Exit polls: It’s not about right or wrong

There is quite a bit of discussion on whether the exit polls are right or wrong (see here, here, here and here). What I try to do here is to show that it is not about right or wrong. Rather it is a matter of the magnitude of the what is called right or wrong which I refer to as (a margin of) error. Once we begin to think of the numbers produced by exit polls as estimates (and not the Truth), a different set of questions arise. Questions that are fundamental to understanding numbers presented by the exit polls mainly the process through which numbers are generated? More specifically, Who is sampled? When? Where? How? and by Whom?

I use the data published by The Print on May 19[1]. Figures 1 and 2 shows both the predicted and actual number of seats for the NDA and UPA respectively. There are two notable observations.

The first, unsurprisingly, is that each poll across the years is off the actual seats won by either of the two parties. However what varies is how much or the magnitude of how much each of the polls is off the actual mark.

And the second, is that in any given year while the margin of error varies between the different sources, the direction of error i.e., whether they overestimate or underestimate is identical. For example in 1998, Outlook/AC Nielsen estimate was 14 seats less than the actual number of seats won by the BJP. Along the same lines, DRS, Frontline/CMS and India Today/CSDS predicted 3, 17, 38 less. Similarly, in 2014, all sources overestimate the number of seats Congress would win. The estimates 39 (ABP News/ Nielsen), 90 (Times Now/ORG India), 44 (CNN-IBN CSDS Lokniti), 21 (News 24/Today’s Chanakya), 43 (India TV/C Voter), 62 (India Today/Cicero) and 45 (NDTV/Hansa Research). When one (over/under) estimates, everyone else seems to follow suit! Perhaps this is suggestive of comparable biases across each of the sources which then get reflected in how surveys are executed. F

Figure 1: Predicted and actual seat count for the BJP by different polls across 5 Lok Sabhas
Figure 2: Predicted and actual seat count for the Congress by different polls across 5 Lok Sabhas

Now that we have established that we are looking at variation in errors, in the next set of figures, I attempt to shed light on whether these errors are getting larger or smaller across time. In Figure 3, the average difference across sources in a given year has been plotted. Figure 4, shows the absolute average difference from Figure 3. There is one key observation which I will discuss.

There is no discernable pattern in the errors across time. We cannot say that the errors in predicting seats won by BJP or Congress over time are increasing or decreasing i.e., there is no linear effect and we cannot claim that polls are becoming more or less accurate. But based on the data, what we can say is that in some years, the average error is smaller while in others its larger. For instance, the average difference across the sources was minimum for Congress in 1998 (underestimated by about 10 seats) and maximum in 2009 (underestimated by 62 seats). Similarly, the average difference across the sources was minimum for BJP in 1998 (underestimated by 18) and maximum in 2004 (overestimated by 76).

Given the figures, it becomes important to inquire into the source/s contributing to the error. We need to ask questions such as whether the method through which data is collected i.e., survey, has changed across years and if yes how does that play a role? Specifically, how are samples drawn? Or are those who are surveyed responding differently across the years and why is that the case? For instance, does a large error mean that voters are reluctant to reveal their true preference because of fear as suggested here?

Figure 3: Average difference across sources between predicted and actual seats for BJP and Congress
Figure 4: Absolute difference across sources between predicted and actual seats for BJP and Congress

In conclusion, we need to be wary of our own biases which in this case is to refrain from seeing patterns where they do not exist. And the second, we need to treat numbers produced by polls as estimates and not truth. Statements such as polls are wrong or right are neither helpful nor useful. All they do contribute to polarized opinions. What is helpful and I think useful too is thinking through how numbers are generated and what they could mean given the context.


[1] The data for this comes from here: https://theprint.in/opinion/4-health-warnings-you-need-to-know-before-watching-exit-poll-results-2019/237238/

Vanishing Playgrounds, Emergent Votes

Pubsara, Sonipat, April 10: For those families who consider a monthly drive to their sprawling farmhouses as a ‘perfect weekend getaway’, village life is romanticized to resemble RK Narayan’s Malgudi. Set amidst endless fields of green and shady trees that children climb on and elders gather under to gossip, this community lifestyle is quite stereotypical of an Indian village. But unlike Malgudi Days’ Swami and his entourage, the children in rural Haryana are not running, playing and singing with each other anymore.

The field outside Pubsara’s Shiv Mandir – once a hub for villagers’ recreational activities – is filled with garbage and stagnant sewage water. Unlike the rambling agrarian landscape found in Malgudi, this playground is the only space in Pubsara where seventeen-year-old Sunil can hope to play cricket safely. But even here, ‘upper-caste children abuse him verbally and do not let Sunil’s friends join because they are Dalits, laments his father Devinder, who is a bus conductor in Sonipat.

Along with the villagers’ rising dependence on mobile phones, Devinder says that the dwindling avenues for recreation has deteriorated his village’s “health”. Without constant supervision, he fears that Sunil will join the growing number of young men who return from work only to spend their leisure hours and daily wages on guzzling alcohol outside the local theka [government-run liquor store, in picture]. Almost prophetically, Devinder declares, “Yes, we do need jobs, but our timepass can also be improved, no? Usme bhi vikaas ki baath ban sakta hain.”


