Why are Nepalis so fascinated by politics? There are now more than 10 daily national broadsheets (and over 100 daily papers) whose pages are chock-a-block with latest political news and views (we suppose) of national import: Sushil Koirala gives his tacit approval for his election as the new PM; Baburam Bhattarai will, under no circumstances, give in to ‘bawling children’; Mohan Baidya struggles to explain the rationale behind Maoist party division; Jhalanath Khanal is really bawling now; Prachanda in thick, red soup. All front page news stories devoured by millions of Nepalis every morning.
Perhaps because one just can’t escape politics in Nepal—hospitals, universities, publication houses, businesses, police, the unmistakable stamp of party politics is everywhere—people are trying to make some sense of it. It’s this curiosity that has spawned a cottage industry in political commentary, in print, on FM stations and on mushrooming TV channels.
But what if this avalanche of ‘expert opinion’ is not making us any wiser? Not just that, what if it’s dumbing us down? What if, political analysts who are supposed to help us navigate the treacherous road of Nepali politics are themselves clueless?
In his acclaimed 2006 book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know, Philip E Tetlock, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, lays out the result of his two-decade long study on political predictions. For the experiment, Tetlock examined the predictive accuracy of political scientists, government representatives, journalists and anyone who wrote or thought about politics on a regular basis. So, how good were these experts in predicting important political event, the breakdown of USSR, for instance? In Tetlock’s own words, they fared worse than “dart-throwing monkeys.”
Interestingly, Tetlock found, the higher the profile of the commentator and the higher the number of times h/she is cited, the less reliable the commentator is. But why?
Aren’t the people who keep track of politics, day in and day out, who follow its every twist and turn, supposed to know more because of the sheer amount of time they spend on ‘understanding’ politics? Here, Tetlock makes another interesting observation: Just like other human beings, the experts fail because they hate to be wrong and tend to pick and choose from the wealth of information at their disposal.
If the commentator is left-leaning, he is more likely to believe Dhristi and Janadesh than Bimarsha and Deshantar. This is the reason one commentator gets information from Radio Mirmire and the other from Radio Kantipur; from ABC News as against Avenues TV. Tetlock’s ‘experts’ are quick to credit information that fits with their theory but tend to be tough in assessing the validity of information that don’t.
But the fallacy runs retrospectively as well. When an important political event takes place, the commentators who had predicted minimal chances of such an event, now try to justify their earlier stance. Remember all those talking heads and columnists who staunchly believed that the political class would, for their own survival if nothing else, come out with some kind of a constitution on May 27?
Did they admit their mistakes when things didn’t go as planned? Far from it. The commentators to the right of the political spectrum now believe, as much as their own existence, it was the intransigent Madhesi parties that in collusion with the Maoists aborted the constitution agenda, which was no longer serving their ‘divisive’ schemes. For those to the left, things couldn’t be any clearer, only this time it was the traditional ‘elites’ of the NC and UML who refused to give up their old privileges which ultimately sank the CA ship.
In the lead up to the CA polls in 2008, the vast majority of the opinion makers believed an election of such import was just not possible under a fragile security situation that prevailed then. The Maoists were still unarmed. The vicious cycle of violence perpetrated by armed outfits in Tarai was in full swing. The law and order situation right across the country was going from bad to worse. Under such dismal circumstances, they questioned, how could free and fair polls be conducted? But when the polls were successfully held, the same commentators started justifying their earlier stand: The election went ahead smoothly because the Maoists ‘unexpectedly’ played a constructive role. The militant Tarai outfits ‘at the last moment’ were co-opted by mainstream forces. Exhorted by their conscience, peoples’ fear of disruptive incidents and cynicism of political parties were overcome by their heartfelt desire for a peaceful and equitable society after 10 bloody years of conflict. In retrospect, things could not have gone any other way.
Then, consider the poll results. Right up to the D-day, most political commentators believed the Maoists would be lucky to get 100 seats. In fact, I remember one head of a media house, on the basis of his thorough statistical analysis of ‘past voting trends’, come to the conclusion that the Maoists would be limited to fewer than 50 seats and if his painstaking analysis failed, he would ‘eat crow’.
Now there is a great debate over the issue of federalism. With CA’s failure, the critics of federalism have found new voice. They honestly believe if it wasn’t for the ‘mindless’ federal agenda, the country would by now have had a new constitution. Federalism’s staunch supporters meanwhile continue to hold that there is no better system to correct the historical wrongs on marginalized communities. In these times of extreme polarization, perhaps none of us has a clue how the political situation will play out in a month’s time, let alone a few years down the line.
Of course, Tetlock has had his critics. There is a school of thought that political commentary is, first and the foremost, explanatory, not speculative; it helps people get a better understanding of important political issues. And even if political pundits do get it wrong sometimes, isn’t it possible that their astute analysis played a pre-emptive role? For instance, how is one to evaluate the role of progressive commentators in building up public support for the 2006 Jana Andolan, without which the SPA-Maoist alliance might not have resulted in a successful outcome? Who knows how the peace and constitution process would have played out among the people without all the talking heads and analysts helping them make some sense of the complex, underlying issues? As such, there is no empirical way to evaluate the real contribution of these analysts.
It could be argued that the essence of political commentary in democratic societies lies in their contribution in the creation of a vibrant society, abuzz with a plethora of views on every imaginable topic. But as Tetlock’s work strongly hints, you would also do well to rely on your own instincts when you pick from among the candidates in the next election rather than frantically looking for last-minute tips from experts.