The trip to Assam and West Bengal was both joyful and insightful. Joyful in that I am a politics geek and get a thrill from any opportunity to observe or participate in elections. Insightful in that I finally had the opportunity to work with CSDS field investigators and observe the challenges of their craft in person. As outlined in the inaugural post for this blog, fieldwork observation with well-trained field investigators was a critical aspect of my research. Observing the CSDS pre-poll training and CVoter exit polls in Bihar, as well as shadowing an Impetus investigator conducting a market survey on chocolate in West Delhi, shed light on some of the challenges of data collection. But this visit allowed me to see up close the challenges that researchers encounter in the field when collecting data, far from the air-conditioned offices in Delhi and Noida.
On April 11, 61 of Assam’s 126 assembly constituencies went to the polls. On that day, I shadowed Nazbul, a researcher for CVoter, as he collected data for exit polls in the Jalukbari neighborhood of West Gauhati assembly constituency. On April 12, I shadowed two CSDS field investigators, Meenakshi and Vaswati, as they conducted interviewers for the CSDS post-poll in the Kahi Kuchi neighborhood of Gauhati, also in West Gauhati assembly constituency. On April 13, I shadowed Meenakshi and Vaswati again as they conducted interviews in Bahupara, a mixed Bodo and Rabha village on the outskirts of Gauhati and Garigaon neighborhood of Gauhati (both in West Gauhati assembly constituency). Field investigators and respondents generally presumed that the AGP, an ally of the BJP, would win the assembly seat.
I then traveled to Bolpur, a city in West Bengal that is about 150 km north of Kolkata. On April 17, which was election day, I briefly observed CVoter exit polling at a polling booth in downtown Bolpur, in the Bolpur assembly constituency. On April 18, I met up with Biswajit and Chandan, two veteran field investigators for CSDS, and trailed them as they interviewed respondents in a neighborhood of Bolpur. On April 19, I again followed Biswajit and Chandan; this day, we went to the village of Ruppur, which was about 10 km outside of Bolpur. Most of the selected respondents in the village were Muslim, though a few Hindu respondents were interviewed in a separate part of the village. Field investigators and respondents generally presumed that the Trina Mool Congress would win the assembly seat.
- Assam vs. West Bengal: Voters in Assam were much more willing to speak with field investigators than voters in West Bengal. It is possible that this may have been due to the gender of the investigators — female investigators may be perceived as less threatening than male — but it could also be attributable to differences in the politics of the two states. Elections in West Bengal have an ignominious history of intimidation and violence, a trend that has continued during this election (thankfully I did not observe any such instances). Because I was in Gauhati during Bihu, the Assamese new year, respondents were perhaps more likely to invite us in to offer chai and snacks. Overall, respondents in West Bengal were more wary and less willing to speak to field investigators than respondents in Assam; this was true of both CVoter’s exit polls and CSDS post-polls.
- Urban vs. rural areas: In both Assam and West Bengal, respondents in urban areas were considerably more difficult to locate for the CSDS post-polls than respondents in rural areas. In urban areas, people were less likely to recognize names on the lists of voters selected for interviews. Field investigators had to repeatedly ask different street vendors and neighbors about the addresses of selected respondents. In rural areas (Bahupara in Assam and Ruppur in West Bengal), respondents were able to identify the addresses of other selected respondents with ease. This meant that fieldwork proceeded much more quickly and efficiently in rural areas than urban areas. In West Bengal, respondents in urban Bolpur were also much warier about allowing interviews than respondents in rural Ruppur. There was an initial skepticism from respondents in Ruppur (this might have had more to do with religion of respondents, see below), but once trust was earned from village residents after the first few interviews, other selected respondents were more willing to be interviewed. Interviews were facilitated by a group of young men who took us around to meet with each selected respondent.
- Language: In Assam, language was not an issue in the urban areas of Gauhati. However, when we went to Bahupara, the majority of residents spoke Bodo and Rabha, not Assamese. This meant that field were not able to interview the majority of selected respondents in the village. Only a Bodo couple who spoke Assamese and was not originally from the village could be interviewed. Language was not an issue for West Bengal, where all respondents spoke Bengali.
- Gender: With the exception of elderly women, female respondents who were selected were nearly always interviewed in the presence of their father or husband, especially in the case of West Bengal where the field investigators were male. Interviews were often conducted in the presence of family members or other village residents (as is clear from the photos below) and other family members often cut in to answer. These interruptions were more frequent with female respondents. In some cases, male family members/husbands would talk over female respondents; in others, female respondents would defer their respondents would defer their responses to male family members/husbands. Field investigators adopted a deferential approach towards these dynamics and did not intervene when other family members answered questions in lieu of the selected respondent.
- Education level: For less educated respondents, some questions in the CSDS post-poll questionnaire were beyond their comprehension level, particularly questions about current events. This produced high levels of non-response, especially among some female respondents in Gauhati and in Ruppur.
- Timing: During the afternoon, Bolpur residents were less willing to open the door or be interviewed. Biswajit said this was because many people were taking afternoon naps. Fieldwork had to be concluded early in Ruppur (around 4:30 PM) so that we could take the last bus back to Bolpur for the evening. Biswajit said this was a common problem for surveys; if field investigators were not invited to stay in a rural village, they had to leave earlier in the day, cutting off fieldwork time.
- Nonresponse to political questions: Respondents in both Assam and West Bengal were less willing to reveal their vote presence for exit polls than for post-polls conducted in residents’ houses. This was especially the case in West Bengal, where a large share of respondents would answer questions about which issues mattered to them but not their voting decision in exit polls. However, field investigators for exit polls in both Assam and West Bengal expressed a general reluctance among respondents to reveal their votes. Field investigators in West Bengal
- Religion: As stated above, there was initial reluctance to participate among respondents in Ruppur. It is not clear whether this reluctance was due to the presence of outsiders in the village (to say nothing of an American researcher), the difference in religion between the field investigators (Hindu) and residents (Muslim), or some combination of both. However, once this suspicion about field investigators dissipated, selected respondents were quite open about their voting intentions. Hindu voters, both in Bolpur and in Ruppur, were more circumspect about revealing their voting preference.
April 11 (Election Day in Assam — Exit Polls with CVoter in Jalukbari, Gauhati West assembly constituency)
University of Gauhati
A polling booth on Election Day
A polling booth in Jalukbari
April 12 (Post-Poll with CSDS — West Guwahati assembly constitutency)
A billboard for the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance
April 13 (Post-Poll with CSDS — West Guwahati assembly constitutency)
April 17 (Election Day in West Bengal — Exit Polls with CVoter in Bolpur assembly constituency)
Graffiti in support of the Revolutionary Socialist Party
Graffiti in support of the Trina Mool Congress
April 18 (Post-poll with CSDS — Bolpur assembly constituency)
A billboard for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appeals to both Hindus and Muslims
April 19 (Post-poll with CSDS — Ruppur in Bolpur assembly constituency)
April 20 (Bolpur to Kolkata)
Bolpur train station
Park Street in Kolkata
Flurys, the legendary Kolkata tearoom