The Theka (L) along Pubsara’s dilapidated main road

Why Parties Should Play Along

Residents like Devinder compare the public amenities that neighbouring villages possess. Improving the quality of such citizens’ leisure may never be the pillar of any election campaign, but is it wise for parties and their local candidates to completely ignore its appeal across all age groups? More than one in every five voters in Haryana is below 30 years of age. As the state goes to polls on May 12th, sports, recreation and leisure in rural Haryana can be tactfully sold as campaign promises.

Devinder is optimistic about Pubsara’s future in “Modiji’s Bharat”. This, despite no visible signs of investment from the BJP’s Ramesh Kaushik, who had ₹5 crores to disburse on public development projects from his Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds. The public character of maintaining parks, playgrounds and community spaces would have increased the payoffs for the Sonipat’s incumbent MP, had he channelled these funds towards deteriorating villages like Pubsara.


Viable sports projects under MPLADS. It is often understood to be a measuring tape for an incumbent MPs’ ability and willingness to serve their constituency.

Pubsara’s Sarpanch, a wrinkled Mr Dulichand Chauhan, complains about not having sufficient resources at his disposal – funds, labour and time – required to build and maintain secondary amenities. So, while the NDA’s flagship Khelo India programme has been gaining media traction alongside PM Modi’s Yoga performances, children in rural Haryana – a national hub for sporting talent – resign themselves to watching cartoons or spinning tops outside their houses.


Richpal Saini – Pubsara’s oldest man, at 86 years – has repeatedly urged the Sarpanch to fence open grounds and cover the surrounding sewage drains.

In the evenings, only richer families can afford to send their children to train at larger sports institutes in Rai. Others – like the landholding Chauhan families that Devinder points out – have erected boundaries around uncultivated plots of land to create their own volleyball and badminton courts.

There were rumours that the BJP would give Sonipat’s ticket to Olympic wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. Besides nationalistic rhetoric during Indo-Pak cricket matches and the Olympics, even India’s sportsmen-turned-politicians are yet to act upon the socioeconomic promise that comes with developing sports and recreation for the youth. The BJP and Congress’ sports-related manifesto promises are just a rebranded version of the appeals made in 2014. Yet, Pubsara’s concerned parents and energetic children still hope that the “timepass” and drunkenness which plagues their village will be recognised as a serious demographic concern by parties seeking their votes.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Aside from good schools and affordable healthcare, it takes a village with safe playgrounds and healthy recreational habits to raise children well. With the median age of an Indian citizen set to be 29 as of next year, it is about time our politicians took into account the needs of India’s young population.

Western UP’s Meerut sees an electoral battle between contesting caste loyalties

“Modiji ka bol zordar hai par Meerut mein bua-bhatija ke saath tight fight hai”, says Harish Chaubey, a 29-year-old BJP pracharak. Standing on the sidelines of PM Narendra Modi’s rally in Meerut, Chaubey offers his opinion on the chances of the incumbent BJP MP who is fighting to secure a third term from Meerut, “Rajendra Agrawal ji is very popular here but the gathbandhan is building an alliance of Dalits and Muslims.”

Chaubey’s words hark to what drives politics in India’s largest state – caste equations. While Modi pitches the BJP’s three point agenda of strident nationalism, pro-poor welfare and anti-opposition rhetoric, locally parties compete for caste loyalties. Chaubey says that the Meerut parliamentary constituency has a sizeable Dalit and Muslim population which will not align itself with the BJP. It is precisely this Dalit-Muslim combine that the BSP candidate Haji Mohammad Yaqub, a local meat exporter, hopes to target.

Completing the caste equation is the Congress candidate Harendra Agrawal who comes from the same community as the incumbent BJP MP. Commentators have pointed out that his upper caste status and Priyanka Vadra Gandhi’s recent campaign efforts are likely to help Yaqub by weakening the BJP’s hold over upper castes.

It remains to be seen whether the incumbent Agrawal will be able to retain his seat. In 2014, Rajendra Agrawal received nearly 5.36 lakh votes, merely 1.85% more than the combined vote share of the second and third placed candidates of the BSP and SP. While this difference of 24,000 votes between the BJP and SP-BSP may appear easily surmountable, Rakesh Singh, a businessman from Meerut, suggests -, “The Dalit-Muslim combine is causing a consolidation of upper castes in favour of BJP”.

It is unsure whether the Congress candidate can fracture this consolidation. Commenting on the Congress’ chances in the seat, Singh says, “Only those who watch TV while sitting in Delhi think that Priyanka Gandhi will have an impact. It’s a straight fight between the BJP and BSP.” However, merely countering an upper caste consolidation may not be enough as the SP needs to ensure that Muslim and OBC voters loyal to the party effectively transfer their votes to BSP’s Yaqub. In 2017 Assembly elections, BSP had unsuccessfully tried to stitch a Dalit-Muslim combine in the 2017 Assembly Elections. In fact, BSP’s Yaqub had lost to the BJP by 35,000 votes in the Meerut South Assembly Constituency.

