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How I got the 2019 election all wrong

Confessions of an economist who thought he can’t get it wrong

It was close to midnight, sometime during the first week of May. I and a childhood friend were sitting in the AC upper deck of a restaurant near the Metro cinema in South Mumbai and having mutton seekh kebabs.

Or rather, I was having mutton seekh kebabs and he was watching his weight.

“So how many seats do you think the BJP will win?” he asked nonchalantly.

“Around 210,” I replied, digging into a kebab.

“How have you come up with such an exact number?”

“Well, it’s not an exact number, which is why I said around 210.”

“What if you turn out to be wrong?” he persisted.

“I can’t go wrong,” I replied with total confidence.

This was one of the many conversations I had in the run up to the election. I maintained this confidence, the few times I appeared on TV as well.

Of course, a few weeks later when the results came out, I had got it wrong big time, and so had many others. Some of them happen to be veteran political observers, and who are now busy writing pieces headlined ‘12 Reasons Why Modi Won.’

I have come to the conclusion I became a victim of what behavioural economists call the confirmation bias. As Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017, writes in Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics: “People have a natural tendency to search for confirming rather than disconfirming evidence … This tendency is called the confirmation bias … People become overconfident because … they only look for evidence that confirms their preconceived hypotheses.”

This is precisely what happened in my case. I had a hypothesis that the BJP will win around 210 seats and I went looking for evidence that would be in line with my hypothesis. A classic example of the confirmation bias that Thaler talks about.

One of the things that I did despite my scepticism was follow journalists doing ground-level journalism, both on Twitter and on TV. This became a very important input into my calculation because they were saying things I wanted to hear. And it turned out all wrong. This leads to the question where these journalists also looking for information which would be in line with their bias, which was that the BJP and Modi were on a weaker wicket this time around, in comparison to 2014.

The Election Commission does not allow opinion polls during the time when the election is on. It believes that the polls influence voters. Hence, during the time the election is on, and given that it is a long period of time, the only way to figure out what voters are thinking is to follow journalists and what they are saying.

The other question is what other inputs should I have looked at. Some of my friends who are close to the BJP told me that after the results were out, all that I was saying would turn out to be wrong. But then how could I consider their views as inputs, given that they were close to the party?

Of course, there were media houses and journalists who had maintained from day one that Modi and the BJP are going to win. The trouble here was that these media houses and journalists batted for Modi 24/7. So, how seriously could one take their views?

The flip side to this that has clearly emerged is that the journalists claiming to do unbiased ground level journalism have their own set of biases, which clearly which does not help. Also, I want to ask them: if this was an undercurrent, what would a current look like?

To conclude, the moral of the story for me is that in 2024, I will stay away from making any projections, as far as possible. As far as my friend is concerned, he did send me a message after the election results came out, reminding me of my theory, and all I could do was send a sheepish smiley, in reply.