May 26, 2020
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Guru Of Poll Predictions

David Butler, the world's first psephologist, has a special relationship with India

Guru Of Poll Predictions

ONE evening in the Forties, deep in the heart of the Radcliffe Camera library in Oxford University sat a student pondering over election processes. Was the relationship between votes polled and seats acquired as random as everyone thought it was? Election analysis was in its infancy and the student himself was barely out of his teens. Leafing through past records, he suddenly came upon the Cube Law which held that if votes are divided as a : b, then seats will be divided as a 3 : b3. This might just be it, thought the student as he raced back to his room, wrote down the formula and applied it to all British general elections over the next 40 years. He was proved right every time. Amidst changing conditions, the Cube Law held firm and David Butler became the world's first 'psephologist'. 

"I won't say I actually invented the word 'psephology,' but I did put it into print for the first time. In those days nobody had carried out a systematic study of elections, I was the first." Psephology comes from 'psephos' which is the Greek word for pebble. When ancient Athens went to the polls, citizens voted by throwing pebbles into urns. And when modern India stands at the ballot box, Butler is on hand to forecast 'swings', to exult over 'landslides' and wrestle with the analytical challenges of a 'split vote.' Says Butler: "The other word that I put into print was 'swing,' swing as a rigorous relationship between seats and votes." 

Now the 66-year-old white-haired Oxford don has retired from his fellowship at Nuffield College but he is still the king of 'swing', the pharaoh of figures, Prannoy Roy's guru and grey eminence of all pollsters worldwide. "Butler's mind is razor-sharp," says historian Mahesh Rangarajan.

His relationship with India is 15 years old—he came at the invitation of Prannoy Roy and Ashok Lahiri—although his grandmother was born here and his great-grandfather was an Indian civil servant. A little ironical then that a descendant of an official of the Raj should become democratic India's foremost number cruncher, witness to electoral processes very different from his own homeland. "I don't claim to be an India expert. I couldn't possibly say what goes on in the minds of Indians as they vote. In Britain, the pattern of candidature remains the same, names of parties don't change. In India names change, patterns of candidature change for every election." With the fading of the Congress as the dominant party are the two psephological categories: Index Of Opposition Unity (IOU) and 'swing' entirely passe? Butler doesn't think so. "You still need an index to figure out how many opposition candidates are ranged against the Congress, BJP or Janata Dal to come to an analysis of how each of these parties will fare." His smile is disarming, even mischievous.

But after a lifetime of election analysis—he has written a book on every British general election since 1951—Butler has come to an unlikely conclusion: "I got a lot of attention because people were looking for a nice clean formula to explain politics. But politics is an art, not a science. There are no iron laws of political behaviour. Elections can be studied, you can learn from them and you can say useful things about them, but no formula exists that will necessarily hold true 10 years later in a different country." Nevertheless, he is reportedly on first name terms with over 200 British politicians; while still a student Winston Churchill invited him for dinner. "There were just the two of us and he kept forgetting why I was there. It was quite amazing that in the midst of elections, a leader was able to spend an entire evening of leisure." 

Yet he is delighted by elections: his is an infectious thrill about the force that motivates millions of electors as they strive for good governance. He was never awarded a chair in politics, never became a pillar of the academic establishment, but for politicians and journalists, Butler is the technocrat-wizard of electoral facts, democracy's teledon. Yet he is modest. "Politicians ask me, 'which opinion polls should we believe?' I tell them, 'believe and disbelieve them all.' I don't have any secret truths, no great saleable expertise. But over the years, I've learnt to look for certain things." 

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