top of page
  • Aneesh Sriram and Madhumitha G.I.

Debate and attacks surround Sabyasachi Das’ working paper on democratic backsliding

A working research paper titled "Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy," from Sabyasachi Das, Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, has garnered a strong reaction from political leaders, Ashokan management and the Ashokan student body on social media platforms. Inferring electoral fraud, voter manipulation and irregularities in the 2019 General Elections results, the paper has sent shockwaves through academic and political circles.

On 25 July, Das released the paper through the Social Science Research Network, a pre-print repository devoted to rapidly disseminating scholarly research. Fifty pages long, the working paper levels several claims against the current political milieu and the methods they might have used to win closely contested constituencies.

Das compiles several datasets on election results from 1977-2019, turnout data for 2019, and national election surveys, among others, to present evidence implying the ruling party disproportionately won votes in closely contested constituencies where they were incumbent.

The data casts doubt on the incumbent party’s method of winning close margins and suggests two distinct ways manipulation could have occurred: during voter registration or vote counting.

Das further suggests this manipulation appears to be a targeted suppression of Muslims, India’s largest religious minority.

Das presented the preliminary findings of this paper on 25 July, at the National Bureau of Economic Research’s (NBER) Development Economics conference, hosted by the Summer Institute.

Among others, Michael Kremer, associated with the University of Chicago, Kartik Muralidharan, founder of the Centre for Effective Governance of Indian States (CEGIS) and Anisha Sharma, Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, were in attendance.

The paper's publication has sparked great debate online, especially after M. R. Sharan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, posted a Twitter thread on the primary findings.

Calling it an “astonishing new working paper,” Sharan accredits Das for his methodology and data presentation and concludes by warning “the 2024 elections are around the corner” and the “need is to be vigilant.”

The quote tweets of Sharan’s thread broadly range between support for Das from various academic and political sectors to intense backlash and characterological questioning from others.

The Edict reached out to Sharan for comment on the debate surrounding his tweets on the paper. He said he "has nothing to say beyond what [he] had already said on the Twitter thread.”

On 1 August, Ashoka University’s social media handles published a dissociative statement from Das’ paper, bringing it to broader attention on digital media.

“Ashoka University is dismayed by the speculation and debate around a recent paper by one of its faculty members (Sabyasachi Das, Assistant Professor of Economics) and the university's position on its contents,” the statement reads.

“Ashoka values research that is critically peer-reviewed and published in reputed journals. To the best of our knowledge, the paper in question has not yet completed a critical review process and has not been published in an academic journal. Social media activity or public activism by Ashoka faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity does not reflect the stand of the University.”

The statement has been retweeted by Ashoka University’s founders, notably Sanjeev Bikhchandani, and touted publicly as the institution’s official statement.

The statement has invited reactions from various individuals, including politicians and commentators, academics, Ashokan alumni, current students, faculty, and the Student Government of Ashoka University.

The Student Government’s statement, released on 2 August, claims the university has not prioritized “fundamental principles of academic research.” It condemns the university’s approach in failing to support Das, and has, as of 4 August, nearly 80 signatories.

Leher, one of Ashoka University’s student-run political collectives, also released a statement on 2 August, on their Instagram account, in solidarity with Sabyasachi Das.

“[Ashoka University's] clarification… was highly undesirable and undermines the university’s commitment to protecting their researchers during pre-publishing stages.”

A screenshot of Leher’s statement circulated on Twitter by Deshdeep Dhankar, a researcher at Centre de Sciences Humaines, Delhi, stands at 800+ likes and 250+ retweets as of 5 August.

Students and alumni have voiced their thoughts on Twitter, expressing the difference in their opinion from the institutional standpoint.

Yasashvi Paarakh (@PaarakhYasashvi), UG’23, an alumna of Ashoka University, has expressed “how scary it is to be a young academic and/or researcher in India in the field of development or political economics” after the “instant backlash to a paper on democratic backsliding.”

Shashwat Agarwal (@shashwhat_), UG’24, has said, “The standards of academic freedom at the university take a new low every passing year. It's not even a surprise anymore that the censorship is not just restricted to ashoka students but also extends to faculty members.”

