The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

2019 with The Edict: We Speak to Professor Verniers

2019 with The Edict, is the newspaper’s first foray into reporting elections. With the General Elections around the corner, we speak to Professor Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, and Co-Director of Trivedi Centre for Political Data. The Centre, inaugurated in 2015, is now one of the few organisations in the country with vast amount of data on Indian elections. Our Editor-in-Chief speaks to Professor Gilles about the elections, TCPD, and more.

Professor Gilles at TCPD with the Centre’s mascot

TCPD is now entering its fourth year, could you reflect on your journey so far?

A lot has happened over the past 3-4 years. The whole thing started with the 2014 general elections. Ashoka did not formally exist yet and I was teaching the YIFs. Since obviously I was interested in covering the elections I hired a couple of fellows with a computer science background to help me crawl and clean the data- help me churn out some visualisations a bit faster. We spent 30-36 continuous hours with just data, number crunching and publishing our very first pieces in Scroll. It was a great experience and it made me realise that we can actually do quite a bit with that association between computer and political science skills and so when we shifted to campus, I had the opportunity to repeat that kind of experience by hiring my own teams.

The idea then became to convert these small research programs into something a little more solid: I started with very limited resources in the sixth floor of the admin building, with a few volunteers. I was then introduced to Mr Ashok Trivedi, who at the time was discussing the terms of a major donation to Ashoka. During the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he was interested in matters of public transparency, accountability of public actors so after a number of discussions he agreed to provide support to the centre, hence the name Trivedi Centre for Political Data. That really gave me the resources to build a permanent team, develop new projects, and build up the scope of the Centre.  We started training people, having a more permanent staff, holding a summer school. Gradually, we were able to raise our profile and build up the work that we do.

How much has your trajectory changed since you first conceived of the Centre?

We started by looking at elections and candidates to elections, and concentrated on making the data we built public. Looking ahead, we don’t want to be known just as a data service provider on elections. We want to be a full-fledged research centre. Our mandate is to grow the scope of the centre. Right now, the vision is to grow from a centre that looks into elections and candidates into a centre that looks at public institutions at large. We want to document what the states do and who are the people making institutions work, the people behind the decisions and the implementation of policies.

We think that it is very important. When you have a dwindling presence of minorities among judges and at the same time, you have skewed application of punishment according to religion of the culprit, studying this does matter. The same goes for other institutions — the IAS, the IPS, the judiciary. We are not interested to work only on apex institutions, as they’re sometimes called.We are also interested to look at far more granular, ground-level data, the frontline state. Every bit of data in India is connected to some baseline unit and all those units are different. They don’t match at all, geographically speaking. So you have census blocks, census villages, revenue villages, police thanas, constituencies, Zillas, district, block, polling booths, panchayat, gram, etc. The aim is to connect all those baselines, defining a kind of grammar or an architecture that help us connect different sorts of data. This would have tremendous enabling potential for future research.

Another area of expansion is to go beyond public institutions and also look at political violence. Because you cannot completely detach the study of violence with what the state does. Not just in terms of security but also in terms of public expenditure — is there a connection between the location of protests and where public money is being spent or not? So you should be able to connect that thing together, that’s the objective.

Everything is connected. For this, we need to multiply the size of the centre by x factor because we are already quite overstretched just working on elections. Which means hiring new people, creating positions, inviting more Ashoka faculty to be a part of some of the domains of interest — economists, computer scientists, sociologists. The way we function from the beginning, TCPD has always been an open collaboration and that’s how we’re going to grow. But that’s going to require more resources, having more people, occupying more space in the university. I think it’s super exciting. There’s no equivalent. Even a centre like CPR, for example, is a concentration of extraordinary talent but there’s no concerted effort to put all the datasets that they have together and make them available. It takes a lot, it takes a specific dedication to that and that’s really what we hope to achieve.

This is the Centre’s first General Election. What would be your strategy to cover something like this on such a large scale?

It’s new for us. We have never done 29 states at the same time. Unfortunately some states will get left out, for instance, some smaller states in the North East. But we had to think about how to scale up our operations:it’s not only the General Elections; we also have 4 state elections- two in major states that need to be covered as well. The team has grown, there are 10 of us now, everyone contributes in field work and in collecting data. What we have done is identify a good number of people outside of Ashoka, who are either located in states, or are young scholars or PhD students looking to do field work and we provide them with resources to conduct their field work. In exchange, they collect data for us. They are journalists, local politicians, and academics or even caste activists, because what we do is a fine grain and so we need people who have access to insider information.Mainstream journalists usually don’t have access to the level of detail we are looking for.

I don’t have an exact count, but there are atleast 25-30 people working in data collection overall. I am also using a couple of WhatsApp groups with journalists and people who are located in states across U.P. and other places. They are a source of help: if I have a blank on a particular case, I can ask “Hey what do you know?” and since the WhatsApp group is so large, at least one of them will have an instant response.

Everything else is pretty much automated, so whenever results are declared, we capture them automatically so there is very little intervention.  On the day of the results, we will be able to produce analysis very quickly and also make the data available to others. It is pretty unique that within a day of the results, the raw data is available in a clean, usable format, for free.

Do you foresee in the future, now that TCPD is becoming more prominent and that journalists know about it, that there might be political pressure and political interest in the work that you are doing?

