What I learnt from Professor Salvatore Babones at the India Global Forum

From the middle of April until early June, staggered over the course of several weeks, the world’s biggest election will take place. More than 960 million Indians—out of a population of 1.4 billion—are eligible to vote in parliamentary elections that polls strongly suggest will return Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power for a third consecutive term.

I can’t stop reading about the election. Here are some posts I found interesting:

I’ve slipped in this last post – a fascinating discussion I had with Professor Salvatore Babones at the India Global Forum last June:

Babones is a quantitative comparative sociologist (and is happy to be identified as a beancounter) at the University of Sydney. He looks at polls, surveys and the data behind them and has become well known for his challenges to Western assumptions and cognitive biases about India.

Here are a few points from the discussion that stay with me.

  • Routinely, India is told it needs to improve its human rights – particularly its treatment of Muslims. But this is done in the absence of looking at the data. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 24% of Indian Muslims reported facing discrimination. Roughly the same number of Christians and Hindus also report they face discrimination. While concerning and far from ideal, how should we understand that number? The same survey was done in the US – where 80% of African Americans, 46% of Hispanics and 42% of Asian Americans report discrimination. Are we throwing stones in glass houses? Worth pondering.
  • Despite the BJP’s reputation as Hindu party – according to polls the party’s appeal extends to around 19% of Muslims.
  • Recent assessments have downgraded India’s democracy ranking based on concerns about free expression. (Freedom House, V-Dem institute) Babones urges us to scrutinise the questions these surveys are asking as they often reflect external, Western-centric perceptions more than the realities of Indian democracy.  He has some sharp words for the Swedish V-Dem Institute’s survey – “an extraordinarily flawed instrument.” In the ‘free and fair elections section, Hong Kong scores higher than India. They miss asking some more useful questions – such as, ‘are the elections competitive?’ and ‘can the opposition realistically win’?

Thank you to India Global Forum for the opportunity and Professor Babones for sharing his insights.