It is hard to change long-standing narratives. The popular understanding of complex subjects often includes ideas that are well-past their sell-by date, an yet persist – either because they are intuitive, compelling, have seeped into the media or because someone has a vested interest in maintaining that impression.
Take, for example, the idea that high turnout in Indian elections is a sign of anti-incumbency. Not only does the data not back it up, experts seem to think it emerges from a couple of elections in 1967 and 1977, about a half-decade ago.
They can even be internalised, like Indians believing they are middle class – no matter where their income falls on the spectrum.
One of the questions we likes to ask most on our newsletter – the Political Fix – which features an interview with experts and scholars on Indian policy, politics and beyond every Friday, is about misconceptions. Specifically what misconceptions do you encounter all the time – from the public at large, from journalists and even from experts and scholars.
The answers are always interesting. So for the start of the year, we thought we would compile some of them for you to return to. You can read the entire archive of Friday Q&As here.
Do send in suggestions for who you would like us to feature next – or the misconceptions about a subject that you encounter over and over – by emailing email@example.com
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, and co-author along with Pradeep Chhibber of Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India. I spoke to Verma about popular understandings of Indian politics and how they’re often wrong. Read the entire interview here.
What misconceptions about Indian politics do you find yourself correcting all the time?
“There are lots of them. Lots of them. Despite contrary evidence and good evidence in the public domain, people continue to work with the old wisdom, which has been challenged. As we discussed in the beginning, take this whole relationship between caste and vote. Just open your eyes. Across the world, this happens. I’m not saying that there are no bad effects and elements of this caste-vote relationship in India. But why do you get so worked up? Think deeply why this exists.
This conversation is loaded against the lower class and the marginalised. Upper castes also act as a voting block for the BJP in many parts of this country, or dominant castes do for regional parties in many parts of the country, but the conversation is always about some Yadav-OBCs, some Dalits and some Muslims, right? So this misconception has another layer of misconceptions loaded towards one group.
Take the silent voter theory [to explain polling errors]. This is one of the most bogus theories of Indian politics. This has no basis. But in every election you hear, “we went there, the voters are not speaking up.” Yes, some people are actually strategically silent. They don’t want to be seen. But a lot of them actually don’t know what to do. And they are looking for cues. They’re trying to talk to their relatives, they’re trying to talk to their family members. They’re trying to talk to their village elders.
There is a section of voters who decide whom to vote for while standing in the queue. The “hawa” at the polling booth.
Then, many people, including Milan Vaishnav, have given evidence on this relationship between turnout and anti-incumbency, that there is no relationship. But it keeps coming back in election after election.
Then this whole business about factionalism. I grew up reading in the newspapers someone always blaming “gutbaazi”, factionalism, for losing. So when you lose, it’s basically anti-incumbency and factionalism. And when you win, these two things don’t matter.
See, parties are made up of factions. There are always going to be competing power interests. The degree of factionalism may make you win or lose an election, but that does not happen in every election.”
Manan Ahmed Asif, an associate professor at Columbia University who also founded the blog Chapati Mystery, examines in his new book, The Loss of Hindustan; The Invention of India, the ways in which colonial histories of the subcontinent, often using a simplistic religious lens, overshadowed and overwhelmed a very different understanding of Hindustan held by medieval scholars.
The whole of the book is about misconceptions, so this question is a bit harder, but I’d still like to ask: What is the one misconception that you find yourself having to correct all the time?
“I think it is one thing that I’ve made a part of both books, which is this idea of Muslim presence in the subcontinent being perceived as [that of] outsiders.
In both India and in Pakistan. In India, because of the Hindutva [project]. In Pakistan, they say, we are descended from Arabs, and have nothing to do with the subcontinent.
So this idea of outsiderness, both in Pakistan and India. How does it work? You see disciplinary scholarship, studies that are wedded to this analytical framework.
The thing I notice the most is how colonial categories of difference and a national emphasis on difference is not questioned. We don’t put it in front and say this doesn’t make sense.”
Louise Tillin is director of the India Institute at the King’s College London, and author of Indian Federalism. I spoke to her about the interaction between the Centre and states in India, and how the country’s federal compact operates differently from other prominent federations.
Is there one misconception about Indian federalism that you find yourself frequently having to correct?
“I took a bit of slack a good 10 years ago for suggesting that Indian federalism had not quite come to terms with asymmetry in the way that proponents of asymmetric federalism often assume. It was often said that the Article 370 and Kashmir’s autonomous status in the Indian Union, along with the autonomy provisions in North East India, meant that India stood out as a country that had managed to design forms of asymmetry that has enabled it to accommodate the idea that certain regions should have a special status within the Constitution.
This is a debate that has played out in many other countries. There is a long-running debate of whether Quebec should be recognised as having a special status in Canada, or Catalonia in the Spanish case.
I wrote an article back in 2007 and I said, well, yes, India does have these forms of autonomy in the Constitution, but it’s a mistake to think they are unproblematically embedded. And Article 370 is often being obeyed more in the breach and eroded essentially over time and perhaps we ought to be a little more cautious in how well we understand India as representing a form of asymmetric federalism.
I was slightly lambasted then for those views. But I feel recent events have borne them out.”
Ananth Krishnan is a journalist and author of India’s China Challenge, which tells the story of how the country arrived at this particular moment in the Xi Jinping era – and what that might mean for New Delhi. I spoke to Krishnan about 2020’s tensions on the disputed border between the two countries, how trade has not led to closer connections and why he set out to convey a sense of the plurality of voices that are present in China.
Is there one thing that you see among Indian scholars, media, even fellow experts that you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to China?
“I’d say that one pet peeve of mine is, it’s not really a deep misconception, but I wish we would stop paying as much attention to the Global Times as we do every day. It’s understandable, given the fact that there aren’t many English-language sources from China. But the idea that everything that they say is signed off by the top leadership is something I find quite amusing.”
Declan Walsh is a New York Times journalist and author of The Nine Lives of Pakistan, which tells the story of the country through nine fascinating portraits while also recounting his own time there – including being expelled by the government for unspecified reasons in 2013. I spoke to Walsh about the violent period that he was witness to in Pakistan, how foreign correspondence has changed and how he sees the country from the outside.
Having spent nine years there and left, do you now find yourself correcting misconceptions about the way people – even experts and scholars – see Pakistan?
“I think for foreigners in the post 9/11 period, there was a tendency to view Pakistan exclusively through a national security prism. And I think that sometimes provided for very impoverished policymaking, where foreign countries, for instance, supported Pervez Musharraf, just as they had supported General Zia for their own narrow perceived national security interest.
And I think in the medium term that has been a destabilising dynamic for Pakistan. It has led to bad decisions, and it has not helped the cause of good governance in the country. That’s not to excuse the sometimes gross failings and corruption of civilian leaders. And they certainly have been terrible. But, you know, in Pakistan, there is bad politics and fascinating politics, but sometimes very dispiriting politics in a kind of narrow sense.
But, there are also bigger, wider forces at play about the balance of power within the country and about the country, kind of having an opportunity or having the space to solidify its own identity as a country that is formally titled an Islamic Republic, but has large minorities, and in reality actually sees itself as a much more pluralistic place.
I think for a lot of Pakistanis anyway, they do, but that view is under threat from really regressive forces that are always looking for an opportunity to seize space, whether it’s through blasphemy, whether it’s through the issue of militant jihad, whether it’s sometimes just through conventional politics, and there is this battle for the soul of Pakistan that’s always ongoing.”