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  • Devansh Mittal and Jyotsna Sidharth

An empty centre and its silent merger: Inside the TCPD's slow death this year

On 12 September, the Scientific Board of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) – Ashoka University’s award-winning, internationally recognised platform for political research and data – decided to dissolve itself after alleging it was kept in the dark about major structural changes affecting the Centre’s leadership and functioning. This is the latest in what The Edict has learned to be a slow, months-long drain on the Centre’s resources, leaving the institution as a shell of what it once was.

The TCPD is one of the most robust political data centres in the country and a popular resource for journalists covering elections in national and regional media. In June this year, its Lok Dhaba dataset, which is an open and free repository of Indian election results since 1962, won the Lipsett/Przeworski/Verba Dataset Award given by the American Political Science Association, considered to be the “profession’s highest recognition for public data contributions,” according to an open letter released by the Scientific Board of TCPD.

But just three months later, the TCPD’s existence hangs in suspension amid the dissolution of its scientific board and former director Gilles Verniers resigning from the University. The University administration has said it plans to merge the TCPD’s data with another, larger data centre, but has not shared any details, either publicly or in communication with TCPD’s employees, on how the Centre will be represented, or how it will function within this larger set up.

“We do not know how these joint ventures will be pursued,” the scientific board told The Edict over email, because they have “no details” of this new centre.

While the University had plans to merge TCPD into a new centre at least by July, it informed the scientific board only in September.

What was once a leading institution on campus, with more than 50 staff and interns working in it, the TCPD shrunk to just a handful of employees earlier this year. Today, no one works at the Centre, which has seen a quiet exodus of staff since at least May 2023.

Inside the centre

The TCPD was set up in 2016 and co-directed by former assistant professor of political science Gilles Verniers and visiting professor of computer science Sudheendra Hangal to understand Indian political and governmental processes better through data and enable a data-driven discourse. After Hangal stepped down around 2 years ago, Verniers had been directing it alone.

In 2021, TCPD had a team of 11 permanent staff members and 25 affiliated researchers with three Fulbright Fellows joining the team from the USA. That year, about 40 interns worked with the centre.

Now, there is no one.

“In its seven years of operation, scholars at TCPD have produced 16 groundbreaking datasets, led 20 research projects, organized 80 research seminars, published 20 research papers and book chapters, and organized two major conferences on computational social sciences. The team has also published more than 300 analytical articles in the Indian press,” according to the open letter by the scientific board (referred to as the ‘board’ after this).

But in recent months, at least 5 TCPD employees (below the rank of faculty) have been looking for new jobs, are working elsewhere already, or are pursuing higher education, according to their Linkedin profiles.

More unusually, TCPD did not open applications for its summer internship programme this year. The last monthly newsletter was sent out in May 2023.

Additionally, no further datasets have been released since the ‘Urban Local Body Elections in Delhi’ in June 2023.

A source at TCPD, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Edict that there were murmurs of the TCPD undergoing major structural changes as early as April. “To the best of my abilities, what I can tell you is that TCPD will continue in some shape or form. We don't know what that shape or form is right now,” they told The Edict in April, when asked whether TCPD is at the risk of being shut down or discontinued.

S.Y.Quraishi, India’s former Election Commissioner from 2010 to 2012, who was a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre, said he did not receive an email renewing his position at the Centre this year, which he used to every July.

“We used to hold meetings every week to review progress on our projects and the work of all other employees. But the last meeting was held a month or a month and a half back,” Quraishi told The Edict in August.

Verniers told The Edict that he had resigned from Ashoka and therefore from the directorship of TCPD, effective September 5.

In a statement, Ashoka University said Verniers did not clear the “stringent tenure process” and that “faculty who do not qualify for tenure exit the University within 3 semesters.”

“To the best of our understanding, he was not put up for tenure or offered an alternative role. When this happens, it is impossible for an academic to stay in an institution,” the board told The Edict when asked about Verniers’ departure.

The board claims in its open letter that Verniers was “forced to leave.”

In multiple meetings requested by the scientific board with the former Vice-Chancellor, these plans were not communicated, The Edict has learnt.

When the board reached out to the current Vice-Chancellor on August 28 of this year asking for information about the future developments, “the V-C simply wrote to say that there were plans to fold TCPD into a larger data centre. There was no information or consultation with the Scientific Board beyond this,” the board said.

Verniers told Hindustan Times that the board was informed about changes to the TCPD’s structure only 2 days prior (to the release of the open letter).

New Centre

At the end of 2021, it was reported that the University plans to set up a new data centre to “deepdive into data analytics and focus on research across categories such as food and nutrition, health, epidemiology, malnutrition, sustainability and climate change.” Funds had already been sanctioned and a launch was expected soon.

Somak Raychaudhary, the Vice-Chancellor announced at this year’s convocation that the Centre for Data Science and Analytics is one of the several new centres in the pipeline to be launched this year.

The Centre for Data Science and Analytics (CDSA) aims to provide data services for all data-centric activities at AU, build capacity for data science, engage in and facilitate collaborative research and mobilise revenue for growth, according to a presentation in July by Partha Pratim Das, Visiting Professor, who will be leading the centre.

It will be a part of the Ashoka School of Advanced Computing (ASAC) along with the computer science department and 2 other centres with focused research themes.

“We intend to provide a whole lot of different data services by which different departmental schools of Ashoka can get facilitated.” Das said. The presentation mentioned datasets from TCPD, CEDA (Centre for Economic Data and Analysis), TSB (Trivedi School of Biosciences), 3CS (Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability) and others.

“TCPD will slowly become a part of the data science centre. That transition process is going on,” Das had said in the presentation. He was responding to The Edict’s question on political data in a webinar about the Centre.

Making such “substantial changes” governing “how the Centre is run and situated within its home institution” is a “breach of academic norms,” the board said in its letter.

The data from Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) will also be hosted at CDSA. But CEDA seems to be in a different situation than TCPD right now. It has recently hired a new director, Abhay Gupta, who is also part of the team building CDSA.

No one from TCPD, however, is represented in the CDSA’s leadership.

“What kind of integration will they do? Is it some historical data? We used to send our people to states where elections were held. Has history stopped? Have elections stopped? Has democracy stopped?” asked Quraishi about the merger on call with The Edict.

Spotlight: support and criticism

Journalists and political commentators took to Twitter to express their support and appreciation for the TCPD after the board’s letter went public.

“As a journalist who does a lot of data stories around Indian elections, I will always be grateful for @GillesVerniers and his team at TCPD for the public good they built in the form of their open source dataset on elections. Hope that their good work carries on…” Roshan Kishore, Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times tweeted.

“.@GillesVerniers' work has been unparalleled for opening up Indian politics to data. I have personally benefited from his work so much and it informs so much of my writing on politics” Shoaib Daniyal, the Political Editor at tweeted.

Political scientist Tariq Thachill praised the centre as a “huge public good,” after it won the American Political Science Association award.

The TCPD’s work has also drawn criticism from time to time. Nalin Mehta, Dean at the School of Modern Media, UPES and author of book The New BJP, is a critic who has alleged that TCPD produced “misleading data”. “These findings put a very serious question mark not only on their academic research…but also on the poor oversight mechanism of the university research centres that churned out the wrong data and the peer-reviewed academic journals that published them,” Mehta writes, arguing against Christophe Jaffrelot, Chair of the Scientific Board, TCPD and Research Director, CERI-SciencesPo/CNRS and Verniers.

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