India’s general elections can be frustratingly impossible to make sense of until the results are declared. But for over three decades, economist and journalist Prannoy Roy has appeared in Indian homes through television, making sense of the winners and the losers.

Highlights from his decades of work have now been published as a book at a time when the country is in the midst of a major general election.

Roy refers to himself as a psephologist (from the Greek word psēphos signifying pebble or vote, based on the ancient Greeks’ practice of using pebbles to cast votes). That’s a term – little known outside the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and India – for someone who deals with the study and scientific analysis of elections.

“Democracy lies at the very core of every Indian’s DNA.” writes Roy, who also founded one of India’s first news television channels, NDTV. In The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections he and co-author Dorab R Sopariwala, a market researcher, do a deep dive into why people win and lose.

At first glance, the 200-page Penguin hardbound seems a daunting exercise, packed as it is with statistics and charts. On the contrary, it can act as a go-to book for anyone who wants to understand the complexity of elections in the world’s largest democracy. It succeeds in framing simple explanations to complex scenarios with data going back to the first general election, held in 1952.

‘The Verdict- Decoding India’ Elections’ by Prannoy Roy and Dorab R Sopariwala. Photo: Amazon

From optimism to anger

For millennials, or first-time voters who have not witnessed historic events that shaped electoral fortunes, the book is replete with anecdotal accounts that help in understanding India’s tryst with democracy and destiny. Based on the data, the writers divided almost seven decades of elections into three phases – pro-incumbency, anti-incumbency and an equal-chance era.

It is a general notion, as pointed out in the book, that India’s democracy is characterized by “anti-incumbency” – meaning that the ruling parties and/or candidates have a higher chance of being thrown out of power.

However, the book traces the gradual shift from the initial pro-incumbency phase (1952-1977) described as a period of “optimism” when voters placed a high level of trust, bordering on blind faith, in politicians and ruling parties.

This changed to a period of anti-incumbency (1977-2002), which saw the birth of the “angry voter” after the honeymoon period of pro-incumbency vanished and “the mood of ‘optimism’ that had largely characterized it transformed into ‘anger.’” The percentage of being voted back dramatically dropped from 80% to 29%, a phase during which Sopariwala coined the phrase “anti-incumbency.”

Following this “angry voter” phase, politicians actually started to work to better the lives of the electors – and the voters also grew wiser. They could now make the effort to differentiate between governments that delivered on promises and those that did not.

This is the ‘”perform or perish” phase, which has continued since 2002. Going into the 2019 elections, “almost exactly half the governments have been voted out and half have been voted back to power,” Roy notes.

Another important finding: It is no longer enough for an issue to be important for it to affect voting behavior. Instead, the party which seems to be better at solving problems becomes the key that determines the vote in India. This is where Narendra Modi scored in 2014. He managed to convince voters that he had the solutions.

Women as voters

There is an entire chapter dedicated to women as voters. The data reveal that the percentage of women voters since 1962 has increased more than that of the men – contrary to the prevailing notion that India is a male-dominated society.

In a pilot survey when they asked women whether they voted for the party that their husbands told them to vote for, the women laughed and said: “He may think that I listen to him about whom to vote for. That’s in his dreams – I vote for exactly whom I want to vote for.”

They deciphered from the data insights into how women voting in the polls impacted the 2014 general elections in which Modi won with a landslide victory. Ironically, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has lower support among women than men. So, “if no men, only women, had voted, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would have won 265 seats – which would have been seven seats short of the majority mark.”

In 1962, the turnout of women voters was around 47%. That shot up to 66% in 2014, a 19% increase. In the same period, turnout by men grew by only 5%.

In fact, more rural women turn out to vote: They beat urban women by a healthy 6%, the data revealed. This development is crucial to elections since 70% of India’s population lives in rural areas. However, the authors point out a glaring problem: disenfranchisement of women voters. The worst was seen in 2014 general elections when almost 23.4 million women were denied their right to vote because their names were not registered in the voter list.

Even for 2019 general elections, about 21 million women who want to vote will be missing from voter lists, which translates to about 38,000 missing women voters per constituency on average. This is despite the huge effort by the Election Commission through its extensive annual outreach programs to enroll women voters.

Muslim vote

The book also elaborates on the declining number of Muslim representatives which is quite a recent phenomenon. “From 50% of contesting candidates going on to win their seats in the first phase (1952-1977), when parties had relatively few Muslim candidates, the winning ratio has fallen dramatically to only 17% in the latest period (2002-2019).”

It notes that even if more parties are nominating Muslim candidates, there has been an inverse relationship with their winning strike due to “poorer quality of candidates and a multiple number of Muslim candidates in seats with a high proportion of Muslim voters,” among other factors.

Hence, Muslims are under-represented, not due to discrimination or prejudice but because of the first-past-the-post electoral system. It means that “the more evenly a minority community is spread geographically, the lower is the bang/seats for the buck/vote.”

Published on the eve of the general elections in India, the book does not predict any outcome but sums up rightly through analysis that “it is the voter and not the politician who is at the core of our democracy.”