Ashoka has already received a couple of complaint letters from prominent personalities whose identity I won’t reveal, but they come from both sides. The BJP accuses us of being a Congress office, and some Congress people have complained that the data is used to criticise them. We basically navigate somewhere in between and if the criticisms come from both sides, we are doing fine. We are ferociously non partisan. We have our own tastes, likes and dislikes about certain parties, but we make sure that it does not transpire in the data work that we do and in what we publish. To be perfectly honest, some element of subtext is inevitable, even in purely data-driven pieces. The data you choose to highlight is itself the result of a choice, which may be political.

We are not robots! We try to be fair and non partisan, that is the most important thing. We always refuse to work with any political party or individual politician. This does not mean that if any party or politician comes to us with some clarification on the data we will not provide it for free.

You have spent a large part of your academic life studying Uttar Pradesh and its politics. Could you explain to some of our readers the significance that U.P. holds for the General Elections?

Sometimes we use those banal clichéd expressions like “The road to Delhi passes through Lucknow” — it’s actually true. By virtue of being the largest state in India — 200 million people, 145 million registered voters, 80 seats in the Lok Sabha and a bunch of seats in the Rajya Sabha — all the parties that have won single majority always had a strong score in UP. Most Prime Ministers have come from UP, even non-UPite PM candidates go to UP to get elected [chuckles]. It’s a state whose history has always been completely mingled with national history and state politics has always been deeply mingled with national politics.

It’s an important state also because it concentrates the main forms of political formations that you have in India — Congress, BJP, caste-based parties, state-based parties, regional parties. All the lines of fractures of Indian politics, both social and political, are present in UP in more exacerbated forms. You have caste politics everywhere but the rule book is on the table, it’s open to all in UP — it’s very explicit. You have problems of communal politics pretty much everywhere but it’s very salient, very visible in UP. Dalit politics — you’ve got it. Kisan politics — you’ve got it. Even western UP is becoming more prosperous, more urbanised — it’s kind of a microcosm. A very large-scale microcosm.

This is a place where you can observe some of those strong features of Indian politics, in a more explicit and exacerbated form. There is very little denial. When you go to places like Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, or Punjab very often your interlocutors will deny the very existence of caste or tell you that yes, people care about this for marriage but not in politics. When you look at the data from those states, these are states that are super dominated by very small groups. Think about the complete marginalisation of Dalits in public life in Punjab while they represent 36% of the population. No such denial in UP. It’s on the table, it’s very clear. In a way, it’s refreshing — because you can pass those layers of denial you can shoot straight into the heart of the matter. This is where the Anti-Mandalmobilisations took their most dramatic form. This is where Brahmins immolated themselves. This is where you have Ayodhya, this is where the Babri Masjid was, so it’s a major state for Muslim politics, as well. So, it has everything [chuckles again]. That’s what makes it so interesting.

So just a brief look at what’s happening in U.P. What do you make of the alliance building strategies? Most Political Science students would agree that the Congress has often acted as a “catch all” party and at least with U.P. they can’t really claim a “core” voter base, so can they really afford to stay apart from the gatbandhan…

A few months ago they contested in elections in Phulpur outside of the alliance. Phulpur outside Allahabad is Jawarhalal Nehru’s former constituency and it got 2%. So how do you go from Nehru’s constituency to 2%? This is pretty much the story of the Congress in U.P. Basically the argument is that the Congress party doesn’t seem to understand it has to choose between building up its organization and try to maximize the most they can get, or concentrate on defeating the BJP by supporting parties and individuals who are in a better position to defeat the BJP. Instead, they are approaching these elections in a very self-centred, even selfish manner. They are basically digging their own grave by being arrogant and by being so unwilling to share political space that is sharing space with meaningful allies. We’re not even talking about power sharing. We’re talking about sharing political space.

It’s the same thing in Delhi. They rejected the offer of AAP to offer an alliance because ‘why would we just have three seats?’. Yes, but you may win those seats!Now what is going to happen is that they are going to dent into AAP’s support base and get zero, while possibly help the BJP to get seven! How does that make sense? By being greedy, they are paving the way of a win for the BJP in the capital state.

Despite its limitations and problems, the SP-BSP alliance can still do a lot of damage to the BJP in U.P., but the Congress is going to undermine that effort by cutting into the alliance’s base. On the one hand they say “We will not put candidates against your most prominent leaders as a form of courtesy” which reinforces the idea of elite collusion in politics that people are quite disgusted with and they’re basically offering to help the in constituencies where the alliance needs it the least, and at the same time they’re poaching the S.P and B.S.P. incumbent MPs because they don’t have candidates of their own and they’re poaching candidates rejected by the alliance because of the seat sharing agreement with a result that they are going to necessary dent into the alliance. So you cannot play nice with one hand and backstab them or slap them with the other. It really truly makes no sense which is why the proposal was dismissed rather unceremoniously, and rightly so.

Lastly, apart from the developing centre, and preparing for the elections, what do you make of the current coverage of the elections in the news media?

So far I find it quite good. I see a lot more at data driven pieces than five years ago for sure. There’s been a big transformation. I hope I can say that wehave played the leading role in that (chuckle). We know that we have helped some media do that.

But it’s really nice to see far more data-driven pieces far more empirical pieces. There is a lot of good ground reportage also My advice is to stay away a bit from opinion pieces. Every election, I keep storing and piling them. And once the results are out, most of it is good for the bin. I But ground reporting data pieces are really informative and valuable and I am learning a lot about the elections just you by reading newspapers every day. There’s really good focus on candidates etc. So I…So far actually it is good and I don’t entirely buy the usual doomsday predictions about the media. I don’t watch TV, though, even though I started doing shows, which I always told myself that I wouldn’t do…

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