A recent Twitter thread sharing some key findings from a political economist’s paper, titled “Democratic Backsliding in World’s Largest Democracy”, is in the eye of a storm erupting among academic circles (particularly social scientists) over the last few days, especially across social media.
The paper, in providing an empirically tested methodological critique on the debate of Democratic Backsliding in India, provides sneering evidence against the incumbent party in power, while studying irregular electoral patterns in the 2019 general election. It asks whether these documented ‘patterns’ were produced due to electoral manipulation or precise control (i.e. defined by the party’s ability to precisely predict and affect win margins through campaigning).
The author, Sabyasachi Das, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, in his paper compiles several new datasets providing statistical evidence that is contestant with ‘electoral manipulation in closely contested constituencies and is supportive of the precise control hypothesis’.
According to the author, electoral manipulation appears to take the form of targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims, partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers.
Summary: What the Paper Argues
If we break down key observations from the paper, as done in the tweet thread here, the evidence provided in the study argues/provides statistically rigorous evidence of the following:
a) That, the BJP wins a disproportionate number of “close” elections in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election. Close polls are basically a toss-up: if parties put in equal effort, there is no reason one party wins more such polls than others. Here, BJP wins more than INC or any other party-also explained with evidence).
b) The two probable explanations provided for the above finding are (and I quote MR Sharan here): “1) Precise control: BJP knows what elections are going to be close and works harder there. This is plausible and has been shown to be at work in other contexts. 2) Electoral Manipulation: Party manipulates voter rolls, votes polled.”
c) The author explains why “the precise control hypothesis” doesn’t explain the fact BJP won in many ‘close election calls’ as the National Election Survey (NES) of 2019 suggests that the BJP did not campaign more in places where they won by a close margin.
d) Das provides further evidence on how “voter rolls are manipulated” by showing the growth rate in voters between 2014-19 is smaller in constituencies where BJP narrowly wins, and it does so by deleting names i.e. of Muslims in these identified constituencies. There is also proof of Turnout Manipulation, where a party can be observed deleting or changing votes while compromising the core integrity of the EC’s electoral process.
This paper, given the nature of its findings, has caught almost every social scientist's (working on electoral studies or the political economy of Indian democracy) attention, some of the response generated to it is warranted (asking about the methodology of the paper and the nature of findings presents) as an academic exercise, while some, remains more unwarranted.
Ashoka University, where the author is affiliated as an academic faculty, released what can be considered a poorly designed response in a tweet published here.
On Ashoka University's Response
I will have more to say on the critical context of the paper (its statistical framework, method, and broader findings) in a follow-up written to this column. However, for now, anyone who attempts a critical line of inquiry to the study itself has a burden of proof to argue (with coherent statistical evidence) that the author in this case has either:
The wrong data set
His data doesn’t justify his statistical findings
A statistical anomaly (as presented by the author) can be explained by something other than vote-rigging
There is no proof of such critique provided anywhere, yet but what we do see is simple, unscientific rhetoric (aimed at discrediting either the scholarship or cynically critiquing the author/scholar himself) which is part of a pattern now on any intellectual exercise that critiques or provides incriminating evidence against the political party in power.
While a sound critique matters in context to what the paper and its research mean/signals, not just for asking tough questions to the Election Commission, its own role and integrity in safeguarding the electoral process as the foundational root of the Indian democracy, as important as that is, but what about the freedom of scientific research (and researchers) to test/ask the more difficult questions-even though we may want to test any assumptions made by a scholar to answer those questions as an academic exercise and adventure.
My principal concern here is the way in which the University itself as an elite, private education institution envisioning the incubation and practice of ‘liberal thinking and critical reflection values’, has come out with a comment, without being asked to do so or say anything. One of its faculty members wrote a scientifically rigorous paper that in fact merits greater dissemination and support than ‘an act of distancing’ from it.
Dani Rodrik, a leading economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, came out and wrote in support of the author, while responding to the University’s “poorly crafted statement”, and one according to Rodrik, “(somehow) casts aspersion on the paper than supporting the researcher’s academic freedom” to ask the tough questions.
It almost seems that the administration felt compelled to issue a statement distancing itself from its own faculty’s work- which has been out in the social science and political science academic circles for review and peer review for months now.
Why Sabyasachi Das’ Paper is a Courageous Act
The statement also quite poorly on the overall landscape of creative autonomy and free ‘liberal arts thinking’ promise often projected by elite, private institutions which are not even dependent on the government for fiscal/revenue or their day-to-day administrative functioning. Imagine the situation in public institutions where the fiscal scenario for such universities or deemed institutions is very different (see here for a discussion on the state of academic freedom in India).
Given the current political climate, the retarding state of academic freedom, and the waning importance attributed to core practices of democratic accountability in India, Sabyasachi Das’ act to write and boldly defend/share his work (open-source) is a courageous act.
Any institution which feels it is okay to critique the person who ‘acts’ with courage and conviction without providing any sound, coherent, logical, scientifically tested response to his paper’s findings, shows how dismal and petty the state of both, academic freedom, and freedom of expression have got to, in/across Indian institutions. It can also be emphasized that while the University in this case came out with a statement, many educational institutions (private too), use other ways to ‘silence’ those who critique the status quo or seek to investigate or write the truth to/about power.
Das, the author, in this case, merits our intellectual support and his paper merits greater in-depth reading and wider academic dissemination, including for the purpose of pursuing critical inquiry and methodological reference, than be subjected to ignorance and apathetic dismissal.
(Deepanshu Mohan is a Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)