Book Title: Who Gets Elected: How and Why
Author: Pradeep Gupta. Rupa
In an increasingly crowded marketplace of pollsters, Pradeep Gupta has an enviable strike rate of predicting the outcome of elections, parliamentary and Assembly, with laser-like precision. As elections get governed by different metrics, which Gupta details, he says that poll forecasting is “a bit like cricket — there is no room for complacency and each ball is a new one”. Of the 60 elections for which he undertook exit polls, his projections were on the dot for as many as 56. Television viewers will recall his celebratory capers in the studio of his favourite news channel once the EVMs did their job and he was proved right.
Gupta’s book is a must not just for avid election watchers and journalists but students of contemporary politics wanting to comprehend the subterranean interplay of factors that shape voters’ choice in a diverse country like ours, where, in the ultimate analysis, no two states are alike despite the temptation to hang labels such as the “heartland” and the “south”. In the process, the Madhya Pradesh-born and Mumbai-based Gupta shares a few trade secrets (he can’t be expected to run off at the mouth), enough to substantiate the claim that “none of our accuracies have happened by chance”.
From hiring surveyors for every language and dialect who are patient listeners with a less-privileged background and willing to spend nights in villages to detailing the travel logistics and other minutiae, Gupta claims his preparations are premised on the belief that “we are in the business of ‘exact’ polls” and not just exit polls.
An early success posted by his agency, Axis My India, was in getting the 2015 Bihar elections bang on, when the Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar-Congress ‘Mahagathbandhan’ beat the BJP despite the BJP sweeping the parliamentary polls in the state just a year earlier.
The 12 chapters cover a gamut of trends governing electoral politics, from leaders and party organisations, the bureaucracy, the TINA (There is no alternative) factor versus multiple choices, the role of money and geography, women as a swing factor, caste, whether the poor vote more than the rich and two divergent cases of modern politicians, Narendra Modi and Naveen Patnaik, who aced the game. Gupta’s assessments and analyses often overlap, underscoring the need for tighter editing because the book does not purport to be an academic study.
For this psephologist, the three pivots of electoral politics are voters, politicians and governance and all three bristle with contradictions because while the voters engage with the democratic process to fulfil their needs (which vary according to their socio-economic and regional backgrounds), the leaders also have their “needs” though it’s not clear whether he uses the word as a synonym for expectations from the voters.
In decoding modern-day politics, Gupta has divided leaders into dynasts and non-dynasts, the entitled and the self-made. I have a problem with his thesis of dynasts, who he maintains do not have to be beholden to the people for the positions they occupy because for them, family comes first, and thereafter, people and governance. Whereas for a non-dynast, emerging from a cause or a movement, or rising from humble origins, his first priority would be the people and not his family. Indira Gandhi is labelled as a dynast but did the prerogative stop her from thinking and working for the masses when she brought in radical pro-people policies that challenged status quo ante? Did her son Rajiv Gandhi not have people in mind when he laid the foundation of the Panchayati Raj? Or initiated a National Education Policy? At the end of the day, even a dynast has to sweat it out to keep his seat and power (if he is the PM or a CM) or risk fading into oblivion.
Of interest is the chapter on technology being a game-changer by collapsing physical boundaries and connecting Indians at a national and global level through smartphones and social media. Gone are the days when peripatetic journalists foraging the countryside to sniff out poll trends could depend on the village ‘nai’ (barber) or ‘chaiwallah’ for leads.
The author agrees that an “election is not a game for ordinary players” because the question of who gets elected is “baffling in both size and complexity”.