The Lok Sabha elections that kicked off on Thursday are a democratic exercise the likes of which the world has never seen. In the world’s largest democratic practice, around 900 million voters – more than the combined population of all the European countries, across 543 constituencies will cast their votes to decide the fate of political parties.
The media coverage, like every election season, is being ruled by opinion polls. Surveyors and pollsters have jumped into the maze of deciphering future election results by making use of statistical models that forecast the vote share and the seat share of political parties based on surveys conducted among electorates. These forecasts have become fodder for everyday conversation.
However, it is difficult to trust the results of opinion polls as the results differ significantly from poll to poll. Given this situation, many researchers have examined the results of opinion polls and claimed that they have failed repeatedly to predict election outcomes.
A recent study presented in the book ‘The Verdict’ demonstrates that the success rate of such polls in estimating the number of seats that the winning party may bag is just 62 per cent. On similar lines, a study conducted by India Today raised concerns over the fact that day by day, opinion polls are drifting away from reality. One of the main findings of that analysis is that the errors in predicting LokSabha elections are on the rise since 1998-99.
In such a situation where the gap between opinion poll predictions and actual outcomes is widening it is important to have a better statistical model in place to make sense of what factors are driving the outcomes behind elections. This can be done by indicating which types of economic and political data most meaningfully correlate with election outcomes.
An attempt to develop such a holistic model that can provide precise estimates of voting behaviour must take into account all the factors that citizens keep in mind while casting their votes. In most democracies, a common belief is that good economics makes for good politics. This belief suggests that an incumbent party’s chances of winning elections increase if the region experienced positive economic growth during their term. In India, however, this popular notion is not supported by data. A simple correlation analysis between the growth rate of GDP per capita and the incumbent party getting re-elected reveals a negative relationship between the two, implying that in most cases despite higher growth incumbent does not get re-elected. This observation helps us in concluding that support base and vote bank for parties in India is dependent on a host of factors other than economic development.
The two other factors that shape voting decisions of Indian voters might be social issues and public sentiment towards the government. A broad spectrum of the social issues from shelter to sanitation, education to health, personal rights to inclusion must be considered. This is important because of presence of diversity across Indian regions. For some living below the poverty line or on bare minimum income, social wellbeing would mean better shelter facilities, free healthcare, improved nutritional facilities, etc. For rich people, this would mean new opportunities to grow and improve their life.
The sentiment towards the current government can be captured through two aspects. One, the vote share of the national ruling party in the state elections held during their tenure. Second, the narrative build by traditional media platforms about leaders and political parties and social media engagement of the political parties. The traditional media platforms provide voters with the facts and figures that can help them to make informed choices. And the increased exposure of voters to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter has provided a direct link between voters and leaders. More and more candidates are relying on social media campaigns to win elections. By serving as the source of information, media has the power to impact voting behaviour of citizens.
BJP’s poll pangs
As India is in the thick of parliamentary elections, and polling for 302 seats (out of total 543) has already been held, the ruling BJP finds itself on a fiercely challenging wicket. The social engineering by regional parties, in UP and Bihar in particular, and MumtaBannerji’s assertive position in West Bengal, is likely to upset the BJP’s calculations. BJP’s position in southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh Orissa too is reported to be fragile. Rahul Gandhi’s rise from ashes is another factor that is casting shadow on BJP’s electoral prospects. Mocked as “Pappu” for being a novice and inexperienced in politics by the Prime Minister NarendraModi and his party colleagues, Rahul Gandhi appears to have come of age. He is putting up a valiant fight against the BJP and in the recent past has defeated the ruling party in three crucial states—Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh—in assembly elections. The Congress president—heir of Nehru-Gandhian dynasty—has made a careful departure from the party’s rhetorical and symbolic commitment to secularism and minority rights. He is taking on the Prime Minister on the agenda set by the BJP itself. To establish his Hindu identity, Rahul Gandhi visited hundreds of Hindu temples in the past few months leaving little scope for the hard-line Hindu detractors to call him a “non-Hindu”. Rather than stand against BJP’s majoritarian and Islamophobic politics, Rahul Gandhi chose to fight the electoral battle on the terms set by the Hindu right. He stayed silent about the violence and hostility encountered by the Muslim citizens. He essentially agreed with the terms set by Hindu nationalists that to speak of equal citizenship and political rights for India’s 165 million Muslims is no longer acceptable in India. Rahul Gandhi regularly posted on Twitter but he avoids references to India’s Muslims.