The fight in Meerut is going to be played out on many levels. The mahagathbandhan stitching together a Dalit-Muslim combine, the BJP hoping to surf on consolidation of upper caste votes, and the Congress hoping to split the vote with its own Agrawal candidate. It remains to be seen which strategy will be successful in this landscape of fractured caste sentimentalities.

The Absent Electorate

Saharanpur: Hordes of men are cramped into a small room inside a kothi in Nangal village of Saharanpur. The rest spill out into a courtyard, eating pakoras and aloo puri with greater enthusiasm than they display in sloganeering for their party’s candidate. The men have come to attend Haji Fazlur Rehman’s rally in the village- he is the Lok Sabha candidate representing the grand alliance between Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal formed in Uttar Pradesh. As we push through the ever growing swarm of men inside the room, we realise there is no single woman in sight.

Further along the lane outside, we come across a small kirana store run by a young woman. Another middle aged woman stands outside, but slips into its shadowy interior when asked whether she attended Rehman’s rally and how she would decide on whom to vote for. “Auratein thodi na jaati hain rally me. Jaha mard deta hai waha dedenge,” (Women don’t attend rallies.I will vote for whoever my husband votes for) she says.

About 21 million women eligible to vote in India have not been registered in the voters’ list,  according to Prannoy Roy’s new book on the elections “The Verdict”. The concentration of these disenfranchised women is the highest in Uttar Pradesh, where a balking 10% of eligible women will be denied the right to vote. In other words, about eight million out of  21 million missing voters are from UP. However, registering to vote hardly seems  enough, especially since politicians do not see women voters as a separate  electorate . Even when addressed, women’s interests are assumed to be restricted to safety concerns. Fazlur Rehman’s rally in Saharanpur is no exception to this trend.

The Saharanpur Lok sabha seat, won in 2014 by the BJP candidate Raghav Lakhanpal, is now hotly contested between three candidates: the Congress’ Imran Masood, the BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal, and the Mahagatbandhan’s Haji Fazlur Rehman. Fielded by the BSP, Rehman is a relative newcomer to politics, having only contested in a Mayoral election in Saharanpur before this- which he lost to BJP’s Sanjeev Walia.

As the day progresses, Rehman and his entirely male entourage of political workers and local politicians campaigns through the district with gusto, fuelled by the  food provided at each stop. At one such rally held in Saharanpur city in the house of Samajwadi Party MLA Sahab Singh Sahni, various leaders of the Mahagatbandhan discuss issues ranging from the minimum price of sugarcane to issues of national security. Again, there is not a single woman in attendance at the rally. Sitting in the middle of the stage in a bright orange suit and stiff smile, Shagufta Khan, the local zilla adhyaksh from the Samajwadi Party and an ex minister for state, is the only exception to this exclusively male gathering. Her short speech, an amalgamation of the  rhetoric already espoused by various male leaders who spoke before her, refuses to address women as a separate electorate as well. “Vote for us and you will vote out a government that remains intrinsically against its people”, she says. But before she can conclude, she is cut off as the mike is passed on to the next—inevitably male—speaker. 

Riding With the Rehmans

Aapne kabhi cheating nahi ki kya?”, asks Saleem Rehman with a chuckle after he asked to pass off his answers as those of his brother, BSP candidate for Saharanpur Haji Fazlur Rehman. Though said in jest, it seemed indicative of the broader fraternal dynamic where Fazlur Rehman is the official candidate but Saleem Rehman lurks as the puppeteer behind the scenes.

A stark contrast to Fazlur Rehman, who exudes a rather dignified air, Saleem Rehmans’ half solemn-half teasing demeanor  leaves you perpetually unsure whether he is serious or merely jesting. This doublespeak is an unassailable political asset – where Fazlur Rehman is bound by the rigidity of electoral rules, Saleem Rehman navigates the political landscape with ease, his words perpetually treading the thin line between proper and improper, moral and immoral, legal and illegal.

Saharanpur Lok Sabha constituency is set to go to polls in the first phase on 11 April; and campaigning, officially beginning two weeks prior to election day, has been in full swing. The political battleground is split three ways – between BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal, the sitting MP from Saharanpur, the Congress’s Imran Masood—nephew of five time Saharanpur MP Rasheed Masood—who lost to Lakhanpal by 65,000 votes in the 2014 general elections, and a relative newcomer to the political scene, Haji Fazlur Rehman, an influential businessman whose foray into politics began with the 2017 Nagar Nigam (Municipal Corporation) elections, where he lost to BJP’s Sanjeev Walia by 22,000 votes. Rehman, contesting on a BSP ticket, represents the grand alliance— mahagatbandhan—between BSP, SP and RLD in Uttar Pradesh. 

Though Rehman’s name is not as widely known, his nomination as part of the grand alliance has made him a formidable opponent. In a constituency with a large Muslim-Dalit population (42% Muslims and 22% Dalits), Rehmans’ candidacy on a BSP ticket seems strategically aimed at securing the minority vote. On one hand, he is projecting himself as a patron of Muslims; on the other,  his BSP backing ensures that the Dalit vote is squarely on his side. Additionally, OBCs—comprising Yadavs, Gujjars and Jats—seem to be tilting towards Rehman, given the backing he has received from the SP and the RLD. All in all, Fazlur Rehman is in an enviable position, standing at the epicenter of a varied but consolidated vote bank.

