Popular Will and Divine Will

I had planned to make this post when the elections, which seemed inevitable at that time, were declared.  Unfortunately, it turns out that we will not have the elections after all. But I might as well make it.

Every time an election is held in our country, opinion polls try to predict the result. Virtually every time, they get their call wrong – even the exit polls. This fact will invariably be presented by our pundits with a sense of wonder that is usually reserved for divine miracles.  The people of India, it will be said, have kept their cards close to their chest, and though illiterate and uneducated, have managed to fool all the pollsters to give their verdict.

Once the election concludes, the Popular Will, which could not be discerned by the hundreds of surveyors who went around the country questionnaire in hand, is instantly understood by the pundits even when they are half-way around the world and columnists for the New York Times.  Two weeks before the elections, the best scientific models are unable to answer the simple factual question of which way the results will sway. But a day after the results are known, everyone knows, without any need for evidence, what went on in the minds of the people as they were voting.

That is how the common wisdom that the general elections of 2004 were a popular vote against the reforms came about. That is also how everyone knows that Chandrababu Naidu was voted out because he neglected the villages at the cost of Hyderabad. (Why did he win once then? No one knows.)

If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that no one has a clue about which way the Indian voters vote, and once they have voted, the process of translating the votes to seats makes it pretty much impossible to draw a causal chain between the intention of the voter and the “Popular Will” as expressed via the seat position in the legislature.  

If pollsters and pundits cannot call an election a month in advance, it is very likely that those in the government will be unable to take a guess as to which policies will win them the next election five years away. If democracy means that rulers govern according to the will of the people, then India’s democracy is broken.

12 thoughts on “Popular Will and Divine Will

  1. –> “If democracy means that rulers govern according to the will of the people, then India’s democracy is broken.”

    I used to think that democracy meant that big mistakes or wrong-doings had a chance of sometimes being corrected by the will of the people.

    But then Iftikhar Choudhry was reinstated in Pakistan recently.

  2. Isn’t Democracy another name for the minimum criteria for ceasefire that gets renewed every few years?

  3. I think you are focussed too much on a national message (party manifestos, policy promises) etc..

    It may happen that local issues play an important role in how people vote as opposed to voting based on preferred policies of the central government. As such it will become very difficult for pollsters, who are looking at trends and patterns, to predict the results on a statewide or nationwide scale. However, the person who is affected the most by the vagaries of the local voters will have a keen interest in getting himself/herself reelected. He/she will retain an incentive to convey his electorate’s message to his party and vote in the parliament/raise questions regarding these issues. The party can thus formulate policies desirable to majority of its elected members and their constituencies.

    Just because news channels cannot decipher the message on a national scale doesn’t mean that messages sent at the local level aren’t heard or that party apparatus will be unable to frame a policy reflecting voters’ aspirations.

  4. Chetan, there are two responses to your point.

    First, even if you are right, it does not contradict my point – indeed it strengthens it. If the will of the people translates to noises in Parliament, but not to policies of the government, then democracy has failed.

    Second, there is independent evidence that what you are saying, while it might have been true twenty years back, is becoming less and less true now. You should read Arun Shourie’s latest book (The Parliamentary System) where he has detailed how our leaders have simply no clue which policies will win them the next election.

  5. Oh all you folks, go ahead and read Arun Shourie’s latest book on Indian Parliamentary democracy. I know Ravi has read it so he can ignore this. 🙂

  6. Politicians do tend to get it right compared to pollsters. Their careers depend on it and hence they make much better predictions. You just have to listen to them carefully because the one who feels that his/her chances are poor tends to put on a positive face. They tend to be very good actors because they have to be. Politics is probably the most cutthroat profession in India.

    A lot of predictions from pollsters are for the consumption of the English-language speaking classes of India. Many simply pass off wishful thinking as statistics. Good examples are the predictions of victory for Chandrababu Naidu and defeat for Narendra Modi in their last respective elections.

    Why did Chandrababu Naidu win last time? Because the Congress at that time was in shambles and NTR’s legacy was still fresh with the sympathy votes going to him rather than Lakshmi Parvathy. Most middle-class and lower middle-class Telugu people knew beforehand that Naidu was going to lose in the last election. The stories predicting to the contrary in the English-language media was a mixture of good PR, journalists too close to establishment/money and plain wishful thinking. I do think that Naidu is back in favour with the masses.

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