This seems to have paid for the Congress president in this new Indian frame of politics where inclusiveness is no more a virtue. It has rattled the BJP and its leadership, and they are finding themselves on quite a sticky wicket. Though it is premature to draw any conclusion about the outcome of the elections but the desperation in the BJP camp is visible. It is for this fact that the BJP leadership is trying hard to renew and revive the communal polarization ahead of four other phases of polling. There are two main indicators of this BJP plan. Prime Minister NarendraModi is trying to invoke Pakistan and nuclear bomb in his poll campaign to attract voters to his side. The other day he warned Pakistan of nuclear bomb saying “our nuclear bomb is not for Diwali”. Addressing an election rally in Rajasthan, he said that India could no more be frightened or blackmailed by Islamabad’s threats and said its nuclear capabilities are not being kept for Diwali. “Every other day they used to say ‘we have nuclear button, we have nuclear button’. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?” he said. The other major indicator of BJP’s growing frustration is fielding of terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur as party nominee from Bhopal parliamentary seats. She is challenging the Congress strong man Digvijay Singh. Singh is the main accused in 2008 Malegaon blast case in which six people had died and around 100 others injured (all Muslims). The trial court had in October last year framed charges against Pragya and other accused under the UAPA and other sections of the Indian Penal Code for murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between religious groups. If convicted, the maximum punishment would be life imprisonment or death. Pragya and the others facing trial in the case are charged with “hatching a conspiracy” to “strike terror in the mind of the Muslim community, to create communal rift….” Currently she is out on bail on health grounds. It goes without saying that charges against her have not been proven yet but the moral and political propriety had it that she, for the seriousness of the charges, should not have been considered for such a place in the party. By owning and fielding her, BJP has played out a game of polarization of voters on religious lines.
Collapse of Afghanistan peace talks
The hope for end of the war in Afghanistan has suffered a major blow as the peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government have collapsed. A key meeting of Taliban leaders and Afghanistan government officials was scheduled to take place in Qatar on April 19 but a last minute row over the large number of delegates Kabul wanted to send culminated in the fall down. Taliban leaders refused to accept the Afghan government delegation in such a large size. The peace talks have been postponed indefinitely. The talks have collapsed at a moment when bloodshed continues in the war torn country. On Saturday suicide attackers stormed the Ministry of Communications in the capital Kabul trapping thousands of people inside the building for hours while security forces battled the assailants. At least 10 people died in the fighting. The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attack, which came a day after U.S.-led peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders broke down in Qatar, with no immediate plans to reschedule negotiations. Taliban indeed is the major power group in Afghanistan. It now controls or influences more than half of Afghanistan. The government writ has largely been squeezed to Kabul only. A recent United Nations tally revealed that around 4000 civilians were killed across Afghanistan last year. The United States, which is leading an effort to end the war, signaled its disappointment and urged both sides to return to the table, though organizers gave no hint about when the conference might be rescheduled.
