Were the 2019 general elections free & fair?

Were the 2019 general elections free and fair or did the BJP that won a disproportionate share of seats in closely contested constituencies, indulge in some manipulation, unrelated to EVMs? A research paper by an academic of Ashoka university says the density of the incumbent party’s win margin variable exhibits a discontinuous jump at the threshold value of zero’

In the much discussed 2019 general election that re-elected the Bharatiya Janata Party, the majoritarian party won a disproportionate share of seats in closely contested constituencies, according to a recently published  research paper by a faculty member at Ashoka University.

The research paper titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy” by Sabyasachi Das, assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, was published on July 25 on the Social Science Research Network. Das argued that the BJP won a disproportionate share of closely contested parliamentary seats in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, especially in states where it was the ruling party at the time.

The paper states that, “The density of the incumbent party’s win margin variable exhibits a discontinuous jump at the threshold value of zero”. This implies that the BJP won disproportionately more in constituencies where it was the incumbent party and which were closely contested. “Moreover, the BJP’s disproportionate win of closely contested constituencies is primarily concentrated in States ruled by the party at the time of election,” it says.

The author of the paper that has generated much comment on social media, Sabyasachi Das says that he did not find similar “discontinuities” in the previous general elections for either BJP or INC (Indian National Congress), the other major national party, as well as for State Assembly elections held simultaneously with the 2019 general election and those held subsequently.

However, the author also points out that this alone does not necessarily imply that electoral manipulation has taken place in the election. The author considers two leading explanations for the above-mentioned patterns. It is possible that the BJP knew what elections are going to be close and worked harder there, resulting in disproportionate wins of close races. The second possibility is ‘Electoral Manipulation’ wherein the party manipulates voter rolls and votes polled.

The author has also claimed that this alleged electoral manipulation by the BJP also appeared to have taken the form of targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims, “partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers”.

However, he argued that his research was “not proofs of fraud” and does not “suggest that manipulation was widespread”. “Proving electoral manipulation in a robust democracy is a significantly harder task that would require detailed investigation of electoral data in each constituency separately”.

National Election Survey

On the initial point, the paper analyses the National Election Survey (NES) of 2019 which has micro data on election campaigning and does not find evidence that the BJP campaigned more in places where they won by a close margin. “Citizens do not say they were visited more by a party worker/candidate from the BJP in constituencies barely won by the BJP”.

The paper then explores further evidence in favour of the election manipulation hypothesis.

It states, significantly, that, after the 2019 polls, the Election Commission initially put out two separate lists of vote counts — constituency-wise “final” EVM count of votes polled across candidates and constituency-wise number of votes counted in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

“These numbers, however, do not match with the PC-wise number of votes counted in the EVMs, as available in the official website of the ECI. This is unusual as votes polled and votes counted in the EVMs should be identical and when the media pointed this out, the first list was deleted”. The paper finds that the mismatch between the twice released turnout data is significantly higher in constituencies barely won by the BJP, which certainly hints at manipulation or fraud. Moreover, the pattern is, as before, concentrated in States ruled by the BJP. The academic work argues that manipulation is local at the booth level.

Further, it also suggests that the manipulation appears to be concentrated in constituencies that have a high share of observers who are State civil service (SCS) officers from BJP-ruled States, and unlike the IAS, they may be more politically pliable.

Ashoka University cringes, disassociates itself from the work

“This paper contributes to the discussion by documenting irregular patterns in 2019 general election in India and identifying whether they are due to electoral manipulation or precise control, i.e., the incumbent party’s ability to precisely predict and affect win margins through campaigning,” Das has analysed. “I compile several new datasets and present evidence that is consistent with electoral manipulation in closely contested constituencies and is less supportive of the precise control hypothesis.”

Yesterday and today, august 2, the paper was widely discussed, especially on social media. with several influencers, including the Opposition leader Shashi Tharoor, using the findings to raise concerns about the state of Indian democracy. Other users, with political leanings towards the BJP, sharply criticised  Das’ research. They hit back saying that such conclusions discredited India’s democratic and electoral processes.

Most tragic however was the reaction of the university. On Aug 1, Ashoka University – where Das teaches economics – issued a statement dissociating itself from his research. “Ashoka University is dismayed by the speculation and debate around a recent paper by one of its faculty members (Sabyasachi Das, Assistant Professor of Economics) and the university’s position on its contents,” said the Haryana-based private institution.

It added: “The University encourages its 160-plus faculty to carry out research, but does not direct or approve specific research projects by individual faculty members…Social media activity or public activism by Ashoka faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity does not reflect the stand of the University.”

Reactions to Ashoka university

The university’s statement was in turn criticised by other academics and prominent personalities. Many sharply lampooned the university for failing to stand by a faculty member and bowing to pressure. Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, said in a tweet that faculty around the world should look at Ashoka University for “how weak institutions throw junior faculty under the bus”.

“Not only is [Sabyasachi Das’] work empirically solid, it is supported by the work in several other fields, including ours,” Pal said.

Narayani Basu, a historian and foreign policy analyst, concurred. “Debate is the actual purpose of academia & if that’s what a….*checks notes* …. “liberal arts” university is dismayed by, it speaks volumes about its lack of spine & integrity,” Basu wrote in a tweet. “Throwing your own under the bus is cowardice.”

Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, a professor of economics at Yale University, said that “the goons have already gotten to Dr Das’ employer”.

Suhas Palshikar, a renowned political scientist who taught political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, said that academic freedom has “met with its end finally among the country’s institutions” when a “prestigious private university goes out of its way to tweet to dissociate itself” from an ongoing research.

“With undeclared restrictions on research and field work by scholars based outside of India and squeezing of autonomy of researchers within the country, we are managing to scuttle the core ability of social science research to examine, critique and search for alternatives,” Palshikar wrote on Twitter on August 2. Palshikar added, “[Restrictions on research] will enhance the project of creating ignorant and obedient citizens and servile and ideologically committed administrators.”

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, concurred. “Excellence in research and teaching can only flourish if there is academic freedom and universities don’t bend over backwards to disassociate themselves from research that is inconvenient to ruling regimes.”

 Bruno Maçães, an author and Portugal’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, wrote that Ashoka University seemed to be “running scared”. “Faculty publish papers, that’s what they do,” Maçães wrote on Twitter.

Despite the university’s statement, some at the institution such as Gilles Verniers, director of Ashoka University’s Trivedi Centre for Political Data, expressed support for the faculty member. “I condemn the vicious attacks against [Das], a colleague of rare courage and integrity,” Verniers tweeted on Wednesday. “If we don’t leave room for research that is inconvenient, we shut the door to the possibility of fixing our problems.”


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