“Let me tell you the facts of this election”, says Saleem Rehman as we trail Fazlur Rehman’s car on the campaign trail. “The upper caste vote bank lies with the BJP. The Dalit vote bank is staunchly with the BSP. That leaves the OBCs and Muslims – they are the swing votes in this election”, he says. While the OBC vote is more or less assured, Rahman feels that the Muslim vote in Saharanpur could be divided, especially since both Congress and grand alliance candidates are Muslim. A vote split between the Congress and the grand alliance, he fears, will only work in the BJP’s favour.

At a rally outside senior SP leader Sahab Singh Saini’s house, a party worker reiterates the same concern to the 100 or so gathered men: “You have two Muslim candidates before you: One (Imran Masood) threatens to hit people with his shoe, the other (Fazlur Rehman) talks about development. One is merely 12th pass, the other is a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. So vote for Fazlur Rehman, and don’t let the Muslim vote get divided”. A similar refrain pervades most speeches, and is followed by scattered applause.

Fazlur Rehman makes no speech, and soon, we’re back in the car, this time with the candidate as well. Fazlur Rehman is silent when asked why he chose to fight the election, and once again Saleem dons the mantle of the candidate’s official spokesperson.  “See, our family is the biggest beef exporter in West UP. We’re also the highest tax payers in this part. So clearly we live a comfortable life. But Rehman ji is almost 68 years now. He feels like it’s time to give back to society”, says Saleem Rehman. “We spend 1 lakh rupees on charitable causes every day. In addition to this, all the widows in this city—Hindu and Muslim—get a monthly pension of 1000 rupees from our organization. We’re really trying to uplift those who need help, and politics means power – and power is necessary for this kind of upliftment”, he says.

Rehman, a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University’s 1972 batch, belongs to a family that is one of the largest beef exporters in the country. His official asset declaration form for the 2017 Nagar Nigam elections lists his combined wealth as upwards of 2 crores – with Rs 1,53,39,058 in moveable assets and Rs 93,61,100 in immoveable assets. “Par problem yeh hai ki log jante hai ki inke paas paisa hai. Toh har baar, humse paise nikalne ki koshish mein rehte hain”, says Saleem Rehman. “Election mehnga pad jata hai”, he says with a sigh. 

After a pause, he continues, “Recently, someone complained that we were distributing food to our people, and so we had to shut it down because it’s a violation of the model code of conduct.”The official expenditure limit for campaigning varies across states; in UP, it is 70 lakhs. But according to Saleem Rehman, this is not enough to cover the cost of organizing a successful campaign. Mobilizing voters, feeding them, even organising adequate media coverage can all add up to be expensive, he says.  

As we enter the last stretch of the campaign trail, Nangal village, which has a majority Dalit population, Fazlur Rehman sits up straight. As the car traverses the inroads of the village, he waves at the people gathered on both sides. It’s easy to see that the Dalit vote is on his side; but BSP patronage is not the only reason for this. Rehman is also endorsed by the local Bhim Army, a Dalit organization that shot to national prominence after the 2017 Thakur-Dalit riots in Saharanpur.

“We stand firmly with Fazlur Rehman”, says Bhim Army Saharanpur-in-charge Kamal Walia. “Businessman hain; hospitals main chanda dete hain; bahut ache insaan hain”, he says. But after a pause, adds, “Par samajik pakad nahi hai. Log unhe jaante hi nahi”.

As it gets hotter, the enthusiasm outside is perceptibly waning. As the speeches continue, a party functionary suddenly stops a speech midway to censure party workers for their lack of enthusiasm. “Saathiyon, I know all of you have been here for a while and are tired. But you can’t be so dead; Aur josh dikhaao. Aapke liye khana bhi lag raha hai, par tab tak jumke naare lagaao! Fazlur Rehman zindabad”. A feeble echo resounds from the audience: ‘Fazlur Rehman zindabad’.

Gurugram: The Twin existence of Millennium City

Travelling from Gurgaon to Mewat, it is impossible to ignore the drastic changes in the landscape. From Gurgaon’s posh residential localities and glass buildings of multinational corporations, the highway enters the arid fields of the semi-urban district  Mewat. The socio-economic and cultural divide between these two districts is reflected in the electoral politics of the Gurugram Lok Sabha constituency.

Gurugram parliamentary constituency comprises three districts – Gurgaon, Mewat and Rewari. In the upcoming general elections, 8.9 lakhs voters from Gurgaon, 5.3 lakhs voters from Mewat and 4.19 lakhs voters from Rewari will vote for their member of parliament. Majority of voters belong to the rural parts of the three districts, while only 20% of the people living in urban areas constitute as a voting population. In terms of gender, Gurugram has 10.78 lakhs male and 9.55 lakhs female voters. The voter turnout in the constituency has also been steadily increasing – from 61.7% voter turnout in 2009 to 71.6% voter turnout in 2014. It is likely that female voter turnout will be higher in the 2019 election. According to data from the Election Commission of India, Haryana witnessed a record turnout of 45% female voters in the 2014 general election.

