Charles Baudelaire had once famously said, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Democracy’s finest trick in that case perhaps is to persuade the media into believing that the Indian electorate is a predictable beast which can be tamed with a rudimentary opinion poll. But ace psephologists Dr Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala — co-writers of the new book The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections — understand that the devil often lies in the details. Like Rome wasn’t built in a day, a book of this kind cannot be written in one sitting either. The years of groundwork and research by market research veteran Sopariwala and Dr Roy that’s gone behind the making of this book is visible almost from the very first page, which ends with the climactic sentence: “The Indian voter is always ahead of the politician, constantly pushing, punishing and teaching the politician a lesson or two when necessary.”
The Verdict is a purist’s delight because every piece of information provided is backed ably and expectedly by charts, tables and numbers. But it manages to engage a relatively lay reader with equivalent ease because even while conveying complex statistical analysis of big data, the authors have simultaneously managed to create an anecdotal world full of wit and unassuming wisdom. A most interesting part of this book is how the authors have divided the years since first elections were held in India in 1952 until the present day. They argue that the first twenty-five years, during 1952-1977 was the pro-incumbency era, during which the voters displayed a sort of ‘blind faith’ in politicians, possibly as recognition of their efforts in carrying out a successful movement against the British which led to the country’s Independence in 1947.
What followed was the anti-incumbency era, 1977-2002, during which the general voter, tired of politicians disappearing on them for five years between elections, finally got angry. The voters enjoyed punishing incompetent politicians by throwing them out and sending them a strong message during these twenty-five years. It was during this phase, in 1977, in the aftermath of the Emergency, that “the Congress party was dramatically thrown out of power.” The third phase between 2002 and 2019 is termed as The Fifty: Fifty Era, during which the angry voter transformed into the ‘wiser voter’ who were on one hand happy to throw out governments and candidates that did not meet their expectations but was also willing to vote a politician who worked for their constituency’s development back to power.
Another intriguing paradox is the chapter on women voters. We learn that a high level of women participation has been one of the major developments since 1962, when the turnout of women was merely 47 per cent, while by 2014 it went up to 66 per cent whereas men’s turnout grew by only 5 per cent over the same period.
This is a very positive sign since Roy and Sopariwala inform us that in 1962, women’s turnout was 15 per cent lower than men’s turnout. But the same chapter also points at how millions of Indian women have not even been registered to vote despite having attained the voting age. This number, the book tells us, of women who are denied their constitutional right to vote because their names haven’t been registered on voter lists, is a staggering 21 million.
But, as previously revealed, alongside all the data crunching, the authors never fail to infuse the narrative with moments of pure frolic and amusement. Consider this: one of the ‘dirty tricks’ which political parties have resorted to is putting up independent candidates who have the same name as a rival party candidate to confuse the voter. So in 2014, Chandu Lal Sahu of the BJP in the Mahasamund Lok Sabha constituency got a rude shock when he found out that there were ten other independent candidates contesting alongside him with the same name as his! A personal favourite however, is the episode in which a Cabinet minister once called up the All India Radio and asked them to delay the 9 pm news broadcast by five minutes, instead play a Bollywood number for the entertainment of his guests who were attending a party at his home at the time.
This is a perfect handbook for anybody interested in understanding the machinery of the Indian electoral system, and throws valuable light on voting behaviour, opinion polls, exit polls, and the various challenges which the Election Commission of India has to perennially deal with in order to ensure a fair and free election. The Verdict also serves as a timely reminder — as India votes — that as long as the Opposition doesn’t learn from experience and remains fragmented as it is today, the vote threshold for the ruling majority to win an election will keep falling. The term ‘psephology’ was first used by the social scientist Sir David Butler in a book by him, but since the past forty years Dr Roy has been the Indian voter’s favourite poster boy, loyally infusing method to this five-yearly madness without fail. The expression ‘recommended reading’ was coined for books such as these.