Author of Paper on Possible ‘Manipulation’ in 2019 Polls Quits Ashoka University

Sabyasachi Das’s paper was attacked by BJP leaders and the university quickly distanced itself from his study, prompting accusations of 'democratic backsliding in the academia'.

New Delhi: Weeks after a scholarly paper he wrote about the 2019 election results set off a political firestorm, Sabyasachi Das, an assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, has resigned from his position at the private university based in Sonepat, Haryana.

His resignation was confirmed to The Wire by at least two faculty members, but there has been no official statement from the university yet.

The economist has been in the news for a paper he wrote alleging the possibility of electoral ‘manipulation’ in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the incumbent BJP rode back to power with a greater margin than in 2014.

While Das stressed that the methods and impact he looked at in his July 25, 2023 paper – ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’ – were confined to just 11 seats, his study generated spirited commentary on social media. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders also attacked the scholar’s findings.

On August 1, matters heated up when Ashoka University issued a statement distancing itself from Das’s paper, saying it was dismayed by the speculation and debate it had generated.

When The Wire contacted him on Sunday evening to see if he would be in a position to talk, Das messaged, “I am not engaging with media at this point. I am focused on getting my paper published before contemplating media engagement.” When questioned explicitly about whether he had quit his position, Das did not reply.

Asked by The Wire if Das had resigned of his own accord, a faculty member said, “You know how this is always a grey area. One is pushed to a point where the only way one can save one’s dignity is by resigning.” “We know that a lot went on behind closed doors” before Das put in his papers, a second Ashoka academic said.

Parallel to Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s departure

However, a third faculty member familiar with the development said, “We’ve been trying as hard as possible to get him to stay…. He has submitted his resignation. We’re trying to persuade him to stay.”

The university’s student-run paper The Edict, said that Das’s resignation “calls back to a markedly similar situation from two years ago, when Ashoka University’s ex-Vice Chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta was seemingly coerced into resigning from the university due to his frequent criticism of the incumbent Union government in his writings for the Indian Express“.

It added:

“The University’s administration is now facing backlash almost identical to what it faced then: from students, alumni, and academics around the globe, for failing to support its faculty in their work independent of the university.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: The Wire

While the University administration did not issue any statement about Das or his resignation as of Monday [August 14] evening, Ashwini Deshpande, the head of Ashoka University’s Economics Department, seemingly confirmed his departure in a tweet.

Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, expressed disappointment at the “lack of solidarity” displayed by senior economics faculty members at Ashoka towards Das, a junior academic. “Silence enables injustice, and it spreads,” she tweeted.

Ghosh added that the issue at hand is academic freedom, saying, “Allowing young scholars to be thrown under the bus doesn’t necessarily protect senior ones in the future. Actually, it makes things worse.”

Deshpande stated in response, “[It is] amazing how people are making assumptions about our ‘lack of solidarity’ without knowing anything about what we have been upto the last 15 days. If statements alone could solve crises, we would be in a different world.”

According to The Edict, Das was scheduled to teach two sections of a core economics course, Development Economics, in the monsoon semester that starts in less than two weeks. “Though his notice period remains unknown, his possible departure from the University puts the Department in the difficult position of finding a replacement instructor to teach in his stead, and jeopardises the academic trajectory of hundreds of students,” the report said.

Ashoka took public stand on paper

News of Das’s resignation is likely to reignite concerns about the state of academic freedom in India.

Ashoka University raised eyebrows last week when it pointedly distanced itself from his research and implicitly questioned its quality by saying that “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.”

The university’s stand drew criticism from students and academics, especially given the track record of how it had handled its reputed vice chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, when he was both nudged and persuaded to resign in March 2021 due to his media writings on the politics of the ruling BJP.

One critic called Ashoka’s comment on Das’s paper an example of  ‘democratic backsliding in academia’.

In 2017, allegations had been levelled by the faculty council that the university’s founders had asked two members of the faculty – deputy manager of academic affairs Saurav Goswami and programme manager of academic affairs Adil Mushtaq Shah – to resign in 2016, over the fact that they had signed a petition against violence in Kashmir after Burhan Wani’s death and demanded a plebiscite in the state.

BJP called research ‘half-baked’

Das’s paper triggered a debate with former civil servant MG Devasahayam and psephologists-politicians like Yogendra Yadav praising it for “drawing attention” to anomalies in the election, and others like Nalin Mehta, author of a recent book on Modi and the BJP, questioning his methodology and findings.

BJP leaders made scathing comments and MP Nishikant Dubey spared neither Das nor Ashoka University, “It is fine to differ with the BJP on matters of policy but this is taking it too far…how can someone in the name of half-baked research discredit India’s vibrant poll process? How can any University allow it? Answers needed- this is not good enough a response.”

Amit Malviya, the convenor of BJP’s IT cell said, “The research paper by Ashoka University’s Sabyasachi Das presents several datasets and dozens of charts as ‘evidence’ of what he calls ‘significant irregularities’ and ‘electoral fraud’. These are big claims. Does the evidence stack up? The answer is No…”

The abstract of Das’s study says, “This paper contributes to the discussion by documenting irregular patterns in the 2019 general election in India and identifying whether they are due to electoral manipulation or precise control, i.e., [the] incumbent party’s ability to precisely predict and affect win margins through campaigning.”

Further, “I compile several new datasets and present evidence that is consistent with electoral manipulation in closely contested constituencies and is less supportive of the precise control hypothesis. The manipulation appears to take the form of targeted electoral discrimination against India’s largest minority group – Muslims, partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers. The results present a worrying development for the future of democracy.”

Ashoka University’s student newspaper, The Edict captured the nuances of the debate, while underlining that the Economics department issued no statement and the stand of its faculty on Das’s conclusions is not known.

Sabyasachi Das’s CV on the Ashoka website says that he received his PhD in Economics at Yale University in 2015. Prior to joining Ashoka University, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the prestigious Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. His fields of specialisation are political economy, public economics, and applied microeconomics. For his research, he is primarily interested in exploring group inequalities that emerge from various democratic processes.

According to his CV, “he has studied gender and caste issues in village elections and meetings in India, and explored governance consequences of political alignment between state and local governments by looking at appointments of bureaucrats. In other work, he is exploring broad electoral systems, such plurality rule and proportional representation, and comparing them across countries to determine their effect on representation of minorities in the government.”

Note: This is a developing story and is being updated as more information comes in.