Despite Gurugram’s rapid urban development, caste and religion continue to play a decisive role in the elections. The dominant caste in Rewari and Gurugram is the Ahir caste, while the Meo Muslims dominate Mewat district. Other main castes in the constituency are Yadavs, Jats and Punjabis. The Meo Muslims in Mewat tend to vote en bloc – until now only INLD and the Congress has managed to make inroads into the region. In 2014, people in Mewat voted for the Indian National Lok dal candidate, Zakir Hussain, but he lost to BJP candidate and 3-time winner from Gurugram seat, Rao Inderjit Singh. A highly popular candidate from Gurugram, Rao Inderjit Singh shifted from the Congress to the BJP in 2014. The Ahir community is Rao Inderjit’s main supporters, but his developmental efforts in the constituency have added to his popularity.

Source – Times of India

Mewat remains one of the most backward regions of Haryana. Employees at Radio Mewat, a community radio station in Mewat are acutely aware of the differences between their regions and the urban, developed regions in Gurgaon and Rewari. As young professionals, they are distinct from the larger Meo Muslim community of agriculturalists, laborers or truck drivers. For the reporters of Radio Mewat, lack of employment and education opportunities are major impediments to the socio-economic development of the region. The setting up of a railway line connecting Delhi to Alwar via Nuh (in Mewat) has been a long-standing demand of the people. The project was announced by the UPA government’s railway budget in 2013, but the construction is yet to begin. “Ho sakta hai kyunki hum Muslim hai, hampe dhyan nahi deti sarkar” (“Maybe it is because we are Muslims, they do not pay attention to us”), says Saurabh Khan, a reporter for Radio Mewat.

Imraan, another reporter from Radio Mewat argues that the numbering system used by the state government to designate families below the poverty line also reflect differential treatment against the people of Mewat. “Sirsa mein number 5 parivaron ko BPL banaya hai, lekin Mewat mein vahi number valon ko BPL parivar nahi banaya…aisa bhedbhaav hota hai” (In Sirsa, the families with number 5 designation have been declared BPL families, but the same number families in Mewat have not been made BPL families…differential treatment happens like this), says Imraan. Apart from the railway line, water shortage is another issue facing the farmers of Mewat. In 2018, the Haryana government announced a Rs. 3,400 crore infrastructure project in Mewat, including a Rs.700 crore-feeder canal project to provide farmers with irrigation facilities. Education is another major concern, particularly female literacy, which is at a mere 40%.

Given the poor employment and education opportunities in the region, cattle rearing is the main source of income for the villagers. The last five months, cow vigilantism and lynching by gau rakshaks have brought Mewat region into the news. In 2018, two Meo men were victims of violence at the hands of gau-rakshaks in village Kolgaon in Nuh, the capital of Mewat district. But most of the cases of cow vigilantism took place in Alwar, Rajasthan (also the heartland of Meo Muslims) “Yahan gaaye Meo hi paalte hain, koi Hindu parivar nahi paalte…Log bahar se aate hain, gaaye lakar, yahan tanav banane…Hindu-Muslim aapas mein Haryana ke Mewat illake milke rehte hain” (“Most of the cows are reared by Muslim families in Mewat, not Hindu families…people come from outside bringing their cows to create tension here…but Hindu-Muslim in Haryana’s Mewat region live together peacefully), argues Saurabh. The young professionals at Radio Mewat strongly believe communal issues will not take a hold in the area; the work done by the Radio is committed to keeping developmental concerns at the forefront.

Banner in front of Radio Mewat

In spite of administration neglect, there are enough community networks that lobby for citizen’s concern. Radio Mewat is one such collective. The professionals conduct a range of programs – from tackling domestic violence against women to preparing exam material for students –catering to the needs of the community. The guidelines for community radio stations require that stations should not be politically affiliated with any party. So the reporters will work with the Election Commission to generate awareness about voting amongst the villagers.

As Haryana goes to the polls on May 12 in a single phase, it remains to be seen what kind of issues – developmental or otherwise – are raised during the campaign period, and how the people of Gurugram and Mewat respond to them.

Reporters at Radio Mewat, Imraan (left), Arif (centre) and Saurabh Khan (Right)
Studio at Radio Mewat

Aurangabad Up In Arms

On 26 February, as twelve Mirage 2000H jets of the Indian Air Force crossed the Line of Control to conduct ‘military airstrikes’ against a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, in Maharashtra a different scene was unfolding. That same day, retired Bombay High Court judge B G Kolse Patil had stirred the electoral pot in Aurangabad by announcing his candidacy for the Aurangabad Lok Sabha constituency. By his own admission, Patil has belonged to Janata Dal (S) his whole life, but in his declaration, he claimed that he is running on behalf of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA), a political coalition comprising Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). His declaration letter states:

‘I have decided to fight the coming Lok Sabha election 2019 from the Aurangabad constituency and whoever opposes me will only be helping the fanatic powers of the Modi-Shah duo. And so I appeal to all parties for their support, that is all parties except the Shiv Sena and BJP’.