In an email thread to Ashoka University’s faculty and alumni community expressing solidarity with Sabyasachi Das, Shauryavardhan Sharma, ASP’22, writes, “Instead of standing behind Professor Das, the leadership of this esteemed University has instead chosen to implicitly discredit the research done by its own faculty… a death knell for any serious academic research that tries in the very spirit of democracy to raise uncomfortable questions.”

“Further, if [the] Alumni community [is] supposed to sell the dream of Ashoka to the outside world, I’m sorry to say, it’s a goal I find harder to subscribe to with each passing day.”

Academics around the globe, including Ashoka University’s former faculty members, have demonstrated both support for and provided critical feedback on Das’ methodology and analysis.

Gilles Verniers, Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (Ashoka University), has expressed his support, opining “If we don't leave room for research that is inconvenient, we shut the door to the possibility of fixing our problems.”

Former faculty member Aniket Aga, previously associated with Ashoka’s Environmental Science department, has indicated his approval of the results in the “breathtaking paper” through a Tweet.

Paul Gertler, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, referred to the paper as “one of the most convincing [Economics] papers” he has recently seen.

Noted academics, including Arin Dube (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Jaffrelot Christophe (Sciences Po), Suhas Palshikar, Raphael Susewind (London School of Economics), Narayani Basu, Joyojeet Pal (University of Michigan) and Anant Sudarshan have lambasted Ashoka University for not standing by its faculty and defended Das’ right to conduct ongoing research on politically sensitive subjects.

Dani Rodrik, Economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said, “I understand the pressure that Ashoka is under (as are all research institutions currently in India). But the crafting of this statement is poor, seemingly casting aspersion on the paper (not yet “peer-reviewed”) instead of supporting researchers’ academic freedom.”

This support from the academic community does arrive amid criticism from detractors of the working paper for lacking peer review and specialist verification.

Ashoka’s Economics department has released no statement. Most faculty members’ standpoints on the debate and prior knowledge of the paper remain unknown.

Amid the outcry against the paper on grounds of claimed sedition and anti-nationalism, critical feedback on gaps in Das’ methodology stand out.

Anant Sudharshan, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Warwick points out alternate explanations for the evidence provided in the paper. Das does not account for “late” votes, which could also explain the “data oddities” he picks up on.

An article by Ground Report emphasizes that the paper does not offer conclusive evidence on the overall extent of manipulation or its impact on government formation owing to its limited scope.

Political parties heralding their ulterior agendas have also raised their ideologically-driven voices.

Shashi Tharoor, Lok Sabha MP and member of the Indian National Congress described the findings as “hugely troubling… for all lovers of Indian democracy.” In response to the largely right-wing attack on Das Tharoor adds, “The evidence presented does not lend itself to political attacks on a serious scholar.”

Describing the research as rigorous and nuanced, political activist Yogendra Yadav has called the paper “by far the most rigorous empirical paper on Indian elections that I've read in a long time.”

Meanwhile, members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), such as Nishikant Dube, criticized Das and the University for using “half-baked research” to “discredit India’s vibrant poll process.”

Das has been open to critical feedback. On his Twitter (@sabya_economist), he has been responding to renowned scholars, thanking some for their support and responding to others about concerns in the empirical testing or claims presented in the paper.

The Edict reached out to Das for comment. He responded saying he is currently not engaging with any media outlet. “I want to get the paper published first, so that it is formally vetted via peer review” he said, adding that he would perhaps comment publicly after it is published.

Well-wishers have expressed concern for Das’ safety. Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, Professor of Economics at Yale University, tweeted in response to Sharan’s thread, “We should all remain alert about Sabyasachi Das’ safety… Whether anyone likes the conclusions of Das’ paper or not, his right to conduct research needs protection.”

Sharan’s response reads: “[Sabyasachi Das] and I debated writing about this publicly (here) for days now. He was sure he wanted this read broadly. He is a superb economist and an even braver man.”

1,506 views2 comments

2 comentários

05 de ago. de 2023

Does the paper examine how or why the ruling party lost in several states in the recent past? If they rigged results, they'd have surely rigged the Karnataka elections too. Caveat - I have not read the paper and I will defend any scholar's right to research on any given subject no matter how inconvenient the findings are.

14 de ago. de 2023
Respondendo a

The study does not find irregular patterns in state elections that the BJP has won.

bottom of page