I have become a very big fan of two Americans in recent times. Simply because they hold established pundits in utter contempt. One of them is statistician and number cruncher Nate Silver who is chucking his ‘prestigious’ job with the venerable New York Times to join the ‘oh so downmarket’ ESPN. In 2012, President Barack Obama “lost” the first debate to Republican challenger Mitt Romney so badly that most pundits – and opinion polls – started predicting an Obama loss. So pervasive was this “Obama will lose” aura created by myths that many Obama fans became disconsolate. Nate Silverwho claims no expertise on political matters and issueswas perhaps the only one who kept insisting that Obama will win, and win convincingly. Most pundits laughed at his so called stupidity; many accused him of bias and prejudice. In the end, Obama won, and won convincingly. This is what Silver has to say about political pundits in America: “I would argue that MOST political pundits are completely useless; the outliers are the few who are worth reading. Plus the political pundits take themselves very seriously...”
I couldn’t help recalling these lines when I was forced (by a fractured hip bone) to watch hours of television where pundits were analysing latest opinion polls on the Indian political scene. The glittering cast of pundits adorning the TV channels was so formidable that it would be heresy to question their unquestionable wisdom. But Nate Silver kept coming back at me. And it dawned on me that MOST pundits were talking nonsense. The opinion polls indicate that the Congress is going to get battered in the coming elections because of rising prices, poor governance and corruption. You don’t need opinion polls to arrive at that conclusion; just talk to non-pundits in the form of attendants and nurses in hospitals, taxi drivers, maid servants, dhobis, street hawkers, newspaper vendors...and you can figure out. The opinion polls also seem to indicate that the BJP will not benefit and the elections will result in a fractured mandate and a hung Parliament. India’s best pundits then gave their expert opinions on issues ranging from caste to Muslim votes to either the unsuitability or improbability of Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister.
Ever since this magazine was launched in 2005, there has not been a single electoral verdict in India that has delivered a fractured mandate. And of course, there has not been a single verdict that has not exposed the pundits as no better than astrologers and tarot card readers.
In 2011, venerable media outfits and even more venerable pundits – backed by opinion polls – kept saying that Jayalalithaa Jayaram and AIADMK will win the Tamil Nadu assembly elections but won’t find it easy because of the ‘formidable’ alliance between the DMK and the Congress and the populist schemes announced by them. In the event, Jayalalithaa simply decimated her opponents. Then there were quite a few morons who suggested in early 2012 that no one could form a government in Uttar Pradesh without the support of the Congress. As hysterical reporters marvelled at the crowds gathered to hear the crown prince Rahul Gandhi, opinion polls and pundits pontificated on a fractured mandate, a hung UP assembly and the possible reemergence of the Congress. The UP voter, like Nate Silver, was laughing all along. In Punjab, the pundits were discussing the cabinet formation by Congress leader Amarinder Singh hours before the results were announced. The venerable pundits were discussing how the revolt by Manpreet Badal, the nephew of Akali Dal leader and chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, who formed his own party would badly damage the ruling alliance of BJP and Akali Dal. When the results were announced, some pundits blamed the voters for their lack of wisdom; just as many pundits have branded the whole state of Gujarat as “communal” because the damned voters there keep voting for Narendra Modi!
I simply did not hear one simple thing: that the Indian voter is repeatedly delivering decisive mandates and it will be either the UPA or the NDA in 2014. I am sure pundits on TV channels will have fancy explanations when the electoral verdict of 2014 throws egg on their faces. Just in case you think my words, in the tradition of Digvijaya Singh, reveal that I am a product of an RSS conspiracy, please recall what our pundits were saying before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Almost everyone predicted that the Left parties and the “Third Front” would be the winners. Within hours of the results being announced, when the Congress and the UPA won a clear mandate, the same pundits started discussing how good a Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi could be!
I was forced to watch another “Made for Pundits” carnival on television; this one about Amartya Sen versus Jagdish Bhagwati and the Kerala versus Gujarat models of development. Added to this was the debate about poverty – with some Congress leaders claiming you could eat a full meal for Rs.12 or even Rs.5. The pundits are very clear: it is a ‘global, neo-imperialist, corporate’ conspiracy to claim that poverty has declined in India. Then again, people like Modi who tout the Gujarat model of development are false messiahs and frauds because it is Kerala with its superior human development results that is the true road map for India. (You can add Bihar and the Nitish Kumar model to this now. And don’t forget the Bangladesh model because pundits make Indians like me ashamed by showing better human development results in Bangladesh!!!).
I then recalled the other American who can add me to his list of fans [Not that he will care!] – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of ‘Black Swan’ and the man who became famous because he was one of the rare ones who actually anticipated the great collapse of 2008. He has written another book called the ‘Anti-Fragile’ which you really must read if you have the time and the mental stamina; not to speak of having an open mind. In the book, Taleb systematically trashes the “pundits” of the world and their wisdom with actual evidence. And this is what he writes about globally respected New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman of the “World is Flat” fame and Joseph Stiglitz, one of the most revered pundits of our times and another Economics Nobel Prize Winner like Amartya Sen: “There is something more severe than the problem with Thomas Friedman, which can be generalised to someone causing action without being completely unaccountable for his words....had Stiglitz been a businessman with his own money on the line, he would have been blown up, terminated. Or had he been in nature, his genes would have been made extinct so people with such misunderstanding of probability would eventually disappear from our DNA”.
I really wish India encouraged “contrarian” voices like this! I do not have the expertise of the pundits when it comes to the poverty war being played out in the media. But I have grown up in Chattisgarh and Odisha and I have personally seen the decline of poverty in the places I have lived in and visited again and again. Alone who says poverty has not declined in the towns and villages that I know intimately, or that it has worsened, is a fraud. Anyone who has lived in these areas knows that it is the Congress who encouraged the plunder and exploitation of the natives. There is no serious analysis required here because the Congress has ruled most of India for most of its existence as an independent country. But I can claim no knowledge of India as a whole. Of course, there is one thing that strikes me when I (SMS your views with your name and topic to 0-9818101234) hear about the wonderful stories of development in Kerala, Bangladesh and Bihar. The most practical way to check human behaviour is to look at how they actually behave. So I keep thinking, if the Kerala model is so great, why do so many from that state keep looking for a better life elsewhere? And then I think, what would happen to Kerala if the nurses, electricians, carpenters, doctors, software engineers and many other professionals stopped sending money “back home”? Besides, if as pronounced by the father of all pundits Amartya Sen, if things are so hunky dory in Bangladesh, why do we so many citizens of that ‘humanly developed’ country want to cross over to India? Of course, Indian pundits say that illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a conspiracy hatched by the RSS types! I interact with pundits like this and think: these are the same guys who kept praising Communism and the Soviet Union even as people from the blessed Communist countries displayed a stupid tendency to migrate to ‘Imperialistic’ domains. These are the same guys who became pundits specialising in environment, inclusive growth, secularism and....
Need I say more?