The letter, in addition to posing a direct challenge to the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra, has a second—albeit subtler—purpose. It aims at dissuading the Congress-NCP combine from fielding their own candidate for the seat, and instead, entreats them to throw their weight behind Patil’s candidature. “If the Congress-NCP field their own candidate, it will only end up dividing the votes. This is only going to benefit the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance”, said Patil.

Last year, the BBM—an avowedly Dalit empowerment party—and AIMIM—a party with a strong base among Western India’s Muslim population—entered into a strategic political tie up, terming it the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA). In uniting minorities across religious spectrum, from Dalits, Muslims and tribals to Dhangar, Koli and Agri communities, the VBA consolidated a decisive vote bank and is now a force to reckon with.

But when VBA demanded 12 out of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats as part of the Congress-NCP Mahagatbandhan, it was rebuffed. Instead, the Congress was prepared to part with only four seats. In response, the VBA called off the seat sharing agreement and decided to contest the elections separately. “There is no point continuing negotiations with the Congress as there will be no positive result”, said VBA chief Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dalit icon B.R Ambedkar. “The Congress keeps telling us that we must fight the Lok Sabha polls as an alliance

against the BJP. But they have already declared 22 candidates. They don’t want to give us any representation,” he said.

The same conflict is replaying itself in Aurangabad, but Kolse Patil is not worried. “Congress wouldn’t dare to field a candidate against me. They know I have a strong support base in the city. And if they do end up fielding someone, I will make sure that it negatively affects them, not just in this seat, but in all seats where Dalit-Muslim votes matter”, said Patil.

Originally from Ahmednagar, Kolse Patil went on to study at Poona Law College and after completion of his LLB, became a public prosecutor in Pune in 1980. After five years of life as a lawyer, he was appointed judge in the Bombay High Court, and served in this appointment from 1985 to 1990. However, in 1990, he resigned from the High Court to dedicate himself full time to social service. “Since retirement, I have spent my time travelling across the country, interacting with people, listening to their problems and trying to solve them wherever I can. And now, at age 77, I have decided to stand for elections because I am confident that I understand what people need. And I am confident that I will win”, he said.

In some ways, Aurangabad is the perfect constituency for someone like Kolse Patil—with his history of working for minority communities—to contest from. Named after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Aurangabad is a polyglot city heavily influenced by its Islamic heritage. In addition to housing monumental attractions like the Bibi ka Maqbara and the Panchakki, the city touts a distinctly Mughlai cuisine influenced by neighbouring Hyderabad. Aurangabad is also a Dalit bastion, home to Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University (BAMU) which encampasses 101 affiliated colleges under its umberella. Combinedly, the Dalit-Muslim vote in the constituency comprises approximately 45% of the total electorate. “And this 45% stands firmly with the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi”, claims Patil.

But contrary to the heterogeneity of the city, the current MP from Aurangabad constituency is Hindu stalwart Chandrakant Khaire from the Shiv Sena. In fact, Khaire has been representing Aurangabad in the Lok Sabha from the last four terms, i.e., from 1999-2019. An analysis of vote distribution in the last two decades reveals a steady increase in Khaire’s victory margin. Most significantly, in 2009, Khaire secured 2,55,896 votes or 35% vote share, whereas the runner up, Congress’s Uttamsingh Pawar got 2,22,882 votes or 30.5% vote share. But in 2014, Khaire’s vote share jumped to 52.9% whereas Congress’s Nitin Suresh Patil got a mere 36.5%.

“In the last few years, Aurangabad has seen a fair amount of industrial development”, said Karan Palaskar, an IAS aspirant from Aurangabad. “A new industrial belt, Shendra – Bidkin Industrial Park, is being developed as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Project (DMIC) and

that has created some positive responses”, said Palaskar in an attempt to explain Khaire’s enduring appeal.

Another local, Om Margaj, however, disagreed. “Khaire’s victory has nothing to do with industry or development. In fact, Khaire has failed to associate himself with any particular cause. He mainly relies on religious polarization, using his Hindutva rhetoric to whip up communal frenzy before each election”, said Margaj.

In fact, in November last year, Khaire was summoned by the CBI for questioning in the 1992 Babri Masjid case, in which hundreds of Shiv Sena ‘sainiks’ helped raze the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Sena founder and chief Bal Thackeray has repeatedly praised his karsevaks for their ‘service’, even as the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had shed tears over the mosque’s demolition.

Khaire relies on a similar, oft-crude, form of religious fundamentalism. This has confined his primary vote base to the constituency’s rural population, which is more likely to be swayed by communal rhetoric. The urban masses, on the other hand, have been increasingly disenchanted with the four time MP and the party he represents. Following demonitization, GST and, most recently, the Maratha reservation controversy, large swathes of the urban population—particularly the youth—are feeling more and more disconnected with Khaire and what he represents.

“In December of last year, Aurangabad was swept up in the massive protests for Maratha reservation”, said Kolse Patil. “But Shiv Sena-BJP played a cruel joke on the Maratha community. Though CM Devendra Fadnavis agreed to the protestors’ demands, the power to grant reservation does not rest with the chief minister of a state”, said Patil, citing knowledge of the law from his High Court days. “Only the President has the power to grant reservation. And so, now that the Maratha youth has realised the massive betrayal perpetrated by the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, they are bound to stand with me and the VBA”, he said.