Efforts to end the Afghan conflict have accelerated since the appointment of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in September last year, who has since been shuttling across the region to revive Afghan peace talks. He has held several meetings with the Taliban leaders at their political office in the Gulf country of Qatar. American President Donald Trump’s letter, in recent past, to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking Islamabad’s support in establishing peace in Afghanistan too has helped in reviving the peace efforts in the decades old war torn country. Trump had earlier tried to terrorize and pressurize Pakistan through intimidating measures, and in the process stopped all the military aid the country was supposed to get as its share for being a partner in America’s war on terrorism. Trump directly accused Pakistan of harbouring and sponsoring the terrorists, and wanted Pakistan to fight the America’s war in Afghanistan. Trump issued threat and warnings to Pakistan with the intention that like in the past it would succumb to such pressure. But as it saw Taliban capturing more and more areas, Trump stopped all military and economic aid to Pakistan to make Islamabad more pliable. America even threatened Pakistan of military action if it did not comply to the US orders. But the rise of Imran Khan to power saw a new and confident Pakistan refusing to toe the American line. American officials have now admitted that the Taliban control more than 60 per cent of the territory in Afghanistan. Hence, the Trump administration has finally come to the conclusion that there is no other option but to talk to the Taliban. The U-Turn by Donald Trump is a huge indicator that no country, howsoever powerful it could be is invincible. In the new scenario, America’s interests in peace in Afghanistan are growing as the US wanted complete withdrawal of its forces from the country. There is no other alternative to peace. Irrespective of what America or other interested powers want, peace should restore in Afghanistan in the interests of its people. More than anyone else, it is the people of Afghanistan who need peace. It is imperative on all stakeholders to restore peace talks without any delay so that peace returns to the war-torn country.
Easter Sunday shock
On Sunday Sri Lanka was rocked by a series of deadly blasts that killed more than 200 people and injured around 500 more. At least eight bombs ripped through three Churches and two high-end hotels in the capital Colombo causing widespread casualties. Seen as one of the worst terror acts in the island nation, the bombing were struck at a time when large number of Christian devotees had gathered in Churches to celebrate Easter. The day is celebrated by Christian across the world as a mark of reincarnation of Jesus Christ three days after his crucification. In a country of 22 million people, Christians form around 10 percent of the population. The scale and savagery of the attacks that clearly targeted Christians have left Sri Lankans devastated and confused. The country has a long history of disenfranchisement among minority Tamil groups, who are largely Hindu, at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhists led to a civil war in the 1980s. The Tamil Tigers, an armed insurgent group that identified itself as secular, launched deadly attacks, including some of the earliest use of suicide bombings as a tactic of insurgency. The group was active in northeastern Sri Lanka, in areas such as Jaffna. The LTTE was a highly motivated insurgent group which is the first separatist militant group in south Asia to introduce suicide bombings as a means of its campaign. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was also killed by this group by human bombing. In response, the Sri Lankan Army carried out brutal campaigns, largely focused on the Tamil stronghold in the northeast. The civil war ended in 2009 after a large-scale operation by the army that defeated the Tamil Tigers and killed its leader—Velupillai Prabhakaran. There is no exact casualty toll, but the United Nations has suggested that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last stage of the war alone.
No group has claimed responsibility for the latest devastating attack. The police said they believed the bombings were the work of one group but declined to identify it. At least 35 of the victims were foreigners, including several Americans. For years, as Sri Lanka has climbed away from war, it has been building a robust tourism industry. The bombings were the deadliest attack on Christians in South Asia in recent memory and punctuated a rising trend of religious-based violence in the region. In recent years, there have been clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, and in March last year the government imposed a 12-day state of emergency to quell anti-Muslim riots. Christian groups have also complained of increased harassment from hard-line Buddhist groups. Buddhists form around 70 percent of the country’s overall population. Sri Lanka is known for its tremendous natural beauty, which attracts millions of tourists every year. The country gained independence from British rule in 1948 as the dominion of Ceylon, and became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Its people have long borne a burden of violence. It is yet to be seen who are behind the Sunday bombings and how it does fit in the country’s turbulent history. Much to the credit of the Sri Lankan government, the island nation did not react in panic. Though the authorities had to impose curfew as precautionary measure but the overall situation is reported peaceful. But few would dispute with the fact the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has resulted in sectarian divides that is growing menacingly, and the country has experienced new waves of violence. A rise in intolerance has been attributed in part to the postwar triumphalism of some Sinhalese majority politicians. The Sri Lankan government needs to look into the Sunday bombing from all angles.
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