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Pollsters, pundits and astrologers

November 05, 2012


IN ancient Rome, soothsayers would study the entrails of freshly killed animals to peer into the future. Other civilisations have used the stars, Tarot cards and holy texts to divine what lies ahead.

Although in these more rational days, pollsters have taken on the role of oracles, many still find comfort in horoscopes: witness the popularity of newspaper columns giving advice based on your date of birth. And while I am generally pretty cynical, there are a couple of instances of weirdly accurate forecasts based on stars and numbers that have shaken my scepticism.

I was serving as information minister at our embassy in Washington in 1990, and one of the tasks of our small press section was to collect newspaper cuttings relating to Pakistan and the region every morning, and circulate them among senior embassy staff. These would also be sent to the Information Ministry in the weekly diplomatic bag.

In April or May, I forget which, a subordinate called my attention to a pretty lightweight magazine that carried a syndicated column by a nationally famous astrologer. She predicted in that article that Benazir Bhutto’s government would fall that August. In the event, it was toppled by the president with army support on Aug 6.

Granted, the PPP government was shaky, and was being constantly destabilised by the opposition and the military establishment. But how on earth did the astrologer get the month right? At the time, I just told my subordinate to chuck the article away as we couldn’t circulate every bit of rubbish that was printed about Pakistan.My second example of eerie predictions came in 1999, soon after Musharraf’s coup that sent Nawaz Sharif packing. I was over for dinner at my old friend Javed Mashadi, a serious student of astrology and numerology. Remember, this was the period when Pakistan had been hit by every sanction in the book due to the military takeover, as well as our nuclear tests a year ago.

Javed very seriously announced that according to his calculations, he could see ten good years for Pakistan’s economy coming soon. All those present jumped on him, asking how could he make such an absurd prediction when the economy was virtually flat on its back. He shrugged and said he didn’t know how it would happen, but that’s what he could foresee.

Sure enough, we soon had 9/11, and Pakistan became the favourite destination for western leaders, and Musharraf became their blue-eyed boy. Loan write-offs, grants, aid and military toys for the boys poured in. Suddenly, our foreign exchange reserves expanded to a healthy level, the stock market boomed, cheap loans became available, and the middle class expanded dramatically.

While I will not share Javed’s next prediction because of its disturbing nature, I am fixated by all the forecasts being made about the US presidential election on Nov 6. While pollsters have been working overtime to predict the outcome, astrologers have not remained idle. Madame Arcati, again a syndicated American columnist, sees a close race that ends in Obama’s favour.

According to her, the incumbent is a Leo, and on election day, his moon sign transitions Leo, or some such mumbo-jumbo. Romney, apparently, is not as fortunate, and is doomed to lose by a small margin. While she could have easily arrived at this conclusion on the basis of opinion polls that show Obama with a small but persistent lead, I have learned better than to completely discount such predictions.

Some astronomers like Lynn Hayes are playing it safe by concluding their forecast by saying that there will be no winner, although she doesn’t say how such a result is constitutionally possible. One serious article explores a scenario in which both candidates are tied at 269 electoral college votes each. In such an unprecedented situation, the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have a majority, will elect Romney as president. The Senate, where the Democrats are expected to retain their majority, will vote for Biden as vice president.

To guard against fraud, both parties are deploying thousands of volunteer attorneys to train Republican and Democrat foot soldiers to monitor the vote and report any malpractices. The Democrats are especially active on the legal front in the key swing votes that will determine the outcome of this very tight election.

The risk is that charges and counter-charges will land up in courts across the country, delaying the announcement of the outcome. Imagine a scenario in which the whole world holds its breath while recounts are ordered by courts in several close contests. As it is, Democrats have still not forgiven Al Gore for throwing in the towel too early during the highly controversial recount in Florida in 2000. Many feel that if he had continued his legal battle in the Supreme Court, the outcome – and history – would have been very different.

As the long and hugely expensive campaign builds to its climax, the rest of the world needs to thank the American people and system for the entertainment they provide us every four years. After spending around a billion dollars each, both parties are stretching every sinew in the home stretch.

Even though Obama has continued to maintain a small lead in the polls, the tiny percentage that separates the two candidates remains statistically insignificant. Apart from the excitement of watching a closely run race, the result matters to the whole world in a way no other election does.

While many Pakistanis think a Republican victory would be better for us, there is no suggestion that Romney would reduce the number of drone strikes against terrorists in our tribal areas. On the other hand, if he is elected, the chances of an attack on Iran would increase.

So all said and done, I would bet on Obama to scrape home in a tight finish. Frankly, I would welcome such an outcome, if only because he is a far more intelligent and honest person than Romney, a candidate who has reinvented himself so many times that it’s difficult for anybody, including him, to know what he stands for.