But in spite of Patil’s attempt to frame Aurangabad as a cleanly divided, dichotomous battle ground – with the Shiv Sena-BJP on one side and the VBA on the other side – the reality is much messier than he is letting on. Each side of the divide is fraught with its own cleavages.

While Shiv Sena-BJP is facing an internal rebellion from Kannad MLA Harshwardhan Jadhav—who quit the Shiv Sena to found his own party, Shivswarajya Bahujan Party, and has been campaigning against Khaire for a while now—there are rumours that when it comes to the VBA, there has been some disgruntlement over Patil’s candidacy as AIMIM leaders and party workers have opposed his nomination. To complicate matters more, it seems quite likely that

Congress-NCP will field their own candidate soon. The reason for delay is widely surmised to be that Aurangabad is one of the few Lok Sabha seats that has witnessed a strong tussle between the Congress and the NCP over candidacy, with the NCP blaming Congress for its failure in the last five elections. And so, though there is no denying that Kolse Patil is a strong contender, the electoral landscape is fraught with complications that simply cannot be reduced to simplistic dualism – ultimately, only time will tell what happens.

In A Politics of The Past, India’s Youth Remains Unheard

A Colony in Malviya Nagar

On Sunday morning, the mood in the streets of Malviya Nagar is mellow. The fruit vendors are walking with their stalls, dukandaars are setting up shop, but nobody is in a hurry. Mr. Anand Prakash, a 90-year-old retired banker, lounges outside his house on a plastic chair, two steps away from the road, basking in the bright sun with a half-open copy of the Sunday Times.

“I like Modi because he believes in the Hindu dharma.” Mr. Prakash says with a firm resoluteness. “But I don’t like the BJP much. There are bigots in the party. But Modi is good. He speaks well. He has good thoughts.”

During the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, Anand Prakash was a 21 year old with his life ahead of him. Originally a resident of Lyallpur in Pakistan (now called Faisalabad), he migrated to Amritsar during the partition and is now a resident of Delhi.

“I want to go back to Pakistan once before I die,” Prakash says, “I can’t go alone, though, I’m scared of the kattar (bigoted) people there.” He pauses. This is an emotional topic, but he chooses not to dwell on it, and continues.  “I like Modi, he’s from a poor family, he works a lot, and he works for the Hindus,” he repeats.

The older India, now alive only in memories of Mr. Prakash and others like him, has lived the partition, not just heard or read about it. They care deeply about the religious undertones of our politics, and their shared history shapes our current political climate. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, both BJP and Congress have promised, if elected, to build a Ram Mandir atop the ashes of a demolished Babri Masjid.

Such strategies aimed at the Hindu vote-bank might appease Mr. Prakash, but for young, first-time voters, a politics grounded in religious sentiment can feel irrelevant, and even alienating. A 2017 survey conducted by CSDS-KAS revealed that a staggering 46% of India’s youth (15-34 year-olds) have ‘no interest at all in politics.’ For a young nation, such indifference is a cause for deep concern.

In the evening, the tranquility of a waking Malviya Nagar is overtaken by the excitable spirit of the young. There is no space for Mr. Prakash to sit outside his house – the roads are packed with noisy vehicles. In a crowded street, Nabeel and Gitika, both 24, are enjoying a plate of steamed momos.

Nabeel and Gitika

“The issues that they are talking about are simply useless. They focus on religion, there are a lot more important issues for us like jobs,” says Nabeel, who currently works at an MNC, “I know graduates who are working jobs that pay Rs. 10,000. This is a crisis, but our politicians are still busy raising the Babri Masjid issue.”

For Geetika, a BPO employee who was only able to study until 12th grade, education is the primary issue. In the Delhi Assembly elections, she votes for the Aam Aadmi Party, but on the national front, she is also frustrated with the focus on religion. “They don’t talk about education. They attract voters based on religious sentiments for elections,” she says.

By next year, the median age of an Indian citizen is set to be as low as 29, making India the youngest nation in the world. However, in a political climate dominated by religious concerns, young voters like Nabeel and Gitika find themselves increasingly unrepresented by mainstream voices. The issues that matter most to them (jobs and education) are not the focus of election rallies. It is hardly surprising, then, that they don’t bother to spend their Sunday morning reading the Sunday Times.

Death of a Timeless City

“Benares sukh ka bhuka nahi, samadhan ka bhuka hai”, said Amitabh Bhattacharya, a 68 year old resident of Varanasi who has been a journalist at the Northern Indian Patrika—one of the country’s oldest newspapers—for more than four decades. In a city that Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, this distinction between sukh, i.e., happiness, and samadhan, i.e., contentment is vital in the wake of the upcoming elections.

Given that the last four years have seen the BJP’s rhetoric in the city pivot on development—whether this includes introducing e-boats and cruises on the Ganges, paving worn out parts of the Ganga ghats, or most recently, initiating the construction of the Vishwanath mandir corridor—the BJP is putting all its weight behind infrastructural fortification of the city, seeking to enhance sukh-suvidha for the people. But this emphasis on sukh rather than samadhan rests on a vital misunderstanding regarding the nature of the city, and might end up costing the party in the 2019 elections.

