On May 23rd, the results of the Indian general elections had been rolling in since 3 am. At 11 am, student volunteers at the South Asia Centre (SAC) had just finished setting up for a day of panel discussions and live commentary on the results. “If we weren’t doing the event there would be a lot more discussion [among the volunteers]. My memory is mostly just trying to get everything in place before it started. A lot of us, once in a while, were checking our phones, seeing what was happening,” said Ayesha Pattnaik, a Sociology Masters student.
This was the first ever event of its kind. LSE has only ever held live events for elections occurring in the UK or Europe, and according to the SAC’s director Dr Mukulika Bannerjee, “it seemed appropriate to hold a similar event for the largest democracy in the world.” The SAC was only established in 2015, making this election the first that it could analyse in a live setting. “This takes a different kind of skill and generates an altogether different kind of excitement.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected with an increased majority, which has not happened in a Lok Sabha election in India in 35 years. The first panel of the day discussed the campaigns in the run-up to the election and featured not just academics from across the UK, but also the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Dr Quraishi who joined through Skype. The second panel analysed state-specific results, focusing particularly on Uttar Pradesh, which constitutes the largest number of parliamentary seats; this made it the most valuable region to the competing parties. The day ended with a large roundtable discussion of the speakers’ personal reactions to, and analysis of, the results. Students were an important part of the event, not just as event organisers but as panellists. Each panel included at least one student perspective.
For Pattnaik, the event was the culmination of a month and a half long research project. ‘The States of South Asia’ is an interactive database with key information about each Indian state and was launched on the day of the election results. Students at LSE worked with the SAC’s Chris Finnigan in compiling “over 4000 pieces of data… [for this database which] is the only one of its kind on any website” said Dr Bannerjee. The SAC is piloting the project for the 36 states and union territories in India and has plans to expand to the rest of south Asia. Such condensed, digestible information will be especially useful for academics in early stages of their research and journalists, said Pattnaik. The portal can be accessed on the SAC’s website, and they are currently looking for feedback.
Though attendance was high, the last panel saw the audience spilling out of the Vera Anstey Room, there was a visible lack of students among them. Members of the public made up the majority of attendance. Pattnaik said this was understandable since it was exam season. She also acknowledges the social, emotional experience of elections: an academic context for such elections was new to her too. This was her first time watching the elections without her family and “as a critically thinking student”. Doing so is more important than ever and the SAC is playing a crucial role in facilitating this.