Weeks after the row erupting on lecturer Sabyaschi Das's resignation, the Ashoka University on Tuesday landed into another controversy after the members of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data's Scientific Board alleged that the varsity had forced psephologist and professor Gilles Vernier out.
In an open letter, members of the Board, which was founded by Vernier, including academics Christophe Jaffrelot, Francesca Jensenius, Milan Vaishnav, Mukulika Banerjee, Susan Ostermann, and Tariq Thachil, besides former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, said that the empirical study of democracy and elections requires evidence.
"For years, research on Indian elections and democracy was limited by the absence of publicly available data. Scholars had to wait for months after an election to access Election Commission of India (ECI) statistical reports, which came in all sorts of formats, none of them readily usable. The Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) at Ashoka University changed this situation by providing quality open-access data in real time and by conducting cutting edge analysis of India's elections," it said.
"The TCPD's vibrant and important agenda, under the leadership of founding Director Professor Gilles Vernier, is what attracted each of us to serve on its Scientific Board, and contribute to its intellectual mission.
"We now write to state our regret that the Centre's founder and director was forced to leave, and that the university did not inform the Centre's scientific board about decisions that affect not only the leadership of the Centre but also its future as an institution," it said.
The letter said that the TCPD was initially built around the research of Verniers, who analysed the electoral politics of Uttar Pradesh and expanded his work to all states and national elections and while teaching at the Young India Fellowship in 2014, Verniers assembled a data unit with the help of Young India Fellows and in collaboration with colleagues outside the university.
It said that he collaborated with Dr Jensenius, who had assembled the first version of the dataset on India’s national and state elections, which became the foundation for the development of the Lok Dhaba database.
Both Verniers and Jensenius were co-recipients of the Lipset/Przeworski/Verba Best Dataset Prize from the American Political Science Association in 2023, the profession’s highest recognition for public data contributions, it said.
It said: "In its seven years of operation, scholars at TCPD have produced 16 groundbreaking datasets, led 20 research projects, organised 80 research seminars, published 20 research papers and book chapters, and organised two major conferences on computational social sciences."
"The team has also published more than 300 analytical articles in the Indian press and built high-quality academic partnerships. In 2017, it was awarded the label of ‘International Research Partner’ from the Centre for National Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, in association with CERI-SciencesPo," it said.
The letter further said that currently, data made public through the TCPD website is a primary source for nearly all scholarship and commentary on Indian politics. The data is frequently used by scholars and journalists and have a substantial impact on the research and coverage of Indian elections.
These data have also found their way into other major public data repositories, including the CLEA dataset at the University of Michigan and the SHRUG database from the Development Data Lab, to name a few, it said.
The TCPD also built partnerships with scholars and institutions from across the world. Last year, it hosted two Fulbright scholars. It is no exaggeration to say that the Centre has had, in its short existence, a transformative impact on the field of Indian electoral politics, it highlighted.
"Given this track record of excellence, we were surprised and disappointed that we, as the Scientific Board, were not consulted before substantial changes were made governing how the Centre is run and situated within its home institution, in breach of academic norms. Under such circumstances, we, signatories of this letter, are dissolving TCPD’s Scientific board. We commit to supporting Verniers’ and his partners’ efforts to maintain the future and the integrity of the data and of the work associated with it," it said.
This is the second time in two months that the varsity has faced controversy.
Last month, Ashoka University came into news after faculty member Das authored a research paper indicating alleged irregularities in the BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha victory. Following his resignation, another faculty member Pulapre Balakrishnan, too, put in his papers.