One of the oldest cities in India, Benares is a spiritual hub, attracting pilgrims from all across the country – some visit its temples, others take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges and many simply come to die. “Anyone who dies within the periphery of the city is believed to attain automatic moksha”, said Bhattacharya. “That’s why death is not seen as an occasion for mourning. Instead, it is seen as liberation from worldly bondage.” In his 2018 book To Die in Benares, K. Madavane, punctuates the same, stressing that death is by no means the end in this city. Rather, “this town, with its multiple names—Benares, Varanasi, Kashi—continues to burn and to be reborn, to shine and to annihilate, an impossible cycle in which humanity is subject to wills much greater than its own.”

But many locals believe that Modi’s developmental agenda has eroded the city’s spirituality, transforming it from a spiritual centre to one of religio-cultural tourism. “For instance, take the Ganga cruise”, said Utpal Pathak, an independent journalist from Varanasi. “Why will tourists come to Benares for a cruise? If they want a cruise, they will go to the US or Europe. Why will they come here?”.

“It’s like drinking Banarasi lassi in a wine glass”, said Pathak, highlighting the profound mismatch between the aesthetic, historical and cultural aura of the city and the changes it is undergoing under the BJP’s development agenda.

Another major point of contention, even with otherwise staunch BJP supporters, has been the ongoing construction of the Vishwanath corridor. Officially set in motion in March 2018, the corridor aims to clear around 45,000 square metres of space around the temple and create dedicated pathways, 50 feet wide, stretching from the Ganga ghats to the temple. According to the government, the corridor will help ease congestion, and comprises part of a larger project to modernise the area surrounding the temple, including plans to set up a hospital, rest houses, shops, cafeterias and help desks.

“When a pilgrim comes to a place like Benares, he expects to face austerity, he expects to face hardships along the way. That is the very definition of a pilgrimage. But if you start glazing over the natural character of the city with artificial toppings like this, the city will soon be lost under it”, said Pathak.

Developmental projects like this foment an existent sense of unease that the city’s original character is changing. This feeling, first triggered by massive migration from Bihar in the 1990’s, has only gotten worse with the years as the city has gotten more crowded and more dependent on cheap immigrant labour.

Adding to this now is the fact that the consultant chosen for the Vishwanath corridor project is not a local company but Ahmedabad based HCP Design Planning and Management Private Limited which was founded by Hasmukh Patel – an influential architect credited for the Sabarmati riverfront development project in Ahmedabad. “Modi talks about development and creating jobs, but what’s the point if all the profits are going to people outside Benares?”, said Pathak.

Opposition parties have been quick to capitalise on this discontent plaguing the people. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which won the second largest number of votes in 2014—2,09,238 or 20.30%—second only to the BJP, has moved a private member bill in the Rajya Sabha seeking to halt the Vishwanath corridor project, claiming that it is causing large scale damage to certain temples situated in the zone of the corridor. In the process, the party claims the BJP is damaging the cultural heritage of the city.

“Everyone keeps saying that Modi has not done enough”, says Bhattacharya with a sigh. “But Benares needs less, not more. It needs someone who belongs to the city, someone who understands the city. Not an outsider like Modi who doesn’t have the faintest idea of the city’s unique character.”

What Do We Vote For?

SONIPAT, FEBRUARY 5: ​ Sixty year old M.L Sharma sits at his desk hidden behind sheets of newsprint. His Malviya Nagar news and magazine shop sells papers meant for all kinds of audiences: from the middle class Hindi readership’s Dainik Jagran ​ and ​ Navbharat Times to the English-speaking elite ​ Indian Express ​ and ​ Caravan​ . He has a son and two daughters, the youngest of whom is a recent data journalism graduate from Bhagat Singh College in Delhi University.

Sharma has faithfully cast his vote over the past forty years in every election – national, state, and municipal. “I vote for the security of the nation and the spread of its reputation. It should face no harm and be free of debt,” he says. The headlines all around him speak of such critical national matters as the country gears up for the 2019 General Elections.

Democracy in India is vibrant due to the robustness of its elections. People come out in large numbers to vote, even at personal cost. The act of voting is seen as both the “right” and the “duty” of a citizen of India. But while middle-class urban voters like M.L Sharma tend to vote for national issues such as foreign policy and national security in General Elections, concerns become more localised in less affluent sections of society.

Behind another desk in a private university in Sonipat sixty kilometers away, Dinesh Kumar keeps a careful watch on the doors of a student hostel. He works as a guard and earns Rs. 12,000 per month to provide for his family back home in Balgarh, Uttar Pradesh. He lives alone in a small room in the nearby village. He votes for the popular developmental slogan of “​ paani, bijli, sadak.” ​ Despite his pessimism about the generally corrupt nature of politicians, he votes in the hope that good work happens.

Not everyone can keep this hope going. Nisha, a female guard at the university has voted at least 7-8 times, but never at the General Election. “Everyone is selfish. Nobody does anything for anyone else,” she says. She exercises her franchise only at the local panchayat elections. This is not necessarily a choice. Being part of society in her village necessitates voting for a pradhan. “If I want any benefits, I have to vote.”