Opinion polls have a reputation for inaccuracy in India, but how inaccurate are they in reality? Has a meta-study been conducted on them? The reason I ask is that as I see it, there are two main steps where the polls can go wrong. Either they get the vote percentages wrong, or they make an error in translating the votes into seats. My ill-informed guess is that the first step is easier to get right than the second. It is possible that they get the vote percentage right and screw up in their model that will translate it into seats, or a small error in the first leads to a large error in the second. It should be possible to test this hypothesis by looking at the data for the last few elections. I am willing to bet (though not a large amount) that the non-shady organizations that conduct the polls get the vote percentage right. (I am also willing to accept the possibility that there are in fact no non-shady pollsters.)
The reason for this speculation is that it occurs to me that if I am right, this time the polls should be very very inaccurate, because the delimitation must have completely screwed up whatever models they have to translate votes into seats.
Karan Thapar discusses former Chief Election Commisioner Lyngdoh’s solution to the problem of “hate speech”. Lyngdoh believes that hate speech is a consequence of the first past the post system which will often lead to candidates getting elected even with 20-30% of the vote. So, all a candidate has to do is to appeal to a hardline base, which often means that he can profitably utilize hate speech towards that end. The solution, according to Lyngdoh, is in two parts. The first part is to utilize run-off voting where the top two candidates slug it out for a second round. The second part is to use proportional voting to fill part of the legislature.
I have discussed this when I reviewed Arun Shourie’s book for Pragati, but both these solutions will worsen the problem. In the FPTP system, you have to win the first time. Yes, you can win with 20-30% of the vote, but only if no one else gets more. What is stopping you from appealing to a broader section of the population right now? In a run-off voting system, you have an incentive to run a two-stage election strategy. In the first stage, your campaign is extremist, focusing on your base. In the second stage, you move to the centre to take advantage of the median voter – something that happens with American Presidential elections. In the FPTP system, you have little incentive to shoot for the second or third place. But in a run-off system, you have an incentive to try to secure 10-15% of the vote, so that you “transfer” it in the second round in return for favours.
Proportional voting has similar problems. In the FPTP system, there is little incentive to appeal to a religion, caste or section that is only 5% strong, but distributed across multiple constitencies. In a proportional system, a party that is focused on just that 5% will still get 5% of the seats.
To be honest, I actually like the proportional system. If you combine it with a directly elected President (making parliamentary majorities irrelevant) the system has some advantages – for one thing, it will provide better representation to the middle class that is now spread across multiple constituencies. But let’s not look at it to solve problems it won’t solve.
As you ponder over the results of the elections in the five states, it is time to rerun an old post from over a year back: Popular Will and Divine Will
Essentially, I believe that the first fundamental lacuna of India’s democratic system is that a government’s performance at governance has nothing to do with its performance in the elections. Everyone can explain an election after the results are declared, but no one can predict it in advance. I believe that in India, a statement like “If you do X, your probability of returning to power in the next elections is Y” cannot be made for any values of X or Y. This applies to all X, whether X stands for “good” policies or populist policies. Neither kind of X will have any kind of cause-and-effect relation on election results.
The problem is not just the electoral system. It is also because no value of X will translate into any result on the ground. A politician can hatch a scheme whereby he can promise free colour TV to all voters. He may think that voters will get TVs and vote for him, while he gets kickbacks from the manufacturer. But given the corruption in the administrative mechanism, it is pointless to try and put this scheme in action. There is no guarantee that the TVs will reach the voters, and therefore there is no way to ensure that his constituents vote for him.
Given this reality, if I were a politician, I would basically forget about trying to get reelected and concentrate on making money.
Very few politicians have tried to break out of this cycle, and I believe that the person with the greatest chance of succeeding is Modi.
“…the impact of this [delimitation] commission on India’s politics will be at least as far reaching as that of the Mandal commission.”
Now that we have seen the impact of the delimitation and increased representation for urban areas in the Karnataka election results, there will be increased talk of this phenomenon, but I just want to place on record that I had talked of this back in January 2008. I am not sure if I was the first one to talk of this, but just in case I was, let the date be noted.
I must also point out that I am not sure what the impact will be. I have been speculating quite a bit and much of the speculation will prove to be wrong. I am more likely to be correct about generalities (“national parties will benefit”) than about the particulars (“BJP will benefit”). My reasoning is more likely to be correct than the conclusions, because a small error in reasoning is likely to result in large errors in conclusions. But I am most confident about the statement made above – i.e. in time, the impact of urbanization on India’s politics will be as large, if not larger than the impact due to the Mandal politics introduced by V P Singh.
About the elections in Karnataka, Neel asks: “Once again. So whats new? Nothing much.”
Ah, but there is something new this time. Over 30 years back, a constitutional amendment had frozen the map of India’s parliamentary and legislative constituencies to reflect the India of 1971. The moratorium has now ended, and the picture has moved forward to reflect the India of 2001, an India that is much more urban than it was in 1971. I have reflected briefly on what urbanization means for India’s politics in the January 2008 Pragati
Karnataka is the first state to go to the polls after the delimitation. Of course, both voters and politicians will take time to adjust to the new situation, but if I am right, this will be the beginning of one of the most significant changes in India’s politics, rivalling the change brought about by VP Singh in 1991.
Two contradictory predictions about Gujarat:
- Modi will win comfortably, because he was never in trouble. It was media bias that made journalists see rebellions where there were mere rumblings.
- The exit polls are overestimating Modi’s votes for the same reason they underestimated Mayavati’s votes – those who voted against him are less likely to say that they did.
Which is your pick?