"Predict the election results and win Rs 21 Lakh"

14 April, 2014

Jyotishratna Nandkishor Jakatdar insists that Narendra Modi will not be India’s next prime minister. Jakatdar, an astrologer and president of the Brihan Maharashtra Jyotish Mandal, a Pune-based association of astrologers, explained that analysing the sun, Mars and Saturn were key to predicting political success and that “their positions, motions and influences do not favour Modi. His desire to be PM will not be fulfilled.” Jakatdar prophesises that the Bharatiya Janata Party will end up with between 155 and 165 seats, that the Congress will win between 115 and 125 seats, and that the Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, will not prove significant players at all. “Success will elude him,” Jakatdar said.

If Jakatdar is confident about his predictions, and decides to venture a few more, it could be well worth his effort. The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organisation fighting superstition across the state, recently announced an open challenge to astrologers and sundry fortune-tellers—if they accurately foretell the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, they stand to win Rs 21 lakh.

The challenge, posted on the MANS website, denounces astrologers’ claims as being based on “pseudo sciences” and lists a set of multiple-choice questions to which the organisation invites predictions. These include questions about how many seats parties such as the Congress, AIADMK and Communist Party of India (Marxist) will win, what percentage of votes candidates such as Rahul Gandhi, Ram Vilas Paswan and Kapil Sibal will win, and the identities of the speaker, agricultural minister and leader of the opposition in the new Lok Sabha. Participants are required to enrol with a deposit of Rs 5,000, which they forfeit if they score less than 50 percent (each correct prediction earns them one mark). According to the MANS website, the last date for making the payment is 15 April, and the last date for sending in predictions is 11 May, one day before the last day of polls.

But Jakatdar rebuffed the suggestion that he should take up the MANS’s challenge. “You need hundreds, if not thousands, of horoscopes at your disposal to do that,” he said. “The challenge is simply unacceptable. There is simply no logic and meaning to it.”

Pune is a fitting location for this face-off between astrologers and rationalists, having been a centre for socio-political and religious reform movements dating back to the nineteenth century, when Mahadev Govind Ranade founded the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and the Widow Marriage Association, and Jyotirao Phule founded the Satyashodak Samaj, the society of truth-seekers. Pune has also incubated communities of sky-watchers, such as the Jyotirvidya Parisanstha, formed in 1944, the country’s oldest association of amateur astronomers, which promotes astronomy through a purely scientific temperament. The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) was set up in 1988 by Jayant Narlikar, internationally known for his work in cosmology.

In 2008, Narlikar, who has been associated with the MANS, led a team of researchers to test the predictive power of natal astrology—a field based on the place and time of an individual’s birth. The MANS collected details of two hundred students from two sets: those who studied in special schools and had learning difficulties—which many astrologers claim to be able to read from horoscopes—and those who were high performers in mainstream schools. The group cast the students’ birth charts and horoscopes with the help of a former astrologer, mixed and randomised them and invited astrologers, who were given forty horoscopes each, to identify which set students belonged to. Of the 51 astrologers who showed an initial interest, 27 submitted their predictions. A statistical analysis of the results showed a success rate marginally less than what would have been achieved by tossing a coin. The best performance, by one astrologer only, was 24 correct identifications out of forty. The average score was 17.5.

“The test clearly demonstrated the hollowness of the basic claim of astrology,” Narlikar and his co-researchers wrote in Current Science. “Diehard believers, of course, would not change their mind. However, it would be worthwhile conducting a similar double-blind test to check other aspects of astrological predictions.”

Pune’s rationalist community suffered a dark tragedy last August, when the founder of the MANS, Narendra Dabholkar, was shot in the city by unknown assailants while he was on a morning walk. The city police formed special squads to track down the murderers, but have no leads to this day. “We are posing a fresh challenge after having paid a heavy price,” said Nitin Shinde of the MANS. He added: “Astrology is not based on scientific principles and its practice should be treated as a commercial venture, subject to provisions of the Consumers Protection Act. If predictions fail to satisfy consumers, practitioners should be made to compensate and face punishment as per law.”

After Dabholkar’s murder, the MANS redoubled its tireless campaign, which he had led over the past decade, to pass an anti-superstition bill in the state to combat superstitions, black magic, rituals and sacrifices perpetuated by self-styled godmen and practitioners of witchcraft and wizardry. The bill was passed by the state assembly on 13 December 2013—an “inauspicious day”—and has since been the basis for filing more than a dozen cases against child sacrifice, sexual exploitation by godmen, and other crimes.

But most astrologers are dismissive of the MANS’s efforts. Arvind Kulkarni, a retired engineer who practises the ancient art of dowsing, or finding hidden treasures, missing people or underground water, said he had downloaded the entry form and filled it up, but wasn’t yet sure if he would participate. “The challenge smacks of arrogance,” he said. “May I ask what authority MANS has, and how is it qualified to pass judgement on astrology?” Kedar Joshi, a Pune-based astrologer and self-described philosopher and purveyor of theories such as “non-spatial thinking process” and “ultimate questioner’s vanity,” said: “Astrology is shockingly true. It is hundred percent science, though there could be some room for doubt. Problem is some people are out to disprove it, by hook or crook.”

Jakatdar, who had himself held several discussions with Dabholkar, said: “The MANS should move away from its confrontational ways. Nobody likes the language of challenge. Let’s sit down and discuss. Let’s decide the rules of the game first.”

Jakatdar defended his astrological prowess by citing a specific instance of his success. “I had predicted way back in 1986 that a discussion would be held between me and anti-superstition activist Shyam Manav in 2013, which indeed did happen on 22 February. Can you challenge that?”

Mild and unimpressive enough though this prediction was, what was more disappointing was that in a later conversation, perhaps having forgotten that he had already mentioned it, Jakatdar said that he had played a role in organising the meeting with Manav, hosted by the Vidarbha Patrakar Sangh. “I had met Manav the previous year and invited him to hold a discussion on astrology in January 2013,” he said. “It did not materialise, but we met in February 2013.”

With one day to go before the contest closes, the MANS has still to receive a single entry. “A dozen-odd people called up or made enquiries through email,” Shinde said. “But none have submitted entries so far.”

Anosh Malekar is an award-winning journalist based in Pune, who prefers traveling in rural India and writing about people living on the margins of society. He has worked with publications such as The Week and the Indian Express.