held in March – April 2009. Most analysts have concluded that since Congress suceeded in forming the Government in three states, it has won this semi final has emerged stronger than BJP. But as usual, the devil is in the details.  

Of the three states won by Congress two are Delhi and Mizoram. These two states together account for just eight Lok Sabha seats which is three less than Chattisgarh which was not only retained by BJP but the party even increased its vote share defying anti – incumbancy factor. Congress suceeded in wresting Rajasthan from BJP but it managed to get only one percent more votes than BJP. This despite the fact that BJP had to face rebel candidates in as many as 60 constituencies and many of them won (fourteen independents won with a vote share of about 20% in the state).If  votes of the four big states in the polls (excluding Mizoram) are aggregated, it is clear that BJP got 38 % of total votes polled whereas the Congress got around 36% in these elections. Even if the Vidhan Sabha seats are aggregated, BJP has won more seats (BJP got 294 whereas the Congress got 279) than Congress in the five states even if one includes 32 seats won by Congress in Mizoram which sends just one MP to Lok Sabha. Infact the states won by BJP i.e MP and Chattisgarh account for 40 Lok Sabha seats whereas the states won by Congress i.e Rajasthan, Delhi & Mizoram account for 33 Lok Sabha seats. So the performance of BJP was far bettter than Congress both in terms of vote share and seats won. This despite the fact that BJP had the disadvantage of anti incumbency in the three bigger states.

 One of the other myth that was perteprated by analysts is irrelevance of internal security as a poll issue by citing the results of Delhi elections where Shiela Dikshit won, despite the fact that Delhi alsio faced serial blasts earlier this year. However, these analysts conviniently ignore that Delhi voters are aware of the fact that Shiela Dikshit does not control Police or any other law and order department as security is not a State subject for Delhi & it is directly controlled by Central Government. In Chattisgarh, of the 31 Naxal affected seats BJP won 26 seats mainly because of the its Government’s support to Salwa Judum, a people’s movement against Naxalism. Congress had promised to disband Salwa Judum and was routed in the Naxal affected areas. So internal security is indeed a big issue and would be a bigger issue in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The results of these elections clearly point towards Advantage BJP for Lok Sabha 2009.